Party of one
Solo travel. It isn’t for everyone, though I think there is a lot to gain for anyone who gives it a go, even if it puts them way out of their comfort zone. I enjoy solo travel. I am an introvert, and I like spending time alone. Need to spend time alone. And I love to travel. So solo trips are not a difficult choice for me. As a female, I certainly have to keep safety in mind. This fact has guided some of my choices, but it has not prohibited me from venturing out on my own. Getting out on my own started when I was in my late 20s living in Germany. I would frequently hike or bike on my own, even though I certainly had no shortage of opportunities to do the same with friends. There was, and still is, just something about being alone out in nature. It is easy to get caught up in conversation or staring at the back of the person in front of you when you are hiking or biking with others. It is also less likely you’ll stop and smell the roses. That you’ll give yourself permission to take a break to sit down for a few at that beautiful vista or on a log in the middle of the forest. Alone, however, you notice your surroundings more. You become more a part of them than just a passerby, an observer.
My first big solo trip that was not just a hike or a bike ride was in Turkey. I was living in Germany at the time and wanted to get away. In the lower level of the Munich airport, they had last-minute travel agencies with deals on tickets and trip packages. I browsed the options and then booked a roundtrip flight to Turkey for $100, leaving the following day. The trip was a bit of an adventure and might have made many people never want to travel solo again. At least not in Turkey. Okay, so anyone who has seen the movie Midnight Express might not have traveled by themselves to Turkey in the first place. So, what happened in Turkey, you ask? A setup by a guy who proposed to me after too many raki at dinner. He apparently didn’t like my answer. And he made me pay for dinner, to boot, claiming he had no money on him. A rude awakening at daybreak by the police with their automatic rifles. A 16-year-old hostel manager vouching for me and translating for me as the head of the operation tore apart my luggage and questioned me. And, at last, the saving grace: feminine hygiene products. The head honcho had apparently never seen such a thing before, and the poor 16-year-old boy had to explain its function, to which the head honcho laughed and laughed and laughed. I didn’t know what else to do, so I laughed too. And that was the end of it. Head honcho told me I had laughing eyes, and then he left me to clean up the mess he had made of my belongings. But I didn’t get carted off to prison. After some misunderstood translation and a promise of protection from the head of Interpol at that time (who happened to be there on an anniversary trip with his wife, and both of whom I had been conversing with during my stay…they were actually supposed to be at that ill-fated dinner, but ended up declining at the last minute), I finally got around to the truth of the matter. The drunk guy whose proposal I had turned down was arrested for having drugs, and he said that he had bought them from me, leading to the raid and near-arrest experience. The rest of the trip went without incident, and I enjoyed ancient ruins, the nearby inlet with blue, blue waters, and an impromptu fire, dinner, and dance when a boat of Turkish citizens on holiday came ashore for a night.
After that trip, I continued my solo hiking, both in Europe and when I moved back to the US. My next big solo trip, however, did not come until years later. (I don’t count the travels I did around the PNW and western Canada during my research trips, since they weren’t purposefully intended to be solo adventures). A few years ago, I was introduced to bike touring on a trip back to Germany to visit friends. I loved it and decided I wanted to do such a journey on my own. At the time, I had recently found out about the Cabot Trail from my mom. The Cabot Trail is a road that encircles the northern half of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. It is often done as a car trip, but quite a few cyclists also embark on the tour. The photos of the area looked beautiful. There are some challenging climbs (frequently around 12%, but up to 15%), but my bike is made for those, with ample gears to handle it. There are options for guided and self-guided, supported and unsupported, tours. I opted for self-guided and self-supported. I’d be carrying all of my gear with me and camping in campgrounds along the way.
I started my tour in Baddeck, as most do. It’s a fun little town in its own right, and there is a free public parking lot where it is legal, and safe, to leave your car for the duration of your tour (in my case, I’d somewhat loosely planned for 8 days). I opted to go clockwise, as the two steepest and longest climbs are slightly less steep than the two you encounter going counterclockwise. I went in August, but, given that this is a northern coastal environment, I had to come prepared for rain and sun, hot and cold. And I’m glad I came prepared, even though it meant carrying more weight because I did hit it all. Sometimes even within the course of a single day.
This route is interesting as a bike tour. For much of it, there are no shoulders and no bike path. Where shoulders exist, they are narrow. I was, however, impressed with how generally conscientious and kind drivers were. Even the trucks. There were only a couple of occasions where I encountered a rude driver who refused to slow down or move over to ensure a safe passing. Both times, these drivers were in trucks, so it sufficiently scared the crap out of me each time. Fortunately, I knew they were coming, as I could see them in my mirror. Mostly, however, I received waves and shouts of encouragement out windows from the passengers and drivers of passing cars. Traffic was fortunately not heavy. I had plenty of time to enjoy the views. And views there were aplenty. Especially on the western side of the island.
Cutting across the middle of the island you start to hit some scenic spots on the western half. What you don’t see, however, are many places to camp! I had planned for a stop at the one campground shown on my map. When I got there, however, I discovered that that campground was no longer open for short-term stays and tent campers. Fortunately, as I was searching in vain for the campground office, looking quite bewildered, I’m sure, one of the long-term campers happened upon me. He informed me of the change in campground policies and offered to show me to a former tent spot that was near his camper. He said that it would be fine for me to stay the night there. I was a bit nervous. I didn’t want to get into trouble with the owner. But I was also tired and starving, and it was free. Also, there was nothing else around for quite a number of miles. So, I stayed. Without incident. And managed to get everything set up and dinner cooked and cleaned up just as the rain hit.
The next few days brought me the jaw-dropping scenery of the west coast, the quaint town of Cheticamp, signs posted in French and English, and Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The mountain climbs would be a challenge with nothing to weigh down my steel frame bike, but with the additional weight of loaded panniers, I was more than happy for the excuse of beautiful vistas to stop for a few to catch my breath. After my stay in the National Park, I hit the two steepest and longest climbs of the trip. On the same day. I was happy for cooler weather and for the clouds that held on to the rain during my ride that day. It was already going to be a long day between the two climbs and the planned miles I had to cover to get to the next campground. But when I got to said campground, I found it deserted. It was a beautiful spot, but, given that I was a single female AND that this was bear country and the campground was right next to a lovely watering hole for bears, I made the very tough decision to travel the 15 or so miles to the next campground. I was fortunate in that they had one spot left, and they were still serving food (I honestly have no recollection of what it was, just that I could eat it) because in no way did I want to pull out my camp stove and cook and clean up. I barely had the energy to shower, but I managed. One would think I would have collapsed into a coma, but that wasn’t to be. I had some noisy neighbors that night, so sleep was elusive. But the next day, I was ready to move on.
blowing in the wind
I took a detour from the Trail that next day to a place called Meat Cove. I’d read that this was a detour worthy of the rough ride to get there, so I decided this would be a place I’d take a break for a few days and just rest and hike. So glad I did. My tent sat perched on the edge of a bluff overlooking the ocean and a little inlet. There was some hiking accessible from the campground and rocky outcroppings to climb and perch. Whales are often spotted from here, just not by me! Though I did see an eagle swoop down low over my head. Low enough that we made eye contact. And that made my day.
The rain had, mostly, held out for me during my rides, generally coming only during the nighttime hours up to that point. Here in Meat Cove, one of those nighttime rains was something to behold. I had built a campfire that evening and let it burn out before I went to bed. But apparently, it hadn’t quite cooled off when the winds started raging. As my tent was being blown almost to the point of lying flat on the ground, and I was stretched out on my stomach like superman trying to hold down all four corners, I started to smell smoke. Coming from my fire pit. I started to panic, not certain that getting out of my tent in the gale-force winds was a brilliant idea. I was quite fond of that tent and had no alternatives for sleeping accommodations should it blow away. Then the sky started lighting up. I ventured a peek out my door and could see the smoke streaming up from my fire pit. But it didn’t last for long, as the clouds cut loose their vast holds of water, dumping rain in buckets and dowsing the smoke the winds had fanned. So, I just held on for the ride and hoped that I was heavy enough to keep my tent in place and that my tent poles were flexible and strong enough not to break. Thank you, Big Agnes, for making a quality tent capable of surviving what Mother Nature threw at it that night.
I crawled out of my tent the next morning looking and feeling worse for wear and seeing the same on other campers. The only perky ones were the ones who had stayed in the cabins. I ran into another solo female traveler that morning. She was traveling by car. She had not been so lucky as me with her tent. In the middle of that storm, her tent caved in. She struggled to get her gear out and into the car, got completely drenched herself in the process, and spent the rest of the night in her car. She had no idea where her tent went. It had blown away in the storm. I was originally supposed to leave that day but booked one more night there. I would be more than a little useless trying to climb on my bike and cycle 30 miles to the next planned stop. I was pretty useless anyway, and did nothing on my last day but lounge around my campsite, venturing no further than the little restaurant for a midday meal of fries and a beer.
wishing for forever
Leaving Meat Cove, I headed towards the eastern side of the island. The ride across the north was gorgeous and continued for a stretch as I turned south. It was hot and sunny those days. And after a few miles heading south, I entered the part of the tour that made me wish it was over. I dreaded each mile. The sun blasted down on my face. I lost the view of the ocean. The forest was all new growth because of a fire that had hit the area a decade prior. I hit some interesting towns, thankfully, and this side of the island has a completely different feel than the west side. The signs are all in Gaelic and English. There are art galleries all along the road, even in areas that did not seem well populated. I loved that part of it. I took the ferry over to Englishtown, staying at a campground whose entrance was so steep and gravelly there was nothing to do but push my bike up that hill. Great campground though. And from there, the scenery returned. Making my last day of cycling rewarding and enjoyable. Making me go from wishing the trip over to wishing it would never end.
willing to be open
I arrived back in Baddeck feeling victorious. Feeling strong. Feeling empowered as a woman. And feeling so grateful. I was grateful for the opportunity to take such a journey. Grateful for the warmth and encouragement I received from so many along the way. It was incredible to me how many people stopped me to ask me questions, to tell me how brave I was for doing this alone, and to say that they wished they had the same kind of courage. I had people tell me they’d been following me along the way, checking up on me when they would see me at different points along the way. I had people tell me that they’d heard about that (crazy) woman riding the trail on her own on a loaded-up bike. Had I traveled with others, I would not have had this same experience. I could have met a lot of people, but maybe not. By traveling solo, people were much more willing to approach me for conversation. Much more curious about what I was doing, wanting to know my story. And in the process, I got to find out their stories too. That is part of the beauty of traveling solo. If you are open to it, and if you put yourself out there. I might have been a party of one, but I was never lonely, and I was often also not alone.