In early March, life still felt a bit normal. I made a spur-of-the-moment detour on my weeks-long solo California road trip to visit the beach behind Oso Flaco Lake, on the coast just south of San Luis Obispo. There wasn’t a single car in the parking lot when I arrived, and I walked onto the sand to discover that for the first time in my life, I was completely alone on a beach.
I twirled across the dunes with joy – how lucky! Nobody around to ruin the calm peace of the Pacific rolling against the coastline. The only footprints in the sand were my own. How differently I view that day now, after more than two months of pandemic isolation.
I’m a travel writer. My California trip was an intensive jaunt through one of the country’s most popular tourist states, where I would research the region for Lonely Planet’s upcoming guidebook. The trip was scheduled when the coronavirus still seemed far away, but the situation progressed more quickly than any of us could imagine, and in the end, my trip was cut short for safety reasons.
When people ask me about the trip, I say that it was wonderful, until it wasn’t. The panic that gripped me at the end was real, and it was something I had never experienced before. It feels like the universe gave me this trip as a farewell tour to the world as we knew it, to my job as I knew it. And in its own way, it helped prepare me for what came next. And what’s to come.
Off-the-beaten-track in lockdown and beyond
On my list of places to visit were some California towns that aren’t exactly considered tourist draws, locales that people tend to breeze through on their way to bigger ticket attractions. In these oft-overlooked spots, however, I found creativity and unique brands of beauty. I (responsibly) indulged in Sacramento’s inventive beer scene, revelled in the ruggedness of Chico’s Bidwell Park and cruised through the blossoming orchards surrounding Fresno. I spent an evening at a bar in Bakersfield gabbing with boisterous local restaurant owners, and I took a decadent clawfoot-tub bath in an atmospheric motel in Los Alamos.
In many ways, this off-the-beaten-track travel on my own prepared me for the stillness around the corner. With social distancing measures in place, I’ve become an expert at finding the little things around me that are special, even if they didn’t seem that way before. Now, I pore over every inch of my yard and garden (who knew the emergence of tiny violet blooms and new tomato leaves could be so miraculous), explore neighborhood roads that I’ve never walked, order from local businesses I’ve never been a patron of before. None of these things will be mentioned in my city’s “Top Things to Do” list, but I’m finding the magic in it all the same.
With international travel a giant question mark, many of our future trips are going to be close to home, locations we’ve bypassed for more faraway places. But now’s our chance to take our time, discover some of the treasures we’ve been sitting on top of all along. And this slow travel could help relieve the pressure the fast kind was putting on our planet – not a bad trade off.
Going solo at home and away
A lot of travel revolves around sharing the experience with someone else, a worthy and fulfilling pursuit in its own right. But solo travel wakes up something different in a traveller. The things you experience are, in that moment, for you and you alone – you learn to appreciate it without needing external validation or approval.
The “solo journey” of navigating the fallout of COVID-19 has been a trying one. With all of our distractions stripped away, it’s just us, having a reckoning with ourselves. And while everyone has their own way of dealing with this collective trauma, I’m personally trying to think of it as another solo trip. While I can’t control what is happening beyond the walls of my house, I can control my own experience. I can plan, adapt, and give myself what I need.
As the world begins to reopen and we move into totally unprecedented territory, this solo travel sense of self could serve us well. Not in a screw-everyone-else-I-do-what-I-want sort of way, but in relation to how we regard our own mental health. With adaptability already being a skill in our back pocket, we can also recognize, maybe more than we have in a long time, that our emotions and needs are valid and important.
A travel community in crisis: where do we go from here?
On the night before my hastily rebooked return flight home from California, I sat in the hotel parking lot, sobbing into the steering wheel of the rental car. I had just gone to the grocery store in an attempt to acquire some disinfectant wipes for the plane, a laughably futile venture. Most of the shelves were stripped bare, apocalypse-style. I returned to the hotel defeated, nerves pulled taut by every story on social media detailing the climbing case numbers and the tragic symptoms of the disease.
As I walked into the airport the following morning, my anxiety thrummed in my ears. I clutched my tiny bottle of sanitizer like a talisman. As I walked through the terminal, I glanced up to see President Trump speaking, the news ticker at the bottom reading, “White House advises against travel.” The news continued on, detailing the lock down measures just starting to go into effect, and the lump in my throat hardened.
On the plane, I had a middle seat – to my left, a guy about my age. To my right, an older woman on her way to visit her grandchildren. Panic welled up in me. What if I accidentally infected her? She offered disinfecting wipes to the whole row, a kindness to my jangled psyche, and we all set upon thoroughly cleansing our seats together. The next flight was the same – shared resources, small kindnesses, and a sense that we could all work together to keep each other safe. Comforting words to a couple who took a gamble on whether to go on vacation and lost. Commiseration over all the confusion and well wishes that each one of us stay safe and healthy.
As much as it scares us to admit it, travel as we know it is gone. Future adventures are going to look a lot different thanks to the numerous protective measures that will be put in place by airlines and destinations themselves. But the more we look out for each other, the easier the transition will be. Those return flights home showed me that, at the heart of it, we travelers care about each other. And while we are all grounded now, I take solace in knowing we will return to the roads and skies with the compassion, patience and curiosity that made us all travelers in the first place.