There are two kinds of people, those who can travel alone and those who can’t. I’m one of the ones who can’t.
That’s why Easter break was such a challenge for me.
In England, Easter is a four-day weekend. Good Friday is off, and then they have something called Easter Saturday, the classic Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday. The organization I work for, however, tacked on three extra days because the bosses were heading out Wednesday (Easter Wednesday?) and returning Tuesday (Easter Tuesday?).
I had a solid week off, having only started working two weeks ago. It was too late to plan a trip, and my friends in the UK only had the four-day weekend anyway, so traveling somewhere wasn’t an option. But staying with them in London for a solid week wasn’t an option. And remaining in the tiny British town wasn’t an option.
I had no choice. I had to travel alone.
I don’t do well in public by myself. I love cities, but making eye contact with strangers agitates me, so I never look at anyone as I walk down the street. I never eat alone in public either. “Table for one” are words I will never let pass through my lips. I get everything to go and eat at home in front of the TV. I’m self-conscious. Paralyzed. Fearful.
Traveling requires a friendliness, openness, curiosity, and a general looking-at-things that I’m not comfortable with doing by myself. Friends make me better. Friends bring me out of my shell. Friends make me talk and engage and encourage me to be active. Without friends, why am I traveling? How could I experience this new place? What would I do? How would I eat?
This Easter, I had no choice. I had to travel alone.
I knew a city was out of the question. Not only would too many people see me alone, but cities are social places. By definition, they are the centers of civilization where the most people are. If I went to a city alone, I would visit museums and galleries and sights, but once the sun set, I’d be trapped. I would want to experience nightlife and wouldn’t be able to (not just for self-conscious reasons, but for safety reasons).
No, no cities. I needed the opposite of a city. The opposite of a most populated and central place is a most isolated and distant place. I needed to go to the country. So I picked the most isolated and distant place in England – the Lake District.
The Lake District is in the northwest corner of England. It’s so far north, it borders Scotland. The Cambrian hills are 3000 feet high, and their valleys have filled with water – hence the name Lake District. It’s like the British equivalent of a National Park like Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hikers go to hike, climbers go to climb, boaters go to boat.
For the literary, the Lake District was where Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice is supposed to go with her aunt and uncle until a change of plans has them visit Derbyshire instead. Most importantly, aside from a few little towns dotting the landscape, there is absolutely nothing in the Lake District.
To the Lake District, then, I would go.
I splurged, booking a Bed and Breakfast instead of a hostel. I rented a pair of hiking boots in advance from a sports store. I reserved I got my train ticket from London to Penrith, where I could take a bus to Keswick, the little town in which I’d be spending the three days I decided to devote to this solitary adventure into the mountains.
On Wednesday afternoon, I arrived. The town was bigger than I would’ve liked. I was alone and yet surrounded by people. Damn. I went to pick up my boots and then got hungry. I had to eat…
I chose a pub, ambled inside, and glanced around. It wasn’t very full yet. I picked a table for two in a corner and sat down. I agonized over the menu. I couldn’t focus. I felt like everyone’s eyes were on this redhead who for some reason was companionless. I ordered the supposed specialty: a leek and ham pie with “chips.” I also got a beer. I was publicly there alone, so I figured I might as well go all the way and publicly drink alone.
I took out a book while I waited for my food. I couldn’t just sit there. I tried to look casual. The food came, and I ate it, aware of the increasing numbers of people entering the pub. A couple sat next to me. All I could do was listen to their conversation. I couldn’t just tune it out. It was awful.
When it was over, I walked back to the Bed and Breakfast. I showered and spent the rest of the evening watching TV and planning my hike for the next day. It was going to be an eight mile trek around Derwentwater, the local lake. It was a popular hike that took about four to six hours. I had awkwardly gone into the deserted information center in the middle of town to ask if the trail would get flooded because it was supposed to rain. I got an amused look and was told in the Northern accent: “no, it’s been quite dry recently.”
This was my guide. I kept it on my iPhone.
The next morning, I dressed in four thin layers, like the Lake District tourist website suggested, stomped into my rented hiking boots, and put on a beanie. I went downstairs to get my full English breakfast and paid four pounds for a bagged lunch – a sandwich, apple, banana, and biscuits.
This was me eating alone again, but the only other people staying in the Bed and Breakfast was a charming family of four from Scotland. In fact, almost everyone I saw on that trip was a part of a family. It was always the same, too: a pragmatic wife, a joking husband, two eager children, and a well-trained, loveable dog. This evoked emotions in me that another blog post will have to get into.
After breakfast, I put the bagged lunch into my backpack along with a bottle of water, an extra pair of socks, my room key, my wallet, and the painkillers, caffeine pills, and allergy medicine I never go anywhere without. Then I set off.
The path went through farms and fields, rocky shorelines, windswept wetlands, and dense forests. But there’s no point describing an eight mile hike in the Lake District in words:
Halfway through the hike, my feet began to blister. The hiking boots scraped the back of my heels. The pain brought tears to my eyes. I stopped at a waterfall and sat down on the ground. I put my extra pair of socks on over my current pair and took some painkillers. Then I was on my way again.
Lunch was my favorite part of the hike because I ate in the wetlands, which I adored. It was a glorious view, haunting and grand. Also the sandwich the Bed and Breakfast owners prepared for me was delicious. Thick slabs of cheese and ham smothered in Ploughman’s pickle, which is a type of chutney. After lunch, I continued on my way.
When I had about a quarter of the hike left, I was losing my drive. My feet still hurt. I was tired. My shoulders ached from my backpack. The trail just went on and on and on. It was mostly deserted, aside from the occasional couple and family. No one else was alone.
Finally, I made it back to Keswick after about five hours. I had gone all the way around the massive Derwentwater. I knew the last thing I would want to do was put my shoes back on and walk into town and eat alone again, so I stopped at a sandwich shop and got a chicken and brie sandwich to go.
When I finally arrived back at my room, I took a long shower, changed into my pajamas, and spend the rest of the evening in bed watching TV and enjoying my sandwich. My feet ached, but I felt extremely accomplished. It was a tough but beautiful hike, and I did it all by myself. I felt fulfilled and oddly serene.
The next day, I went into town, returned my hiking boots, and sat on a bench alone in the middle of the swirling crowds in the market square, just looking around. When the time came for me to go back to London, I wandered to the bus stop, made my way to Penrith, and took the train that brought me back to my friends in the cities to the south.