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April of 2016 was a strange time for me. I was recently single after quickly dumping a crossfit-obsessed, borderline alcoholic guy I met on Tinder (yea, who didn't see that coming?), I spent most of my weekends partying and sleeping on friends' couches, and I found myself somewhat on again with a man I'd been chronically on and off with for quite some time (but this time was different!). I was pretty lost with myself. I was at a point where life was leading me, and I was blindly following. I worked a dead-end job, my friends were horrible, my love life was horrible, and my family was seemingly falling apart left and right. Despite my determined positive appearance, I was exhausted. I needed a "restart" button.
That's when I booked a flight to California.
My parents flipped. A lot of my friends and coworkers did, too. A 22-year-old girl from the Midwest traveling to the West Coast alone?! Unthinkable. She'll get lost, she'll be mugged, she'll be raped, kidnapped, sold into sex slavery, caught up in a drug cartel, eaten by a bear or a mountain lion...I get it. (No lie, I was a little scared about the thought of bears and mountain lions.) But I needed this. I didn't even realize how much I needed it until it was happening.
Fast-forward another month, and I'm boarding an American Airlines plane early on a Wednesday morning heading to Oakland airport. Once landed, I frantically searched for my bright red, hard-shell suitcase I'd recently found at Goodwill for $15 (can we all agree that Goodwill is amazing?) in the endless line of other suitcases since I was convinced the airline had lost it in the layover (they didn't - turns out they know what they're doing even if I don't). Once picking up my rental car, which was another panicked event that really doesn't warrant going into, I was off.
The moment I hit the highway due south, I never felt freer in my life.
My itinerary was pretty hurried given the time I had available: drive down Highway 1 towards LA, stop to sleep somewhere along the way, get to LA and spend a night there, then head back north to Yosemite and spend the remaining couple days there hiking and exploring. I had a motel reserved for the first night along the highway in a tiny coastal town called Pismo Beach, and Airbnb's reserved for the other areas I'd be staying (here, and here). Otherwise, my days were thoroughly unplanned. I explored where I wanted, ate what I wanted and when, talked to whoever I wanted (or rather, didn't), and answered to no one.
I gained an entirely new perspective during and after this trip on who I was and who I was becoming. More-so, I began to understand who I could become. I very suddenly no longer wanted to be the girl who kept letting life drag her by her hair through the mud. Every mile I drove, every step I took, and every decision I made was my own, and the epiphany it caused me to have made my blood vibrate through me with a new kind of energy that was very unfamiliar.
I was always rather independent by nature, even as a child, but this new sense of freedom I had was like a roaring fire in my belly. I was so drunk off of it I'd considered quitting my job, selling everything, buying a fifth wheel, and adventuring wherever I could drive, just me and my dog, Daisy.
Of course, none of that happened. I landed back in Columbus the following Wednesday and listlessly settled back into life, as lukewarm as it felt comparatively. But the lessons I learned about traveling that week in the Golden State stuck with me. Such as:
Prepare to spend more money than you've prepared. I'm not kidding. I don't care where you're going, that shit adds up.
If you plan on hiking anywhere, buy a pair of decent hiking boots (link to my suggestion below), and definitely wear them in before trekking in them for a 15-mile hike in Yosemite Valley...
Bring Band-Aides because if you're like me, you'll forget #2. Actually, a first-aide kit, a knife, and a compass are generally a good idea, too. You just never know.
Do your research. I didn't just plan this willy-nilly, despite how it might sound. Draft 1 of my itinerary had me sleeping in a hostel in San Francisco in a neighborhood I'm not sure was even inside city limits. Then I figured out what a hostel was...no thanks.
On the note of research, read all the reviews you can. On everything, and everyone. Especially if you're booking Airbnb, but even for restaurants and things to do and whatever else you bump into along the way. Because trust me, it's pretty embarrassing stumbling into a 5-star French restaurant in the middle of a mountain town dressed in denim looking for a "quick bite". (True story. Thank god the owner found me charming.)
If you're going to a National Park, read the material they give you when you get there. These places are legit wildlife, and bears and mountain lions do appear from time to time, even in the daylight. Read up.
TAKE PICTURES. I seemingly took a million pictures on this trip (yea, I was that gawky tourist with a camera swung around my neck 99% of the time), but even going through them today I still wish there were more, or that they captured more vividly how it really was.
Call your mom. Or your dad, or grandparent, or partner, or friend, or neighbor. They're probably thinking about you, and probably wondering if you've been eaten by a bear or mountain lion yet. It's fine being independent, but not a recluse.
Unplug. Especially during my hikes, I was very unattached to my phone, and it made the experiences that much more enjoyable. Snapchat can wait.
Get comfortable with the idea of spontaneity. For me, structure is everything, so I had to get over this rather quickly. But some of the best adventures on this trip came from my plans unraveling (or a new plan arising that was more appealing). For example, I would've never seen San Fransisco at all had it not been for the earlier than expected check-out time at my Airbnb in Yosemite.
I know this is titled "why you should take a solo trip at least once", but I'm really not here to tell you what to do. Maybe you'll find some of my tips helpful or this story somewhat amusing, but my main point here is this: find something that brings you back to your center and reminds you that you are worthy and that you are able to do whatever you set your mind to. Because moving through life with that mindset is how followers become leaders, settlers become dreamers, and how failures become achievements. You don't have to be as independent as I am, but you also shouldn't feel pressured to be so involved in the cluster of society to the point that you forget who you are. Maybe hiking in Yosemite isn't really your thing, and that's fine. I didn't really think LA was my thing once I got there, so now I know.
For me, this solo trip allowed me the things I needed to grow, and I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything. Whether you're flying across the country or driving across town, take time to do things for yourself and by yourself, learn to enjoy it, and allow yourself to grow in those spaces. You might surprise yourself.