The desire to explore the world on my own is unnervingly inescapable, chasing me down in unexpected moments. And so, amidst a world of “be carefuls” that are generously granted to me, as though this world is more dangerous than beautiful for a small woman by herself, I routinely step out solo. Whether for an hour or a week, standing alone on top of the world allows me the space to sift and sort and center that the madness of daily life doesn’t generally gift.
I have been advised to tell every stranger I speak with that my husband is joining me shortly and asked if I carry a gun. While my travels are considered risky and foolhardy, a male friend who goes off by himself is considered adventurous and admirable, and I’m certain nobody tells him to remind strangers that his significant other will be joining him.
Ironically, it is those closest to me who worry the least. They know I am the kind of person who leaves the house for a short walk only to return hours later, sidetracked by the light in the woods, a new trail, somebody I met, or just the urge to push on a little further. They know I have good judgment in questionable circumstances. They know I easily make friends and love the story of a stranger. But mostly, they too know the joy of being alone. Where others worry, they understand.
Traveling alone as a woman is not an easy thing to do. Once you are away, and especially if you are off grid, those “be careful” voices start messing with your head and as you settle in for the night, you picture crazed mass murders slashing their way through doors and tents to get to you. You worry your bones will be dug up in the desert by teams of CSI investigators. You question your judgment and strength.
Traveling alone as a woman is not an easy thing to do–until you get away from everybody who doubts you, and then the world unfolds in all its winsomeness for you to gobble up.
Currently, I am writing this, sitting in a dust-covered rented Jeep, parked on Nevada Public Lands, where I camped for the night. I have spent two days driving from the northwest portal road of Death Valley—a little-traveled area that is filled with immense, wild beauty. With a tank full of gas, a first aid kit, camping gear, a Swiss Army knife, a load of food, some beer, a satellite phone, warm clothes, the know-how to change a flat tire, and 8 gallons of water, I am equipped to handle any unforeseen emergency, but I refuse to let fear dictate my experience. It is foolish to be unprepared. But it is even more foolish not to experience the breadth of the world because you are afraid.
Since I left the Sierra Nevadas, where my adventures began, I have seen signs of life from a distance, but I haven’t spoken to another person in over 48 hours. There was a man camping at the base of the Eureka Dunes about half a mile away from me two nights ago. I watched him climb the highest peak at dusk, intent on capturing the dunes in the full moon with his camera. Right now, there is a dingy white RV a mile down the road where a little old man sat outside smoking a pipe when I drove by last night. A man on a dirt bike just dusted his way down the access road to Titus Canyon. I watch his trail and wonder if anybody is concerned that these men are out here on their own?
This week I have cross country skied at 9,000 feet under pristine, sunburning blue skies. I have talked sharp and witty politics with a retired orange juice salesman from Brooklyn in hot springs surrounded by pink skies and surreal tumbles of rock. I have hiked dunes in a bikini and canyons in a hat and mittens. I have sunbathed naked in the desert and felt my legs burn under me as I climbed steep trails. I have written for a deadline and read in luxurious pleasure. I have cooked soup over my campstove, peed on the side of the road, and sat on the top of my Jeep watching the sun go down behind pointed mountains while the desert chill settled around me.
In a few short days I will return—to a home, a family, dear friends, a couple of goobery puppy dogs, and a job, all of which I adore and miss tremendously. I will order Chinese food and curl up on the couch and watch Downton Abbey with my husband. I will help my son with homework and talk to my girls on the phone. I will wander off into the woods with my dogs, read with my cats by the fire, and start up late-afternoon schoolwork again. I will dig out my hairbrush and makeup and dresses.
But in the meantime, everywhere I look there is unspeakable beauty. White peaks that pierce the sky. Bleached desert driftwood emerging from the sand to cast long shadows. Vast green canyons that cut sharply into chasms. Roads that kick dust up behind me while they twist and skirt along the outline of the land, climbing high and then dropping into immense stretches of brown valley. Sharp red striated canyons that remind me of my speck of a size. Wind that wakes me in the middle of the night. Mountain range after mountain range that encircle every view as though they are keeping us all from falling off the edge of the earth. It is wild and desolate and heartbreakingly serene.
I am alone in it all, and I’m not sure what to be scared of.