“Are you there alone?”
Ten years ago, my friends were often still a little surprised when I showed up in an unexpected country solo, especially if I was on my bike. Now, they’re surprised when I plan a trip with someone else. (“What’s the occasion?” someone asked when they heard Susan and I are going to Belize together for a week before Christmas, sure it had to be more than a holiday.)
I’ve written a fair bit about why I like traveling alone. I realize I’ve documented so much because for a long time, I weirdly felt I had to justify it. But now, I’m just really clear: my life is full of many competing needs. I work a lot. I do a lot of facilitation, coaching, consulting, leading — where I have to hold space for other people. I love my work — but it tires me out. To recover, I need time where I have literally no plans, no structures, no one else to orient my energy around. No matter how much I love the other person, or how much our paces and needs match, I only truly relax when I can have 100% autonomy over my time and space. Two completely unstructured days is more restorative for me than a week at a spa — even knowing I have a massage appointment at an appointed hour fetters my energy. And yes, I know that’s not how most people operate. But when I can have unstructured time, especially in a place I don’t live? Heaven. No cats, no laundry, no undone things calling to me, no neighbours to chat with? Bliss. Alone, I find myself.
I’m privileged enough financially and social-location-wise to be able to indulge my need to travel alone. I’m experienced and trusting enough to travel to places that scare most people (my two nights in a tent camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo might have been my most foolhardy choice). And confident enough in the community around me that I know my people will be here when I come back. I’ve been alone in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, DRC, Costa Rica, most of southeast Asia, Iceland, UK, about a dozen other European countries. Three memorable days in St. Petersburg. I’ve never felt alone.
Since the start of covid, I’ve grabbed at these solo travel moments in pockets, mostly closer to home. It’s been a tough year, 2022. The core of it was the unexpected death of my mother, with the resulting sticky, exhausting combination of grief and navigation of banks, insurance, real estate, house emptying, etc. But I also had covid twice, and have been supporting many people who are utterly burnt out. I’ve been on the verge of burnout more than once.
So at the end of November, I scraped out a week where I could escape, by myself, to an island on the west coast. I couldn’t quite take week fully off — I had meetings most days, and a few things to deliver. But I was squirrelled up in a little cabin on the edge of the sea, fog soft around my windows, darkness falling December-early. I lit a fire in the wood stove every morning and laid out my yoga mat, moved with Adriene before I started work. With every spinal flexion, with every breath, I found myself a little more.
Every day, I found at least two hours to walk the soggy, darkened trails, sometimes right at the edge of the Pacific, sometimes deeper into the west coast woods. One day, my time and the clouds serendipitously opened up at the same time, and I set off on the longest hike on the island.
I’d done this hike before, but in the summer, after riding my folding bike to the trail head. I remembered dry heat, and asking a couple who’d driven to the top if I could possibly scrounge some water from them. I remember a faint anxiety about fire.
This hike was elemental in the opposite way. Deep, soft loam, damp plants brushing my legs, careful footing. I started at a different trailhead before, and decided that at every fork, I would take the longer loop. As I walked, I let the echo of the forest fold around me. Nearly silI fent in December, with the occasional leaf-flush of a bird, an occasional bird call. Foghorn from the ferries far below. My boots on the soil. My own pulse echoing in the old growth trees.
I walked for 9 kilometres — twice as long as the simplest route. I climbed the equivalent of 485 metres. I didn’t see another soul, except for a glorious pileated woodpecker who darted ahead of me. And with every step, every breath, I became myself again.
For the first time in months, my mind supplied creative sentences that needed to be written. Ideas and solutions for things I’d been pondering floated up. I stretched out my limbs, filled my veins with oxygen, and found my feet.
I sat down at the top to rest, drink water, eat some cheese and crackers and an apple. I was on the edge of a cliff and was surrounded by fog. It was chilly on my little log, even wrapped in the scarf I’d tucked in my little backpack. I felt a faint anxiety about getting back to my car before darkness dropped around me like a weighted blanket. But I could feel myself again. Refracted against the mist, the cloud that roiled up from the sea and down from the sky, I could see myself again.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in the part of the world we currently call Toronto, which is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. Toronto is covered by Treaty 13, signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit. Cate was privileged to visit unceded land that is the traditional territory of the Saanich, Cowichan, and Chemainus First Nations,