On Traveling Solo
Last spring, when I was driving across all of Atlantic Canada in a single day on my way to see the Oysterband in Sydney, Nova Scotia, I stopped at a gas station on Cape Breton Island to check my tire pressure and fill up the tank. The station was one of those pay-at-the-pump kinds, but the receipt printer didn’t work.That was fine, because before I had time to think about it, a man rushed out of the gas station/ convenience store, waving a paper. “I saw it wasn’t printing, so I brought you a receipt!” He seemed quite excited to see me, as though no custom had appeared all day. When I asked if there was a restroom inside, he said they didn’t have a public one, but if I didn’t mind the mops and things, I could use the private one. When my business with the mops and things was done, I thought to use the cash machine in the store, but that elicited more protests from my new friend: it hadn’t worked all day. “That’s all right,” he said. “We can run your card at the cash register and give you some money from the till.” This a second clerk did, dispensing enough Canadian money for supper and the merch table later. We then had a few words about my ultimate destination–the Membertou Convention Center, on the Micmac property in Sydney, which pleased them no end: they were, it transpired, Micmac themselves. The two men and the woman who joined us seemed sorry to see me go–they all came outside to see me to my car, and to wave me off up the road.
This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened to me. I have found in my adventures that when I travel alone, people are far more willing to talk to me. I think it might have something to do with single people being more approachable: when you travel with other people, they serve as a kind of insulation.
I don’t want to be insulated. I want to talk to people.
I came to this realization about traveling solo several years ago, when, freshly divorced and having made a mistake on my income tax return in my own favor–enough of a mistake to purchase a round-trip airline ticket–I flew off to England for ten solitary days. Lugging my bag behind me, I leapt onto buses and trains and meandered westward, toward my ultimate destination of Tintagel. Everywhere people took pity on me when they saw me reading schedules and examining maps: can I help? And then they’d point me in the right direction. Sometimes they’d ask if I wanted to sit with them for dinner. I had a
marvelous conversation about Anne Boleyn, her cousin Jane Seymour, and their mutual husband Henry VIII with a woman on the train from London to Salisbury; when we finally pulled into that city, she invited me to tea at her mum’s.
That, too, is one of the benefits of traveling alone: if you want to change plans suddenly, there’s no one to consult, no one to get annoyed. If you make a mistake in your itinerary which necessitates changing plans–such as discovering, upon de-training at Bodmin Parkway, a railway station at the end of a dirt road in the middle of a moor, that buses don’t run on Sunday (and it’s Sunday), no one swears at you for your stupidity. When something like this happens, and you turn to the other two people at the deserted station who are in the same position, they include you in their discussion of options. In fact, when this happened to me, the couple I joined up with and I ended up soliciting a ride from a family in a Volvo wagon: Justin and Jenny gave me a lift into the town of Wadebridge and dropped me at the tourist information center. It is the one and only time I have hitchhiked. I rode way in the back with the suitcases.
On that same trip–on that same Sunday afternoon–a taxi driver named Frank
took me from Wadebridge to Tintagel. I rode up front for the ride. If I was in a hurry, he said, we’d go the straight route; if I wasn’t, we could take the scenic route. Same fare. You can guess which choice I made. Our conversation involved things like thistles and the lack of pubs or halls where I live–Frank was appalled: What do people do when they want to get married or throw a party?–and wind farms and wasn’t I afraid to be traveling alone? I told him no, I wasn’t. Of course, that’s not entirely true: sure, I’m afraid. A bit. But that adds to the adventure. I might be nervous, but I can do it anyway. Besides–would I have had this conversation with Frank had I been with someone? I don’t think so. Would we have gone the scenic route? I doubt it.
Of course, most of the time when I go places now, I have the heathens along with me. Sometimes I have my way cool sister Susan. (For the first six days in England next April, all three will be with me.) Still, I do look forward to the occasional solo jaunt, because being out there, meeting people, is most of the fun.
Last April, on the way back from Sydney, I stopped again at the same gas station. All three of my acquaintances from the previous day rushed out. This time they were apologetic: they were in the midst of a power outage, and nothing was working, not the gas pumps, not the air pump, not the cash register…not even the private toilet in the broom closet. So we stood outside in the rain, the three of them recommending other gas stations in the next town that I might try, if I really needed one (I didn’t, I was just stopping for a drink for the road). This time we discovered through conversation that, when he was a kid, the most talkative of the three had spent summers in Maine. At Swan Lake. Did I know it? Sure I do. Coincidence. Swan Lake is 17 miles from my house. Funny.
The next December after my Tintagel adventure, I sent Frank the taxi driver a Christmas card, and taped a bunch of pound coins inside, so he could take himself to the pub. On me. Since there were plenty in Wadebridge.
P. P. S:
The woman on the train to Salisbury became a poem, which appeared in The Church of St. Materiana:
Fortunately, drinking is not prohibited:
the woman in the train, turbaned,
eyes made enormous by lavish kohl,
draws a bottle of Newcastle Brown
from her bag and offers it around.
She lives in the past, in a time
even before Britrail outlawed smoking,
her crumpled cigarette pack
thrust into her pocket. Still, now,
she grieves for Catherine Howard
as the green expanse of Wiltshire
rolls its way forward. Howard,
only nineteen, practiced placing
her head on the block so as not
to quake when the day came to repeat
her cousin Anne Boleyn’s fate.
A terrible man, this woman rails
about the husband Catherine
and Anne shared with four others,
so cruel, so jealous, so abusive:
and there is pity in her voice,
the compassion she might have
for a neighbor who never
takes off her sunglasses
and wears long sleeves in summer
to hide the bruises on her arms.
_ (© Anne Britting Oleson)