My breath catches in my throat as I feel the wheels lose traction. The heavy car starts to slide uncontrollably across the icy road towards a six-foot high snow bank. The adrenaline slows my mind and a thousand thoughts race through my head as I watch the oncoming bank approaching. My hands are working the wheel while my foot gently works the brake; I am hoping that I can get myself out of this situation safely.
The car nudges the snow bank and comes to a stop, all four wheels still on the road. I breathe a sigh of relief and squint blearily out through the windscreen, weary eyes struggling to see through the thickly falling snow. It is only three in the afternoon, but dusk has already set in. The snowfall is heavy and coming down quickly over the unlit and deserted roads. At the end of an Arctic October, daylight is a brief caress, and temperatures are brutal.
” I spent a lot of time alone during that year. I sought solitude like it was air…”
Alone in Arctic Scandinavia, two hundred kilometres from any town, I am crossing a mountain pass in a rental car. I have with me a tent, a sleeping bag, some clothes, a small gas stove, some preserved food and a foot-long hunting knife primarily acquired for the false sense of security it provides. Being stuck in a snow bank for the night would be somewhere between annoying and dangerous; I don’t know how cold the night will get. I take a deep breath and pull the car away gently, the tires shuddering from the lack of traction. I curse the rental company for giving me ‘all-season’ tires intended for driving in cities, not through Arctic mountain passes.
Many people wondered, and still wonder, why I had chosen to travel alone. A year ago I packed up my apartment and left my successful career and long-term partner. I wanted to learn something about myself, though I didn’t know what that was or might be, and I decided I would do this by travelling solo. I wanted to learn how I would deal with things, how I would think, what I would do; if I would love the smells and sights of India and hate the stifling heat of Africa.
At the time of my near-miss in the Arctic, I was midway through a five-week, 9000 kilometre road trip. I drove from the Netherlands overland to Denmark, then through Sweden, Norway, and Finland; and finally back down to the Netherlands via Poland. I slept in tents and in my car at temperatures of -10 Celsius while waiting for glimpses of the Aurora. I cooked and ate many a meal while parked on a mountain, watching reindeer forage for food. I sat by many fires, warming my bones as I wrote and reflected and pondered.
I spent a lot of time alone during that year. I sought solitude like it was air, and then tried not panic when I realised the air was too thin. I have always loved being alone, whether exploring writing, hiking or running, but this was a new level of solitude: I was alone in the middle of the Arctic. Occasionally I would drive to a small town and park at the petrol station, sip coffee in my car and watch people hurriedly pumping gas in the icy winds in order to remind myself that there were others around.
“I had gone from being scared of my own company to loving the comfort, familiarity and peace that solo travel had brought me.”
During my year of travel, I hiked the Indian Himalayas, nearly got arrested partying in London and was ‘reborn’ three times in the Nile when I skinny dipped, bungee jumped and white water rafted. I came close to serious injury or death four times, each time on the road. I ran: I completed a marathon in Berlin, tore a ligament on the frozen marshes of England, tripped over a cow in India, and nearly got mugged in Africa. And I met others, many of whom I now count among my friends; but most importantly, I met myself. I met the woman who can climb mountains and who can face adversity; I met the woman who lights up a room when she enters and brings a smile to a child’s face. I had gone from being scared of my own company to loving the comfort, familiarity and peace that solo travel had brought me. I had been faced with situations ranging from dangerous to hilarious, and each one I had conquered on the basis of my skills and capability. I vowed I would travel with myself again and again.
Is solitude necessary to find one’s self? I am not sure it is the only way to do so, but certainly for me it provided the space for the reflection and growth I needed at this stage of my life. We spend so much of our lives getting to know others and gaining knowledge and technical skills that we often forget to invest a little time and effort in ourselves. Leaving behind all that is familiar and having only yourself to deal with challenges – challenges as small as what you will eat for lunch and as large as how you might pull a car out of a snow bank – forces you to confront who you are, how you will act, and what you will take out of it. Travelling solo provides you with time to yourself that you simply won’t get in your day-to-day life.