Solo, not alone

To travel is better than to arrive.

— Robert Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I had forgotten how much I like solo travel. Something about being alone allows the mind to wander, the heart to open.

Traveling with a spouse or friend allows the thrill of shared experience but traveling solo provides unexpected opportunities to meet ordinary people that, in the right mind, seem especially warm, kind and interesting. I had forgotten the pleasure.

On a recent trip I must have been especially open and receptive because I met people at every turn:

• A woman who worked at Boeing. Thirty years ago she began as a data entry clerk and steadily worked her way up to mechanical engineer. “It’s not hard,” she said, seemingly very humble. “I took classes they offered and they even paid me to go to school.”

• A truck driver and I shared the very narrow, very back row, of a very small plane. Before a knee injury last year, he had worked 17 years transporting goods for FedEx, which required fevered three-day hauls from Chicago to Portland and back again.

• A kind Canadian couple returning from a three-week excursion through Europe. It was late and they had been traveling toward home for 24 hours. Though worn and weary, we talked and laughed for nearly an hour, and they shared with me their English chocolate, a souvenir from their travels.

Earlier in the day, as I grew exasperated with my delayed flight, I met a man suspended in airport limbo.

Since his wife's passing four years ago, he had retired and spent all his time traveling the country to be with his grown children and their youngsters. But on this last trip, his car broke down. A new engine was required. The car was towed home but he was stranded in the airport. One flight was cancelled, another delayed. He was now stuck in the Portland airport for endless hours, far from home.

And because he and I were so chatty, he did not hear his name called for his stand-by flight. He missed the plane but was unbelievably unruffled.

I noted his admirable attitude and he answered quite matter-of-fact. “When I was 20, I would have been arrrgh,” he said, clenching his fists and knotting his face, “but what are you going to do?”

And, as if the universe was rewarding his calm, he made it on another flight — mine — that departed just a few minutes later.

It’s true that when you see goodness, it’s easier to see more. In turn, it’s increasingly easier to feel happy, and pass it on. It’s simple, yes, but I forget. Solo travel helps me get quiet inside, so my outside can allow.

That night, when I reached my destination, I was buoyant in the conversation and accomplishments of fellow poets and writers. My delight took a new hue. It wasn’t my own happiness I was feeling but the many individual joys given kindly to me throughout the day.