When I saw Cheryl Strayed (wisest woman on the earth and author of Wild) speak in London a few years back, the audience didn’t want to know about her writing habits or what it’s like when Reese Witherspoon makes a movie of your life. They wanted guidance; they wanted answers on how to be a better human being. As both an exceptional agony aunt (read Tiny Beautiful Things; she literally has all the answers) and having had a serious rough and tumble with her own life, people seek Strayed’s advice on everything.
One young woman stood up and asked Strayed if she should go travelling on her own or with her boyfriend. If you’re not familiar with Wild, Strayed, a broken twentysomething embarks on a life-changing trek. The girl knew Strayed’s answer; we all did. “Go on your own,” she said.
As tends to be the way with Strayed’s words, they haven’t left me. Because, while I feel proud of the independence with which I’ve lived my life up until this point, I’ve never travelled on my own. I’ve read the countless accounts of the women who have; I’ve poured over my friends’ pictures on Facebook; I’ve been enchanted by stories of acquaintances who tell me about this or that time they got on a plane on their own. A few months ago, a stranger I met at a work do told me she was walking across Europe on her own to remember her friend who had died of cancer. I almost cried there and then. The friend had loved adventures, apparently. And so, she told me, the best way to remember her was to have an adventure. The next day, she sent me an email with a link. When I clicked on it, I was met with a Joan Didion-esque-looking woman in a floral dress, sheer tights and Mary Janes on a motorbike, wind whipping in her hair. The picture was of Anne-France Dautheville. Between 1972, when she was in her late twenties, and 1981, Dautheville gave up her copywriting job, left her hometown of Paris and motorcycled to Iran and then to Afghanistan, before covering three continents and 12,500km, and becoming the first woman to travel solo around the world on a motorbike. (I implore you to look at the pictures. “Cool” doesn’t even come close). “Look,” she was saying, “look at the adventures waiting to be had.”
Part of me wants to be the kind of person who rides motorcycles to Iran. And part of me wants to stop the sides of me melting, blurring into the sides of the person I spend every day with
So, now it feels like it’s time for my own adventure. Part of me needs to prove I can; part of me craves being a stranger and being somewhere unfamiliar. Part of me wants to clean my mind, wipe everything out and have some time for ideas and thoughts to settle. Part of me wants to be the kind of person who rides motorcycles to Iran. And part of me wants to stop the sides of me melting, blurring into the sides of the person I spend every day with. I am happy in my relationship, for sure, but we’re two individuals nonetheless. I want to keep the shape of me firm and definite, not to create distance, but to retain that sense of selfhood. And while there’s no one I’d rather send a postcard home to, I want to know what it’s like to patter around a strange place with just my thoughts and a map. Which, of course, Strayed would have known all along.
I buy a travel magazine and flick through its soft pages. I scan past fishing villages with pink hues washed across the sky, a cobble-street French town, complete with wooden shutters and just the right amount of flaked paint crumbling off the wall. I look at Scandinavian huts, perfectly reflected in the still, bright water, and brightly painted Mexican walls, defiant to the camera’s gaze. There are, clearly, so many adventures to be had. But why have I never delved into those pages on my own before?
Growing up as a girl, just being outside was potentially hazardous: don’t talk to strangers; don’t walk home alone; don’t walk that way; don’t walk through the park; text me when you’re in; let me know when you get home safe. It’s not surprising – we were often warned by teachers of the suspicious van that stalked the school; my mum had her own stalker for years. If just walking off the bus is a problem, it’s no wonder that boarding a plane and travelling to an unknown city solo can be mistaken for recklessness. Growing up, travelling alone just wasn't an option. It wasn’t something I rejected out of fear, but almost “common sense”. “Stick together,” my mum would say as friends and I jumped on the cheapest flights to wherever we could.
So, as much as Strayed knows that we all need to spend some time solo, reinforcing our edges, pushing ourselves into unknown, unfamiliar adventures, I’m also reclaiming my right to travel alone – my freedom to step into the world and not be held back by a society that insists women change their behaviour in order to be safe, not men. Of course, riding a motorcycle across Iran in 1972 was an act of pure rebellion and, thankfully, that’s not the case now. Women zigzag across the globe all the time, with no one but themselves for company.
I think it’s about time I joined them.