The first time I traveled solo was on a trip to Washington DC in the tenth grade with a classmate named David who told me on the plane that he was really excited about meeting new people, which I didn't understand. I was just interested in getting there and back in one piece and as it was, I'd left the majority of my new businessy clothes hanging on the strung up clothesline in my parents' basement and had to shop for all new outfits at the JCPenney near my hotel.
I had applied and was selected to journey to Washington DC unaccompanied for a national high school program about government and leadership — two things I was not remotely interested in. I just wanted to travel. When I got back and David and I had to present about our trip to the Rotary Club in the high school library, they asked me if I was interested in politics. I answered, “Well, I thought I might be before this trip. But I’m not.” They all laughed uncomfortably and I didn’t understand why. I thought that was good to know, not being interested in something.
I brought along a disposable camera, since it was 2003, and later developed all the photos and stuck them in a flimsy plastic photo album that’s now tucked away somewhere in my childhood bedroom. The flash made the photos way too bright and highlighted my awkward 15 year old body in the JCPenney clothes I didn’t feel myself in. We had a dance at the end of the week and still when I hear Outkast I’m back in that hotel ballroom shaking my hands like a Polaroid picture, a reference I was too young to get. There was a boy named Tim from Missouri or Alabama who I’d decided I was in love with and when I got a nosebleed on the dance floor and disappeared into the bathroom for what felt like the majority of the night and realized he’d left to go pack while I was gone, I felt like I’d missed out on the love of my life. (Oh, to be 15.)
I’d come home not really feeling any different but in actuality the reality of my world had expanded more in that week than in the entire previous 15 years of my life. In tenth grade I’d spent the six years before learning at my dining room table, a product of Catholic homeschooling that resulted in a lovely education but a severely lacking set of social skills. I met people from Puerto Rico and they told me all about their feelings on living in a US territory. I met girls from absurdly privileged upbringings, girls who seemed to be speaking an entirely different language. I met people who didn’t go to church every Sunday like I did. I met people who lived on tiny little islands in the Pacific Northwest that I didn’t even know existed, people who I thought I’d be friends with forever, whose names I don’t remember anymore. I heard people like Ralph Nader and Pete Williams speak, people whose world views were a million times wider than mine. I fell in love with the Georgetown campus and learned that both my grandparents had actually gone to school there, and when I read the average GPA of the admitted students in a prospective student brochure I felt surprisingly crushed. Despite only having been on a plane for the first time two years earlier, I’d flown by myself, leaving my mother at the Southwest gate that was decorated with hearts for Valentines Day, waving to me. David’s mother hadn’t come but I was glad mine did.
It’s 14 years later and I can’t really remember my life before the world of solo travel. In 2007 I’d travel with a small church group to Haiti. In 2008 I’d travel on a study abroad trip to South Africa. In 2016 I’d travel completely on my own to Vietnam, and then Thailand and Laos and Cambodia and Australia.
For someone whose view of the world was limited to the town fair and the state’s capital city that no one went to and youth group retreats and the deep woods of the backyard, travel opened up so much for me. I'm not sure where I'd be without it.
And despite turning 30 this year and wishing I'd had more of a "life plan" by now, this I know to be true: I am really, really, really grateful to have had travel in my life. (And I'm really grateful for my 15 year old self for going through the application process for that program and getting accepted and being brave enough to step on the plane.)
(Image via Georgetown because I honestly have no idea where that flimsy plastic photo album is.)