This time last year I was stuck on a highway I didn’t know the name of. Luckily, I was stuck between the only small hill cut through by this highway or else the Arizona sun would have cooked me alive in my shockingly yellow rental car. Hour one was humorous and would have been a story in itself. In hour two, when the truck behind me flashed his lights to warn of oncoming pedestrians as I tried to pee into my water bottle, was much less idyllic.
I was on a solo journey through the state of Arizona. It’s not the most exciting trip or exotic location unless you are someone who has never spent time among the red clay or Southwestern territories.
The choice to go to Arizona didn’t fall out of the sky one dreary New Orleans winter day. When I look at a map of the United States I’m proud to remember grueling summer days in the southern states, oysters and beer in Florida, or kayaking in Pugent Sound. There are some wide swaths of America unfortunately I have not been to. Why else would a Southern girl go to Arizona if not on a whim?
The highway adventure was three hours of sitting, watching, and waiting for a brush fire to be qualmed. I was at a vantage point where I could see the firefighters working and all I could do was read, write, and eventually get out of my car and talk to the other highway captives. An older lady with three dogs in the back of her SUV started up a conversation with me.
“Do you have enough water?” (That is the customary expression for “Hello” in Arizona.)
“Yes mam. I am fortunately packed to go camping.”
Throughout our conversation I learned that this is Arizona’s form of natural disaster equivalent to heavy thunderstorms back in New Orleans. They happen frequently yet are part of the backdrop of Southwestern life. There are Twitter handles for updates and procedures in place although, come to find out, this type of highway abandonment is rarely experienced.
The question both the older lady and her serendipitous friend from another vehicle asked was, “So, why come visit Arizona?” This question seemed odd to me at the time as I live in a place typically mentioned with fervent eagerness and “Oh, I LOVE New Orleans.”
As a general rule I am a penny pincher in everyday life so I can be independent in my adventures. After saving money for two years while I was unemployed, working kitchen jobs, or giving away shots of rum in supermarkets across New Orleans, I had booked a solo trip to Asia. It was a blissful month at the age of 25. I combed the streets of Thailand looking for food, avoided little boys with an enormous zeal for fireworks in Chang Mai, and biked along sandy shepherd's paths in Bagan, Myanmar.
Asia was a place to lose yourself. I had saved money and when I told my girlfriend that I was going she replied with, “Well I can’t go right now.”
“I wasn’t inviting you.” I unsympathetically replied. “This is a solo journey.”
Many Westerners go to Asia attempting to produce the closest (and safest) theater of exotic lifestyle. In Asia, no one asked why I was there. It was understood. I was traveling in order to find myself in my independence and durability.
Back in Arizona three years later, my host in Phoenix is a little too tall for his apartment front door. As he greeted me he bent over and smiled to lean in for a hug. “It’s so nice to meet you,” he said as he pulled back to move out of the door frame. His teeth had recently been brightened, almost to a frightening level. We sat in his kitchen talking about my plans and why I was in Arizona. Like most people, he didn’t understand why I had come.
“So, where’s your girlfriend?”
“Oh, this is a solo trip. Just me.”
“That sounds healthy. I’m way too co-dependent for that.”
“Um, yeah. I find it a good thing to get away for a breather every now and then. She understands. And I don’t really give it a choice for better or worse.”
“Well, that can’t be good for a relationship.”
My toe digs a little deeper into the kitchen tile.
“So, what are you doing out here?”
“Oh, just traveling a bit. I’ve never seen Arizona’s landscape. I want to see red rocks and desert and mountains.”
My answers seem to fall short of expectation or of any interest to him. I thought about how he didn’t understand my need for down time. How I need the space to be myself and to ruminate on my thoughts.
I, probably like most people, fall under the disgustingly-modern title of “extrovert-introvert”. On most occasions I feed off of people’s energy and bounce from location to location, person to person. I love newness and surprise and the fast-paced exercise of life. However, there are some occasions where I need to get away from it all. Maybe it’s to process the information or maybe it’s to simply recharge the energy bank.
Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, I take it upon myself every so often to escape the routine and venture out on my own. No significant other, no friends, no groups. Just me.
After climbing Camelback in Phoenix, admiring the engineering of Montezuma’s Castle, and learning about Montezuma’s Well, I made my way into Sedona.
The shopkeeper in a studio tucked into the lower level of a newly constructed log cabin had a long gray mane that was speckled throughout with dark strands and pure white hair. Her long skirt brushed against her ankles as she walked around the store holding her self-made pottery mug of tea. She was Sedona.
I figured that as long as I brought back a present to my girlfriend that all would be cemented as “good”. That’s what people are supposed to do right? Bring gifts back from trips, apologize instead of ask for permission.
Like a hornet to a picnic she flowed over to me, the sole customer in her small, Western outpost.
“Is there something you are looking for in particular?” she asked over her glasses.
“Not really, just browsing.”
“Is it just you?”
“Yes, just me. I’m doing a little solo ‘walk in the woods’-type of endeavor. I just visited Montezuma’s Castle”
“I used to travel by myself a lot when I was your age. Now I’ve been married for 40 years. I couldn’t imagine doing anything without my husband. I’m so used to it now. That’s why I tell visitors, ‘If you see a couple, talk to them. Odds are they want someone else to break the monotony.’”
Odd sayings like this were expected at this point in Arizona, a land very alien in its American lifestyle. It was there, in that shop however, that the weight came down. Hard. Through all of my efforts of trying to understand life more I was in actuality missing it.
I missed everyone while I was away. Maybe solo travel can - at times - be a form of filling that void of curiosity. As Franz Kafta put it; “Isolation is a way to know ourselves.”
At the same time, there is something liberating about moving at your own pace, making decisions and having to own up to them, putting yourself out there to make new acquaintances.
Time is the only thing worth fighting for right? Time with loved ones, time to yourself, time to study/work/play/travel, time for what is important to you. Time is the only finite thing in our lives. It determines how many sunrises we see or kisses we receive or the amount of money we earn. You can’t do anything without time.
As I hiked around Bell Rock and Templeton Trial that I realized the importance of sharing travel. Truly sharing it. Not with pictures or presents but in time and meals and sunrises.
Or, maybe the vortexes simply had a hold over me.