Special Correspondent Naomi Stock offers this reflection on solo travel and outdoor adventure in this most unusual year. –Scott
This year, I keep seeing ad campaigns and social media trends promoting the idea that with the end of 2020 comes the beginning of better times, the return to what we continue to fondly refer to as “normalcy.” When I see these, I worry that 2021 won’t be the foil to 2020 that we hope for, and I also think back on the good things this year taught me, in an effort to see both sides of what can be objectively called a bad year.
On New Year’s Eve, I spent the morning ice skating at Anchorage’s popular Westchester Lagoon with a friend from high school. As we skated around in circles, he and I caught up on a year spent adapting to changes and trying to formulate informed opinions about current affairs.
I watched the others around us – more people than I have seen in one place since March – but outside, socially-distanced, and with many wearing face coverings.
There were couples, much like my friend and I, families and single ice-skating enthusiasts out on their own. The couples engaged in conversation – some catching up, some getting to know each other, and some speaking with the easy jargon of a close relationship.
Among the families, I saw the familiar sights of giggling schoolchildren, wobbling toddlers, and parents who seemed to constantly straddle the line between fear and pride.
However, it was those individuals who came to Westchester Lagoon alone who I envied most. This year, I have had to learn to go outside and enjoy the outdoors alone, but I’m still not as good at it as I’d like. Just like going out to dinner or to a movie alone, recreating outside alone oftentimes makes me feel self-conscious or anxious.
Afterwards I always feel accomplished, refreshed, and confident, and this year, more than others, outdoor recreation has been vital to my mental health. However, when no one in my close social circle is available to get outside with me and I choose to go alone, I wonder what people think. I worry about seeing someone I know, and worst of all, I fear that I will be targeted as a young woman alone on the trails.
When all of these emotions hit, I have to remind myself of the great things I have accomplished when out on my own. I remind myself how times of great personal growth have come when I have stepped out of my comfort zone.
Not so long ago, that meant international travel — solo international travel. In 2019, I traveled alone internationally for the first time. Before, I had traveled alone, but there was always someone at my destination, awaiting my arrival.
Last August, however, I left Alaska for a semester abroad in Rome two weeks early and spent the extra time in Barcelona. I stayed in a youth hostel in a great area of the city, and I had the time of my life. Having been to Barcelona twice the previous summer, I wasn’t so focused on tourist attractions as I was on the experience of traveling alone, on practicing Spanish, on meeting people, and on experiencing Spanish culture, which I had dearly missed since my foreign exchange to Badajoz, Spain in high school.
I spent hours walking the streets; I took the metro all over the city; I sunbathed at La Barceloneta; I even signed up for an experience through Airbnb where I was able to sail and swim in the Mediterranean Sea.
I met a fellow rock climber in the city and climbed with her outside of the city in Montserrat and La Facu.
(Below: Climbing with my new friend, Tay, in Montserrat, Spain, just outside of Barcelona. The monastery that Montserrat is famous for is just visible in front of me, and Barcelona hides in the haze behind me.)
And here’s the thing for me about traveling, and especially about Spain — I didn’t feel self-conscious or anxious. I felt welcomed, and comfortable. I was so involved in my own experience that there was no time, no mental energy left over with which to second guess myself. I felt confident, independent, and invincible.
Today, and every other day since that trip, and the other trips that 2019 brought me, I am chasing that feeling, that version of Naomi.
Recently, I have begun to remind myself of the personal growth that has come because the pandemic ungracefully shoved us all out of our own respective comfort zones.
This year, I built a more meaningful relationship with my sister; I moved in with roommates after living alone for the better part of two years; I quarantined and self-isolated and social-distanced. I hunkered-down, and recreated outdoors: alone, and with friends. I built skills, and I watched all of Netflix; I exercised, and I slept until noon; I contemplated spirituality, and I lost track of hours on TikTok.
2020 was a year of living one day at a time, and I hope that 2021 will be too.
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