Making Friends on The Road, Alone but Never Lonely
I split off from two of my housemates when we were in LA together. I wanted to swim in the ocean. When I came back for dinner, I told them I had made two friends at the beach, swam in the ocean, and jammed with a few musicians. They were shocked, I had only been gone for two hours, how did that happen? And the following day, those new friends joined me for another sunset and encouraged me to reach out again when I was in LA.
For a while, when people asked me about this quality of making friends wherever I go, I shrugged it off as this is “who I am.” But after a new friend from the road shared his fear of traveling alone, I heard from him a reflection of my past. There have been so many times where approaching strangers has felt intimidating and times when deep bouts of loneliness were commonplace.
Yet it’s been a while since I’ve acutely felt those fears and feelings of loneliness. It seems that through a practice of seeking out and creating relationships on the road, I’ve developed a greater sense of ease when approaching strangers. A practice that has coincided with a commitment I’ve made to place for the past five years. For me, rooting down and finding community has been the best foundation for solo travel. When I know home exists wherever I go, I can more easily step outside of my comfort zone and feel confident with who I am.
So with the people who I love in mind, I hit the road alone. Most of what I’ve learnt still feels in development, but I thought it would be fun to share anyways. Mostly because it feels valuable to share a practice that has shifted my perception of the world to be one that is friendlier, wider and full of surprises.
So, here are some ways I orient myself to making friends on the road:
I met Mason and his friend Cameron near Santa Barbra in the Los Padres National Forest. He had found a tire embedded in the riverbank and was trying to unearth it. Here, he’s pictured with his truck Chloe.
Cameron visiting Mason from San Francisco state with pup named Shadow.
Ask and Receive
One of the ways that I approach people is by asking them something. Sometimes it’s just to ask them for information, sometimes it’s to ask for help, like when I asked the folks I met in LA, “can you look after my things while I jump in the ocean?” Oftentimes after a short but pleasant interaction I’ll ask someone for their name or how they found themselves in the same place as me.
During a New Year’s Eve, alone at a campsite, I instigated a group dinner and fire with all the remaining people at the campsite. It was a special night to remember, we swapped stories, played music, made jokes and set intentions by the fire that night before the new year. At midnight under a starry sky I mused at how a few small opening questions led to tea, dinner and company.
By asking questions I have the opportunity to gauge other people’s interest. The people who want to interact with me will, those who don’t, won’t engage further.
People are more often than not surprised and excited when asked for their time and attention. And that’s often when they’ll offer me something. It’s been cups of tea, a part of their meal, a helping hand, some guidance. I try to always say yes.
Saying yes to gifts of hospitality outside of our friends and family is not the norm. We have been primed to say no in the name of politeness. But sometimes I feel like that politeness is a guise for an expectation that we’re meant to take care of ourselves and not ask for help.
It reminds me of a time I was camping, and next to our site was a man who had only brought two logs with him. He tried with all his might to get it started, but with the rain and lack of dry kindling, it was beyond him. We tried offering help, but he said no.
I have been that man with two logs before, and when I refuse to receive, I also refuse connection. So, when I forget my wallet and someone buys my drink, I take a deep breath and try my best to take it in. And sometimes, I make a friend from it.
What are you wanting?
A few days ago, my friend Helen on a gap year between high school and college, told me she has been struggling to find people to connect with. As a young solo traveler, she had hoped the hostels would house people similar to her rather than what seemed to be a slightly older crowd busy on work trips.
When I heard Helen’s woes, I thought back to the times I’ve been alone, feeling trapped in a hostel while it rained. Hiding out in my sleeping bag when I was too afraid to go out into the world alone. It felt like my loneliness on top of the judgment I had of myself for being alone was too big to bear sometimes.
So when Helen asked me how she could meet people, I wanted to make sure she knew how awesome she was for doing something that was scary. Then, I suggested she focus on finding places and activities she was naturally drawn to.
Sometimes I find it easier to plan trips in collaboration with people, especially when they already have a destination in mind. It isn’t always intuitive for me to know what I want to do, because I have for so long been encouraged to follow the paths of other’s laid out for me.
But solo travel with its challenges, revealed an opportunity to tune into the things that were genuinely exciting to me. I discovered I had a deep love for swimming in bodies of water, for finding strangers to jam with, for wandering streets finding music to dance to.
Now when I travel to a new place alone, I look to find hot springs, lakes, rivers, and oceans. I go to farmers markets, city squares, artist towns to jam and dance with musicians. And often when I follow my desires I meet people who appreciate the fullness of my excitement to do what I love to do.
Helen wrote to me today that she had gone to a Kung Fu class in Berlin, “it was v random,” she texted me but, “it was rly good!!!” Though she still didn’t meet anybody her age, she connected with a Ukrainian woman at the class and shared a sweet story of rooming with another Ukrainian woman, a 60 year old refugee connecting with a little help from google translate.
The wholeness of a place and its humans
I remember not wanting to go to Mexico City because a few people I met told me that it wasn’t worth going to. They had told me it was dangerous, dirty, and not worth my time. But at the last moment, I decided to check it out anyway and flew in for four days.
I was immediately surprised by the warmth of its people. I remember going to a bar and giggling like mad at a guy who exchanged a few coins for attaching a little toy onto your fingertip and shocking you until it was impossible to go through the pain any longer. The entire bar engaged in the game, grown men buckling over what seemed to be a tiny children's toy.
After four days, I tried to extend my trip, but it was too late to do so. So instead, I made sure I took away a new certainty that people’s opinions of places were more like a millisecond side eye glimpse at a tiny detail of a Rembrandt painting.
It seems to be a common practice to try and distill a place and its humans. I hear folks say New York City is fast-paced, too noisy, and too big. Its people are rude, blunt, maybe even power hungry. Yet I always find stillness in the Community Gardens of the East Village, and always find kind hearted souls strutting down the concrete grid.
When I approach people with a full awareness of their wholeness, I am often met with warmth and excitement. Recently I met a pair of old friends, who I asked to tell me about the other. I asked them to describe their friend with as much detail as possible, as if their friend was not around to be witnessed. Us doing this activity brought tears to their eyes.
To see a place and its people as whole, is to practice knowing that we don’t know. It is asking questions that shine light onto the judgements that thrive in darkness. It is giving people the opportunity to tell their stories when our society only uplifts a select few.
On the same trip to Santa Barbara I met (top to bottom) Dave, Dan, and Juliana who needed a jump start on their car. We ended up spending the whole day together making art and having tea by the ocean.
I hope to continue taking on the road alone. After two years of the pandemic I’ve started to value traveling closer to my home in Berkeley, California. I’m learning that I can bring these practices into my daily life rather than saving them for moments abroad. I now know the joys of being friends with children, teens, moms and elders, all on my own block.
Traveling brought me much needed confidence to ask and receive, it gave me the gift of knowing what I want, and it has opened my eyes to comprehend the complexity of place and people. With all of that in my back pocket, I now work towards shaping the place where I live so that those who travel here might find something worth carrying home.
Me, taken by Dan.