When I was twenty-three I drove more than 10,000 miles around America by myself in a white pickup truck. My friend helped me build a wooden platform bed and I hauled a futon mattress on top and called it home.
In a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona, I flirted with a man in his early forties who had taut skin the color of camel leather and work boots. He told me he was a contractor, that he’d been successful which I understood by the way he said it to mean he’d made money.
I told him what I was doing. Then he said, But what’s a girl like you doing driving around in a truck by herself? A girl like me. I thought: but what kind of girl am I, exactly?
This is an age old question. A girl like you. I think about Berenice Abbott, the photographer, about the interview of her I watched at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. What’s a nice girl like you doing down here on the Bowery? says some guy on New York City’s Bowery, back before it was hip. I’m not a nice girl, says Berenice. I’m a photographer. I go anywhere.
There is the moment, in the asking of this particular question—but what’s a girl like you . . . ?—when you could say anything and they would believe it. But also, you could say anything and it would be true. There’s power in the answer because you get to decide, in that moment, what kind of girl you are.
Possibly I told him I wanted to travel America because I knew so little of it (modest, curious). Possibly I told him it was about music, about trying to get to the bottom of the equation of why, for so many of us, particularly in places that aren’t cities, music = everything (cultural anthropologist). Possibly I just told him, it was what I needed to do (lost).
He took the last sip from his bottle of Miller Lite, tipping the bottle back with his thumb and forefinger, and then set it back on the bar. He’d come with two friends, laughing men who were itching for something, watching him and me and smirking.
He looked in my eyes like a friend.
But aren’t you scared? he asked. Out there, all by yourself?
And this is where I lose him because the question itself relies on so much. It’s based on a bill of goods you could never sell me. Where exactly is “out there” and what exactly am I supposed to be scared of and when have I ever not been all by myself, when has anyone, and even if I had someone, a man or a woman or a dog or a gun, would that make it, even then, safe? Would that make it, even then, OK to be unafraid?
The thing that no one wants to hear is that I wasn’t afraid driving alone across America, and I wasn’t afraid when I went alone to Cameroon and Morocco and Greece and Spain. I don’t know how to be afraid of travel, I’m not good at it. There are a lot of things I’m afraid of—snakes and roller coasters and flying in tiny planes—but driving a pick up truck with no one in the cab with me isn’t one of them.
Cheryl Strayed writes in Wild about her own experience of traveling as a woman alone and about fear: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me . . . I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power.”
I understand this. The story you tell yourself can be everything. Language can be the single strongest force in determining what becomes safe and not safe. Oh, THAT neighborhood? I wouldn’t go there after dark. You’re going home now? Let me walk you. We think about these statements as static things, as facts, or else as reactionary acts of generosity or chivalry, but they are active, dynamic things. They repeat and repeatedly create. They become the same as where we go and where we live. For women especially, they can become the same as if we are free. You’re going where? With who? Aren’t you afraid?
The bill of goods that most of us have learned about traveling alone goes something like this:
1. “Out there” is a world that regards our humanity not at all, and it is made up of dangerous and scary things.
In my travels alone, this has never been born out. I’ve been reckless and drunk and heartsick and sickeningly lost, and nothing of lasting trauma has come to me. Perhaps I’ve been lucky. Perhaps, I’ve simply believed I’m safe and powerful and that has begotten safeness and power. I’ve received kindnesses both extraordinary and ordinary. I’ve been taken in and given food and stories by strangers from Kumbo, Cameroon, to Wind River, Wyoming. These people had nothing to gain from sheltering and feeding and talking with me. These people are out there.
2. “Out there” is most dangerous for women.
Thomas Page McBee, a writer and a trans man, writes, “ ‘I just want to feel safe,’ she told me. ‘I don’t think a man can understand that.’ But you can, she meant. And she’s right. On the other hand, now I can also sleep on a bus station bench without fear, if I want to. Now I can accidentally scare a woman I’m behind when I walk back to work around the Fens, not noticing my pace until she looks back at me, frightened.
“‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, because I am not a woman, because I do not feel safe, because I’ve stopped expecting to.”
We are not ever totally safe, none of us. True, it is different when a man sleeps on a bus station bench and when a woman does. But what is that difference made of? Body parts? Muscle? Power? The choices of men and women and those that make their homes in gender-queer bodies are not so different. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I believe that we do not get raped and killed because we make unsafe decisions or because we cross lines that should not be crossed. We get raped and killed because there will always be rapists and killers “out there” and they will always rape and kill in random and senseless acts committed against people of every gender who are alone and who are not alone, and these rapists and killers will be everywhere, and they will be both strangers and people we know and love, and if we live our lives trying to avoid them at all costs, our lives will be nothing but fear begetting more fear, forever and ever.
3. Women who travel alone are lonely, secretly wishing someone else was there with them.
Weren’t you lonely? As women solo travelers, if we are not scared, then we are supposed to be forever lonely, forever wishing we had company to share our journey. If this company is not to protect us, it is to love us, to keep us from looking foolish when we sit alone in the café, to hold our hand.
How many ways can I say it? I didn’t want to share. The feeling of driving west on I-70 when the sky turned from Kansas-big to unfucking-believably-devastatingly enormous just outside Denver. Being followed by two dogs, one black, one grey, that I named Salt and Pepper, as I made my descent down into Canyon de Chelly in a light November snow, the flakes thick as pancakes. I couldn’t have shared any of it. I was giving so much love and trust to the world, I couldn’t have given any to a companion. I didn’t want anyone holding my hand.
Simply put, traveling alone is about agency, it’s about action, it’s about trusting your hands on the wheel and your ability to read a paper map and that the dirt BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) road you’re driving in the dark will lead somewhere OK. It’s about trusting that if and when the shit comes along, you have hands to steer and a foot to accelerate you far away from it. It’s about sitting alone in the café and not feeling foolish. It’s a way of walking through the world without armor, without anybody across from you at the table or holding your hand. It’s about faith.
When I’m writing at my best, it’s a lot like traveling alone cross country. All that uncertainty, all that faith, all that leaving, all that raw openness to pulling off to investigate whatever might block my path or ask my name or rise high in the distance.
“And what if there is no difference between writing and running, what if the very finest writing is flight?” writes Pam Houston. For me, there has never been a difference. My life is flight. My life is writing. The transitive property makes them equal.
In the bill of goods many of us were sold, women writing doesn’t make sense, just like women traveling alone cross country in pickup trucks doesn’t make sense.
What’s a nice girl like you doing writing something like this?
I’m not a nice girl. I’m a writer. I go anywhere.