On the value of going solo

“Go simple, go solo, go now.” The mantra of the late, great paddling legend Audrey Sutherland is solid advice in all kinds of situations, whether gathering your guts for an extended expedition or simply stealing a solitary weekend.

On that note, this latest vacation to California was first and foremost a jaunt to see family, with quality time around Sacramento and up in the Sierras. But after a quick sojourn catching up with an old friend in San Francisco, I also worked in a couple days wandering alone on the coast.

Here’s what I think: We are never so entirely ourselves as when traveling alone, making all our own decisions, following our whims, falling into our natural rhythms. It’s an odd tug-of-war: I love this mode of travel, relish the independence and freedom, yet of course I find myself wishing I could share this sight or that experience with loved ones. Maybe I also wish I could bring that truest, boldest, freest self into all my interactions and shared journeys, but it’s like the observer effect in physics: The mere act of togetherness changes our behavior, brings different aspects of our compound, faceted natures to the forefront.

At any rate, put a pack on my back and ground under my boots, and I’m blissfully happy to move through the world and explore it solo. And so it was this time also. Early on a foggy Sunday morning in March, I walked out of my buddy Jeff’s apartment in the heart of San Francisco and started heading north on Polk Street.

I came across a classic diner and indulged in a breakfast surrounded by the nostalgic trappings of a certain flavor of mythic Americana.

Hashbrowns, egg, coffee. Diner breakfast on a misty SF morning.

Hashbrowns, egg, coffee. Diner breakfast on a misty SF morning.

Continued walking, north and then west on Lombard, falling into my most comfortable all-day stride. Meandered along the Crissy Field marsh, little birds flitting through the reeds, to the massive abutment of the Golden Gate Bridge’s south end, the span itself invisible in heavy white fog. Ascended onto the bridge and began the crossing, moving through a tunnel of white, no hint of the city, the water below or the top of the suspension cables above.

Suspended in the mist.

Suspended in the mist.

By the last third of the bridge, glimpses had started to emerge through the slowly dissipating mist. I traipsed on, emerging into the chaotic swirl of a tourist parking lot on the Marin Headlands side. Here, in the ever-strengthening sun, I perched on a wall, ate a snack, ignored the busloads of hapless snapshot-takers, pulled off boots and socks and proceeded to thoroughly retape the gnarly blisters lurking under my arches from an earlier adventure.

Feet back in my boots, I extracted myself from Tourist Hell, found an underpass, crossed to the west side of the freeway and headed up the road for the trails – only to find myself still in Tourist Hell, albeit a prettier version. The view truly was magnificent, the Bridge superimposed over the city in the distance, the Bay opening to the great blue sweep of the Pacific, the last of the white fog snaking under the span, brilliant sunshine burning it away quickly now. And understandably, the hop-out-hop-in car tourists were out in droves at the strategic viewpoints, snapping away. Well, I was doing the same thing, who could blame them? But I like to work a bit for my vistas.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge.

After a while hoofing it uphill on the narrow path alongside the motorway, I came to a roundabout and a promising looking trailhead sign with paths leading slightly inland. I pulled out my dataless but vaguely sat-responsive phone, which I mainly used as a general compass out in the Headlands, and a large folded paper map, which was better with actual trail names and locations.

How best to make for Muir Beach? Having walked five or six miles before even setting foot on the bridge, I had discarded the notion of hiking all the way to Stinson Beach, though it was my likely overnight spot, so Muir Beach was the go-to destination. Considering route options, I was approached by a friendly mountain biker who provided sage advice on good trails to take over the next couple ridges. Stuffing my phone back in my pocket, I headed away from the road and left the tourists behind.

From there, it was just myself and some likeminded hikers and cyclists to share the sunny, fragrant hill paths with the hawks, little snakes and salamanders. Dipping down to cross Bunker Road at the base of Gerbode Valley, I refilled a water bottle at the friendly Presidio Riding Club, then plunged back into the trails on the far side, winding and climbing the Miwok Trail and then continuing on Wolf Ridge towards the west.

At the height of the climb, the path brushed the Coastal Trail, basking in the sweep of the golden shimmering sea, then plunged back down on the east side of the ridge into the Tennessee Valley. On the far side of the drainage, the rough path once more joined with the well-maintained Coastal Trail, now dubbed the Coastal Trail Fire Road. It was on this ever more sparsely used, winding, descending and climbing causeway that I spent the remaining miles to Muir Beach, tired and happy and trusting in myself, in the strength of my feet and my ability to find my way, soaking in the gilded light, ears pricking to the evening kittenish yips of coyotes.

When I topped the final crest separating me from the view of the modest settlement of Muir Beach, the sky was turning dusky rose and mysterious. I gazed around me in gratitude and satisfaction and made my way down the last hill, the last trail, the last stretch of road to the beautifully rustic Pelican Inn, where I collapsed on a bench in the dim, cozy bar and ravenously downed a bowl of minestrone soup, a glass of water and a lemon San Pellegrino.

There followed further adventures with the booked-up inn, no cell service, the inn’s pay phone, a group of riotous, rough-edged and warmly helpful locals, a dodgy taxi to Stinson Beach and a night at the mind-bogglingly sketchy motel/B&B on the edge of town, which have two monikers but seem to be the same junk-filled, moldering, spidery complex of subpar lodging. Hint: If it’s not the other place to stay in town, which has a bird in its name, avoid with extreme prejudice. I won’t go into all that now. Suffice it to say, I showered the dust of 18+ miles afoot off my skin, caught a quick night’s sleep and was striking out early the next morning to realize the notion which first pulled me towards a solitary weekend on the coast: A long overdue surf session.

Stinson Beach.

Stinson Beach in the early morning fog.

Surfing has occupied a much-loved and equally neglected niche in my life since the age of 15 or 16. The infrequent surf trips of my high school years to Westport, Washington became even less frequent once I moved to land-locked locales for college and post-study work life. But my underdeveloped skills notwithstanding, my novice messing around with a longboard never fails to bring me total joy.

The laid-back, friendly owner of the local surf and kayak rental responded promptly to a phone request to come open the shop (on weekdays by appointment only) and kindly also allowed me to stash my pack in his store while I surfed. I strolled out the back to the beach, laid my board in the water, missed the first wave, caught and rode the second. So rewarding, returning effortlessly to this feeling of rightness, even two or three years since last touching a board. Absurd as it may sound, I sensed my balance markedly improved by all the visualization I do standing around in Berlin public transit, rigorously touching nothing in my general germophobia, being aware of my center of gravity, shifting my weight. I snapped up faster, responded better. Eyes full of salt, I told myself: You don’t need to see. Don’t wait, don’t look. Just feel, and ride.

Resting between waves with my board, hands pressed flat to its surface, gray water around me, gray sky above, feet swirling through cold currents, I felt the utter, incomparable peace that only comes, with this particular flavor, in the embrace of the ocean. Or rather, in the gentlest grasp of her fingertips. Even on this tame-seeming sand beach, playing with mild wave sets, it never does to forget the potential savage power of the vast sea. Especially when enjoying these wild delights solo, respect for the elements is key.

That day, the ocean showed me her most charming face. I almost thought my eyes and mind were playing tricks – in between the black tips of cresting waves in the flat light, I saw repeated glimpses of something. But knowing the fearsome reputation of the Red Triangle, I wasn’t keen to psych myself out with nonsense worries about sharks – not this close to shore. Still… aha! Finally I saw the face. Round, silvery, furred, with two curious eyes peering at me. A harbor seal. Diving, resurfacing, closer and closer, then further away, then popping up in a new location, observing the antics of this neoprene-clad thing. My little buddy hung out for the last half hour or so of my surfing nirvana, taking my absolute bliss to new heights.

After surfing, I hosed off at the shop, got my stuff together and hung out in town for a few relaxed hours before taking the $2 West Marin Stagecoach back south to hook up with Bay Area buses and the Amtrak system. Even that little shuttle bus was a slice of paradise. Climbing up out of Stinson Beach, the redwoods I’d missed in the darkness of the previous night’s approach rose all around me, breathing shrouds of mist, ferns and little brooks splashing between their towering, darkly verdant heights. The bus driver played some kind of zen music that wouldn’t have been amiss in a massage studio, and I leaned back, gazed upward at the lush, cool depths of the forest and let my mind unspool, every fiber of my being exquisitely glad to be living this fluid moment suspended between all the rest.

Stinson Beach, the afternoon rain lifting.

Stinson Beach, the afternoon rain lifting.

There are infinite travel experiences waiting to be had out there. The quality that graces some of the solitary adventures is this precious frame of mind, which arises when we gift ourselves with exactly what we need and don’t compromise on our travel desires. Work for it, suffer for it, earn it, but choose it and then go and actively live it. The bone-deep satisfaction is like nothing else. Especially to other women, I want to say: Do prepare, but don’t be afraid, don’t second-guess, don’t hesitate. Travel with family, travel with friends, travel with lovers, but also travel with yourself, and discover the excellence of your own company. Go solo. Go now.

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