Real Talk: Loneliness on the Road

My days in Utah were fast and bright and hot. I arrived in Moab, Utah — a tiny town popular among climbers, backpackers, road trippers and other adventurists — after four long hours in my rented white Subaru. I had spent the previous night in Salt Lake City, hiked that morning at a trail just outside Sandy, Utah, then cruised to Moab fueled by peanut butter sandwiches and outdoor podcasts.

My first stop in Moab was Milt’s Stop and Eat, a window-service joint that serves burgers wrapped in paper and thick shakes from Coca-Cola cups. “Sarah!” a man yelled from the window when my order was ready. He handed me my burger — two patties buried beneath a blue cheese sauce, blue cheese crumbles and a thick onion ring. The bun was crisp and fluffy. I devoured it from a booth by the shop’s window. Nearby, families bantered over their burgers. They swapped shakes and shared fries. I don’t mind eating alone and didn’t then. The pleasure of eating something hot that wasn’t cooked in my Jetboil was enough company. I was happy to not have to talk to anyone between big bites of burger. Instead, I inhaled my dinner in silence.

That evening felt different, though. I setup my tent at a KOA campground as the sky turned pink and red. I marveled at the ruddy sunset that seemed to perfectly complement the red rocky skyline. I snapped a photo before settling into my tent for the night. But as I did, my stomach knotted. Without the distraction of driving or a burger, I suddenly felt so alone. I could hear sounds from other tents — women laughing, kids screaming. Through my tent’s mesh, I could see couples snuggling in their camp chairs. I could see kids slipping into swim trunks and running to the campground pool. My two-person tent suddenly felt huge and empty. It never felt like this when I took it backpacking. There, I felt at home and at peace beneath a thick green canopy of trees. At this campground in Moab, though, I felt lonely and out of place.

Almost as soon as I felt lonely, I began to feel guilty. Guilty that this trip — a luxury — was bringing up bad feelings. I felt bad that I couldn’t appreciate the moment in my tent alone. That I couldn’t savor the “me” time and use it as the personal development opportunity I’d convinced myself it was. I felt guilty that I wanted a partner. Obviously, truly adventurous women never feel lonely, so I was alone in that, too.

These feelings of loneliness popped up here and there throughout my first week on the road. They’d subside on hikes, but reemerge during particularly long stretches on the road or when I was setting up camp for the night. One evening, a young man from California helped me hammer a few tent stakes into the hard desert ground. I’d underestimated how tough the soil would be, and my typical solution of using rocks as hammers was proving useless. He emerged sleepily from his tent as his girlfriend continued to slumber inside. He spent 10 minutes helping me before retreating back to his large, yellow tent. That evening, I witnessed, alone, the most vibrant sunset I’d ever seen. I yearned to share it with someone.

I write this not because I want to focus on the sad parts of my trip. Honestly, my trip was wonderful. I slept with the sun and trekked some of the desert’s most beautiful trails. I ate red chili enchiladas in New Mexico and made friends with people from all over the country. I camped near petrified sand dunes some nights and beneath large leafy trees other nights. For 14 days, I never missed a sunrise or a sunset. I ate meals near canyons that spanned as far as I could see. It was a beautiful trip that expanded my comfort zone and taught me new things about myself. But loneliness was also part of that trip and was perhaps my best teacher. I’m writing this because I want to normalize that emotion. I don’t want people to feel guilty about it like I first did.

I’ve come to realize that loneliness is part of road tripping. Maybe it doesn’t hit everyone the same way or at the same time. For me, it was strongest during that first week. I was detoxing from the constant flow of distraction I’m accustomed to in my day-to-day life — the phone calls, emails and social media. During the second week, I found my flow. I sat with loneliness like a friend and embraced it. For others, maybe loneliness only emerges after a tough day or too many days on the road. Maybe it emerges on hikes, when you want to share the view with someone.

Regardless of how it manifests, loneliness is as much a part of road tripping as campground sleeps, irregular showering and car meals. And it’s not bad. It reminds us that sometimes we’re too connected, too dependent on technology and cell service and work and other distractions. Like detoxing from sugar, detoxing from the distractions of technology and our state of constant “connectedness” can be challenging. But it’s also rewarding. And I’m now convinced that all the adventurous women feel lonely sometimes. It’s not a lack of loneliness that makes them adventurous. It’s their willingness to welcome it as an occasional companion. And so on my recent trip, I befriended loneliness, too.