This latest trip, as you learned from my “Account of Events” posts, was a post-breakup trip, so I had a lot to think about, and the solitude was a welcome respite from work. Here are some of the things that crossed my mind during my journey.
1) The south is a different animal. I shouldn’t have been surprised to drive past an enormous Marlboro cigarette pack outside the Philips Morris factory in Raleigh, but I was. It’s a jarring experience. Cigarettes seem such a thing of the past to me. I’m from a generation for whom cigarettes were vilified from the very beginning. I don’t know many people who smoke, and when I see it, it never fails to surprise me. To see a giant display advertising cigs as well as the actual factory was kind of surreal to me.
Similarly, I had to keep reminding myself that, south of the Mason Dixon line, seeing a confederate flag is normal. That doesn’t change my reaction when I see one, though. There’s almost a physical repulsion. My heart rate elevates a bit as it is an instant symbol to me of racism and bigotry. Even in the context of a history museum telling the story of the Civil War, that flag gives me the fantods. Imagine how much more appalling it is to see it on vehicles or being paraded around by people marching in a park.
2) Solo trips are fun and frustrating at the same time. It’s really liberating to hop in my car and head out on a trip. Like I said in the intro, it’s a great opportunity to be alone with my thoughts. But on top of that, I get to stop whenever and wherever I want without having to negotiate with anyone. If I see an unexpected physical landmark or hokey sign, I can pull over to the side of the road and take all the pictures I want. I can play everything by ear, which I do, and wait until the same day to book a hotel. I only have to worry about when I’m hungry to decide when and where to eat. You get the idea.
Conversely, I pay the same price for a hotel room that two people would pay, and therefore, I pay more. Having a companion would halve my hotel and gas costs, and could possibly make a dent in food costs too, depending on how the issue of food was addressed. At the very least, it would mean being able to try two things at a restaurant if we shared our food. It’s not just financial considerations either. How many pictures from my trip have me in them? Two, because I arranged reciprocal photo taking with other tourists. Other than that, everything is me behind the camera. I tried to take some selfies in the Mayberry jail, but they didn’t work because you can’t tell I’m in a jail cell. You don’t realize how nice it is to have someone to take your picture until you’re going through your pics to create an album and you find the close up of your face with one metal bar on one side and nothing discernible in the background.
Being a solo traveler also made for some awkward dining experiences. The first was at Poe’s Tavern where I was told I could sit anywhere. The problem with that was that all the tables available were long and meant to accommodate eight to ten people. I sat at the end of one, feeling a little awkward because a) the size of the table served only to highlight further that I was alone and b) I felt I was taking a space away from a larger party. Fortunately I had come around 4:30, so I didn’t face the discomfort of witnessing such a group enter needing my table.
The second such experience was at the Pirate’s House, which is a very large establishment with several rooms. It was not busy when I went and there were seas of open tables, but I was whisked away to a small room at the back of the restaurant. The entire room was meant to seat about eight to ten people, so the awkwardness of sitting at a large table was avoided. But the location and size of the room seemed to confer a certain persona non grata status to its occupants. I was seated at a table for four and the hostess did that thing which is probably ultimately the sensitive and polite thing to do, but which is nonetheless a little embarrassing for the solo diner: that is, she removed all the other plates and glasses and silverware so that the table was entirely bare except for my place setting. There was also a couple in the room at a nearby table for two. They turned out to be from Michigan and we chatted a bit, so it was ultimately a pleasant experience even if the waiter informed us that the room we were in was originally the toilet back in the day. I’m not sure the implications of relegating a single woman to the crapper, but I’ll try not to read much into it.
Traveling solo is also still an abnormality, and you will encounter people who don’t mask their surprise of it very well. I can’t tell you how many times I would go to a site only to have the tour guide look around me and ask if I was part of a group. I get it, people travel in packs. But when there’s literally no one within ten feet of me, don’t ask incredulously if I’m with anyone.
3) “Where are you from?” isn’t the innocent, simple question you think it is. When I was living in Australia, I was excited to visit a church pastored by Philip Baker. I had never heard of him until I received his book, Weird Christians I Have Met the previous Christmas. Knowing that he was based in Perth, I sought his church out, hoping to get my book signed. Upon meeting me, he asked where I was from. I paused because my initial reaction to that question, at the time, would have been to say “Michigan,” but I hesitated, not knowing if people outside the U.S. would have a reference for that. So I went with “America.” Because I had paused, though, he thought that I was hesitant to admit that I was from the U.S. and he told me “don’t be ashamed.”
Now I’m hesitant for a different reason: I honestly don’t know how to answer. Do I say I’m from Michigan, the place I was born? Do I say I’m from Virginia, the place I currently live? On this trip, I was asked the question quite frequently. I think tourist spots like to see how far-reaching their fame is and “collect” visitors from as many places as possible. I finally took to saying “I’m originally from Michigan.” But because this was a solo trip, and I had so much time for reflection, I began to further confirm what I have felt for some time: I am homeless. What I mean by that is there is no place that fully feels like home to me. There are several places I have lived and which feel home-like to me. When I went back to Nevada to visit, there was a homey nostalgia, and I know I’ll feel the same way if I return to Turkmenistan. The most obvious choice for “home” is St. Louis, Michigan where I was born and raised and where I still have family and friends. I love to go back and visit, and sleeping in my childhood home is sometimes the best sleep that I get. But even when I returned to live there after Peace Corps, I knew it wasn’t quite a full fit, that I couldn’t settle there. I don’t feel a full fit here in Virginia, either.
The reason none of these places feels totally like home is that home for me will not be a place, but a person. I won’t feel “settled” until I have a companion to share my life with. I think I have known this since as early as 6th grade when I first started to realize that I process things differently and have different values (not to be confused with morals) from the social norm. I have, since 6th grade in a vague way, and since high school in a more clearly defined way, desired a mate for life. When I continued to go year after year without finding one, I began to wonder if maybe the desire would fade, that maybe I was destined for something else and God would take that desire away. But the desire has never waned. I am an outsider, a nomad wandering from place to place in search of adventure but also searching for a kindred spirit that I am willing to give up some of my freedom for in exchange for no longer feeling misunderstood. One who will offer me comfort and laughter; a feeling of emotional, as well as physical, safety; and who will take my picture standing in a Mayberry jail cell.