I’m in a cocoon of softness, nestled in my duvet and a thick blanket. Something stirs, and I open my eyes.
I can only see the silhouette of a man. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat of my SUV, hot steam bellowing out of what looks like a stainless steel travel mug. He takes a sip.
I try to speak, but words don’t come out. I realize I can’t move, either. I struggle to either speak or sit up, but neither ability comes to me.
“I’m just going to wait up and keep an eye out,” a gruff voice says. “Make sure no one comes by to bother you.”
It’s my Dad.
“Go back to sleep,” he says.
I wake up from the extremely vivid dream, in a breath gasping cinematic kind of way. I’m still sleeping in the back of my car, it’s still nightfall. But my front seat is empty, as it was when I went to sleep.
I’m in Rockland, Maine. It’s late August, and I’ve spent the past few days helping Nicole, an internet stranger turned friend, renovate her vintage trailer.
“You’re going to do what?” my mother had asked the day before I left, after I casually mentioned I had met Nicole online.
My mom, I suspect, has gotten used to my millennial/hipster/gypsy mumbo jumbo, and typically tunes it out. I was visiting my family in upstate New York for a few weeks when I announced I’d be driving up to Maine for Labor Day. I mentioned the RV renovation, the car camping, and the time I’d be away, I failed to assert the fact that I didn’t know my host.
“It’s a work trade kind of thing,” I explained to her, as she drove us through downtown Rochester. “I help her with this, I stay with her for free.”
“That is…” she stammered. “So weird.”
But it’s not, really. Anyone in the travel community knows that. For my mom though, who brought us all to fun, family friendly Wildwood, NJ for vacation, renting a beach adjacent condo, it was. It was threatening and something ripped from a news headline.
“Your reckless daughter stays with an internet predator,” the newscaster in her mind reads, “You’re left with her dog and hipster shoebox apartment after she’s abducted by a cult.”
Of course, I was fine.
I drove up to Maine, passing through Vermont, where I stopped the car to look over the 100 mile view on Hogback Mountain. I listened to public radio as I whizzed through the mountains into New Hampshire, where I couch surfed and explored Keene. I stopped in Portsmouth, grabbing one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had at Colby’s Breakfast and Lunch.
There were moments I was nervous. The minutes after I pulled up to the home of the family I was couch surfing with, and realized I was about to go to sleep in a stranger’s home. When I was walking through downtown Brattleboro and a man with no shoes, who was struggling to remain conscious, approached me and asked me to use my cell phone.
When you’re traveling alone, the awareness of your vulnerability is significantly heightened. It’s not all Instagram filters and solo travel hashtags. You realize that you need to depend on yourself, and the kindness and decency of strangers, rather than familiar faces and reliable neighbors.
After I arrived in Rockland, however, I immediately relaxed. The quiet seaside town, with it’s pops of color and vibrant waterfront is anything but intimidating. I pulled into Nicole’s driveway to find her sitting outside waiting for me, and I was put at ease. Everything was going to be great.
It was. I spent nearly a week and a half putting up wallpaper, as we listened to trip hop and talked about our travels. I helped her make beds and vacuum rooms in her Airbnbs, even staying in one for most of my trip. I woke up every morning to the sounds of gulls, and fell asleep everything with the echo of ship horns wafting across the harbor.
We drank affogatos at Rock City Coffee Roasters, and shared a perfect pizza at Fireside in nearby Camden. As we folded sheets together, we laughed and chatted about our common dating experiences, our families, and our shared interest in film. I carefully washed out our breakfast dishes as she told me all of the benefits of raw food, something she was really passionate about.
When I wasn’t working with Nicole, I explored. I sat in Fog, a downtown restaurant, and drank red wine while watching Casablanca. I hiked up Mount Battie, and unsatisfied with my lack of exhaustion, hiked an additional two miles up to the adjacent overlook. I wandered out to Rockland Harbor Breakwater Light, snapped pictures of the sailboats.
As I wandered around the lighthouse, I felt a profound sadness as I watched all of the people around me talk to each other. They walked up and down the rocks holdings hands, as I just carefully navigated them, trying not to fall in a hole. But there was this authenticity to that sadness, a depth that I had only scratched the surface of before.
It was if I was meeting myself for the first time. Meeting a girl who craved solitude, not because she disliked people, but because she desperately just wanted space to let herself be whatever she wanted.
A girl who loved the stillness of quiet woods, who craved time to scratch away in her journal. A girl who felt nothing but absolute bliss when she was wrapped up in blankets, in the back of her SUV, falling asleep under a bed of stars.
A girl who liked being alone.
I’ve since returned to Durham for a few weeks, my little brother in tow. While he’s having his own life-changing revelations about who he is and what he wants, I’ve already had mine. Last night, as he put on his headphones to play a game on his computer, I was pulling on my favorite black sweatshirt.
“I’ll be back around midnight,” I tell him. “I’ll text you if it’s later.”
I get in the car, and drive through the darkness of the night. I feel like I’m almost invisible, driving his black sedan because I’m low on gas. When I reach my destination nearly a half hour later, there’s only a handful of people outside.
I walk up the creaky wooden steps to the upstairs tavern. It’s a place I’ve never been, but find what I’m looking for – a few random people watching American Horror Story: Roanoke, at the bar. My eyes are fixed on Evan Peters as I order a beer, any beer. I spend the next two hours engaged in conversation with the girl besides me, a pretty blonde girl named Kat, who loves Peters as much as I do.
I finally head home, promising to return next week with my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife for her to borrow. As I find my way back to Durham, the similarly clear night reminds me of my quiet time in Rockland. I hear the voice of Elizabeth Gilbert, with one of my favorite lines from Eat, Pray, Love.
“Sono solo,” she says, as I smile, driving over the city line.
“I am alone.”