I write a lot about solo travel here, and most of the traveling I do now is 100% on my own. It’s the most natural thing to me to go off on a trip by myself; I never hesitate to do something alone. I think I tend to make it sound really easy, like it’s not a big deal. And for me, it’s not a big deal…anymore. But when I think back to my very first solo travel experience, I realize that it was a lot harder for me than I initially remembered.
I wrote an entire post about the “real reason” I travel alone, and while everything I wrote in that post is truthful, I think it also skipped over the beginning steps of solo travel. Yes, going somewhere on my own feels totally easy for me now, but years ago, it was a bit more complicated.
I didn’t even attempt to travel alone until I was 23, and well…it didn’t go so well. It took a couple more years before I managed to actually do it, and leaving home on my own was just as difficult then. Sure, I did leave, and it led to the rest of my solo traveling since then, but I almost didn’t go.
Traveling and seeing the world was this thing I wanted to do so badly, something I dreamed about since childhood, but I had so many fears that stopped me from actually pursuing that dream. To be fair, there was a lot more involved outside of the fear of traveling alone—that wasn’t really what the fear was about. But I think traveling alone is what pushed me through those deep-rooted fears, changing me in ways that were necessary in order for me to progress as a human being in this world.
So I want to talk about my first solo travel experience today, and share with you the anxieties and fear that kind of stopped it from happening.
The year was 2012. I was working remotely as a social media manager for an online clothing retailer. The past few years mostly consisted of me being either debilitatingly depressed, or recklessly irresponsible. Usually both. I was in a fairly stable state during the summer of 2012, but I was really hating my job (because my boss was an asshole). My family and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. because it had been a while since we’d done a family vacation. This trip reignited my desire to travel, and it also reignited my…irrational thinking.
As soon as we returned from the trip, I quit my job (which was a good move, to be fair), and impulsively decided to take a solo road trip to Santa Fe. The desert called, and I thought, “I must go!” I booked the cheapest hotel rooms I could find, packed some things, and jumped in my car.
Home was St. Louis, Missouri, so driving all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico was going to take a couple of days. I planned to stop in Oklahoma City on the first night, which was the best half-way point. So I booked a cheap motel there before I set out on the road.
My first day of driving was awesome. I felt energized and excited. I was ELATED. I couldn’t believe I was going to finally, actually start traveling. And I was doing it all on my own! I listened to music, I drove 8 hours straight, and I was feeling optimistic.
I pulled into Oklahoma City in the early evening and found the motel I had booked. I checked in, found my room, and…well, it wasn’t the cleanest. You could say I was a bit of a germaphobe at the time, so I just tried to convince myself that I was being unreasonable. Hairs in the shower? That happens. Hair on the bed sheets…okay, it’s fine. My anxiety was bubbling, but I was determined to not let it get to me.
I’ll just go take a shower, I thought. That will make me feel better.
I sat on the bed and removed my shoes, and then I began to walk towards the bathroom. Immediately, I felt a cool, damp, squishy sensation beneath my feet, and I stopped. I looked at my white sock and the sole was COMPLETELY BLACK. The carpet was wet and it was dirty enough to turn my white sock black with just one step.
I was so disgusted. Not just reasonably grossed out because clearly this room was not up to any hotel standards in the history of travel. I was IRRATIONALLY disgusted, and angry, and scared, and sad. My anxiety was no longer bubbling, it was bursting.
I held myself together long enough to change my socks, put on my shoes, grab my luggage, and storm into the motel lobby. Okay, I didn’t really storm in, I walked in and waited patiently for 10 minutes while the clerk helped another guest. But I was seething inside. How dare this dirty (moldy?) carpet ruin my trip!
When the clerk was done with the other guest and ready to help me, I walked up holding the dirty sock in my right hand, and said “I want a refund. This is what the carpet did to my sock.”
Without hesitation, without any further questions, she gave me a full refund for the room. She didn’t seem surprised at all by the dirty sock.
I want to make it clear that I was not rude to the employee and did not take it out on her—I’ve worked in hospitality for years, and trust me you guys, it is (most likely) not the front desk’s fault, and they will not care about your problem if you’re rude.
I threw my suitcase back into my car and sat there, still angry. I was glad to be out of that room, but now I had a new problem: where the hell was I going to sleep?
I drove to a nearby McDonald’s and ordered french fries, just so I could sit inside and use their free wi-fi. I searched for nearby hotels, but finding something that was both affordable and available was proving to be difficult. My bank account wasn’t overflowing by any means, so I began to panic a little bit.
Eventually I just drove down the road and walked into one of the only hotels that might be an option. They said they only had 1 room left, it was a smoking room, but they’d give me a small discount since it was already so late. It was still WAY more than I felt comfortable spending, but I felt like I didn’t have any other options.
The room smelled like smoke, of course, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to be in a room that wasn’t filled with mold and other peoples’ hair. I was just happy that I had a place to sleep. And as soon as that little wave of relief came in, a much bigger wave overpowered it.
I was alone, which meant I didn’t have to hold in my emotions anymore. I cried. I was angry about the situation, but I was more angry at myself. I blamed the whole thing on my inability to do absolutely anything right. I felt defeated and wanted so badly to just go home and sleep in my own bed. While the thought of driving another 8 hours to Santa Fe, and then staying in a motel that could possibly be just as dirty, was really unappealing; the thought of turning around to go home and having to explain to my family what happened was equally (if not more) unappealing.
I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I had failed, that I couldn’t hack it, that I was totally useless. Because that’s how I felt most days. The last thing I wanted to hear was someone saying “I told you so”.
And with all of those negative thoughts floating around in my head while my emotions (the anger, the stress, the fear, the sadness) crashed like a tidal wave, I had a panic attack. It wasn’t my first panic attack, and it wasn’t my last either, but it was just as exhausting and debilitating as any other attack.
Once I began to breathe again, I knew I had to suck it up and go home. Part of me wishes I had pushed through and gone all the way to Santa Fe. Maybe things would have been just fine. But all I wanted to do was forget about this experience.
So I woke up early the next morning, got in my car, and drove 8 hours straight back to St. Louis. I didn’t see anything along the way, my whole trip was a bust. I essentially drove 8 hours to stay in a hotel room and drive back.
That was the extent of my first solo travel experience.
Maybe it doesn’t count since I didn’t really do anything, or even make it to my intended destination. But I guess I just wanted to show you guys the truth. I travel solo all the time now, and I love it so much. I’ve learned how to deal with a lot of the things that would have ruined my trips in the past. But at one point, traveling felt impossible to me too.
My lack of money, my lack of confidence, my struggles with mental health, those things stopped me from traveling for a long time. It just didn’t seem like a thing that I could do.
But now I do travel. It’s a regular part of my life, it’s something I love, and it’s something I write about and share with you guys all the time on this blog.
I know this story alone doesn’t give you guys a full view of the struggles I dealt with in the past. I was anxious, I had a panic attack, and then I went home. That doesn’t even begin to detail the depths of my battle with anxiety and depression. But I do want you all to know that you can have anxiety, you can have depression, you can have panic attacks, and you can still travel. You can learn to manage your mental health, and you can go out there and live the life you’ve always dreamed of.
After I returned from the failed solo road trip to Santa Fe, I fell into a deep depression. I was so disappointed with how the trip went. I felt like the biggest failure. I figured travel was just something I couldn’t do, and that it wouldn’t be part of my life. Ever.
It would be another 2 years before I’d finally set off on my own and find a way to start traveling. Funny thing is, the catalyst for that was another panic attack. Maybe I’ll share that story too sometime. But the point is, I did it. I left home, I lived in new cities, I traveled to new places, and I eventually started a travel blog to write about all of it.
I hate to get too corny and end this post with FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS, don’t let anything stop you, but…don’t let anything stop you from living the life you dream of.
Thank you guys for reading through this long-winded story. If you struggle with mental health, please know that you are not alone. And if you’d like to read more about mental health as it relates to travel, please let me know. I’m not sure how practical I can get with it, but I’d love to share more of my own stories in an attempt to inspire your own story.
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