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Things we discover while traveling alone

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DECEMBER 12, 2022

I was hiking through Haleakalā National Park on my first day in Maui when I stopped to take a photo of a pair of dandelions.

Had I seen them a week earlier, I probably wouldn’t have spared them a second glance. But I had spent the previous evening with a man I had found myself unexpectedly falling for, and we had developed a running joke about the color yellow — he loved the color, while I absolutely despised it.

Since nothing else was in bloom along the trail, I decided that the flowers were a sign from the universe. Clearly, I thought, this means we are meant to be together.

I recognized, however, that it might come off as a bit delusional to say that to someone I had been talking to for only a few weeks. It also seemed too vulnerable to admit what I had been thinking for the past several hours — that I wished that he was here in Hawaii with me — so when I sent him the photo, I paired it with a joke.

Like most of the trips I’ve taken, I had come to Hawaii by myself, which was my preferred way to travel.

Going somewhere alone, I felt, was the best way to ensure that you would have a good time. You could do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, and no one would complain or attempt to drag you to things you didn’t care about.

Being alone also made it easier to strike up conversations with strangers and acquire new friends, which was one of my favorite hobbies.

When you travel with another person, people tend to leave you alone. Sure, you might occasionally chat with a friendly stranger, but for the most part, people assume that you’re content with the company of your travel partner.

If you’re by yourself, however, it’s almost impossible to keep people away, and I loved this. No matter where I’d go — parks, cafes, beaches — people would approach me, and I acquired friendships on trips the way that some people brought home souvenirs.

Since I had always been satisfied with my solo trips, it was unsettling to realize that I suddenly wanted someone to be with me.

Did I really just take a photo of dandelions? I asked myself, as I paused at an overlook and gazed at the mountains that framed the volcanic valley. What has this man done to me?

The following month I went to Chile, where I continued to spend an alarming amount of time thinking about him.

There were no dandelions in Patagonia, so I settled for sharing a photo of the snow-capped mountains that surrounded the lakeside town of Puerto Natales. This time, however, I decided on honesty rather than humor, and admitted that I wanted to hold hands and watch the sunset — and the sunrise, too — in Patagonia with him.

When I visited museums and tried different restaurants, I found myself making a mental list of places that he might enjoy. I want to take him here, I thought, as I ate ramen at the tiny Japanese place that had become my favorite. I’d developed a friendship with a woman who worked there, and during my last visit, she asked when I would be back.

“Next year,” I told her, and added, in my head, “hopefully, with my boyfriend.”

The long flight to Peru would’ve been an excellent time to write in my journal about the places I’d seen and the people I’d met in Chile — reflecting on why I had started to silently call someone I had kissed a handful of times my boyfriend would’ve also been a good use of my flight — but instead I scrawled nonsensical variations of “I think he also wants to hold hands in Patagonia!” over and over again.

After I returned to America, he brought up the idea of traveling together. While I had wanted to squeeze in another solo trip before the end of the year, I immediately shoved that aside in favor of leaving my calendar open.

We could go to New Zealand, or maybe somewhere in the Caribbean, I thought. I’d be happy to go anywhere, really, with him. 

Before we could go anywhere, though, things fell apart.

After he left my apartment for the last time, I sat on the floor and contemplated the past few months — as disappointed as I was with him, my own behavior felt worse. It filled me with shame, to think about all of the time I had wasted on thinking about him on my trips, and how quickly I had abandoned my own travel plans at the mere suggestion of traveling together.

What happened to the person who loved traveling alone? I wondered, and cringed as I remembered that first day in Hawaii. And how did I become so infatuated that I built a whole future out of nothing more than dandelions?

I became more and more despondent as I considered my upcoming move to Mexico in the spring — and how I had fantasized about persuading him to join me — until I remembered the trip I’d taken there earlier this year. I’d been sitting alone with a book when a woman tapped my shoulder and invited me to join her for a coffee, and hours later we were still together, watching the sunset from the malecón.

We’d kept in touch, so she knew I had been interested in someone. I’d have to tell her about how it ended, I decided, as I finally dragged myself off the floor and into bed. And after we laughed about how ridiculous I had acted, I’d ask her what she had planned for the spring, and if she wanted to watch another sunset together. And perhaps the sunrise, too.

Contact Rachel Musselwhite at 


DECEMBER 12, 2022