Seven months into the pandemic, I didn’t know what to do. After a summer of backup plans, I really wanted to travel. But, you know, there was a global pandemic still. Where could I go? Would it be safe? Would it even be fun? I took ten days off from work and started working on a plan.
I had lots of ideas: go out west and see the Grand Canyon, fly to a beach in Mexico, visit friends in Chicago, sailboat?? (Ok, the last idea wasn’t quite fully formed.) I was excited about going somewhere far away to escape for a while.
Of course, there were risks. Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic is not really recommended. Every point of contact with other people has some risk, and being around large groups in, for example, an airport is not ideal. As I got closer to the dates, cases of the virus started spiking all around my home state of Ohio. I wanted to go, but I needed to minimize the risks.
I decided the best thing to do was take a road trip. By myself. Solo.
Starting in Ohio, I would head south to spend some quality time in nature. I planned to hike for a few days in the Smoky Mountains, then continue on to South Carolina. I would stop at Congaree National Park (a place I had just learned about), and maybe drive to the coast for a day at the beach. I reduced my itinerary by a few days because…well, I thought I would be bored after a week. With this general plan, I booked hotels and set off.
My first stop was the mountain town of Bryson City, North Carolina. It took me most of the day to drive there, so the next morning I was excited to be free from my car and out on the trails. I was headed for a set of waterfalls in the Deep Creek area. I grabbed my backpack and started out on the wide trail that ran along a rushing mountain stream. It was beautiful there, even with most of the leaves fallen from the trees.
While I was walking alone through the forest, I felt this range of emotions one after another. I was thrilled to see the cascading waterfall–it was picture perfect! Then, I started to feel nervous. Was I sure about the route? What if there’s a bear? I heard bears are common in the Smokies. Let’s just keep going, I thought. After a while, I just felt lonely. I tried to focus on being present and listening to the sounds of the woods. I hiked over a ridge of pine forest and saw the light sparkling on the rapids again. I stopped on a bridge and watched for a minute.
This pattern played out for a lot of my trip: solitude punctuated with moments of excitement. Like the excitement of reaching a mountain meadow with a sweeping view or the thrill of just finding a place to eat dinner. Listen, I was trying to be safe, and there weren’t many places with outdoor seating in Bryson City. I finally found a taco truck parked outside of a bar with a patio. Success! Later, I drove a boring stretch of highway to South Carolina, and I started to feel lonely again. But I stopped to explore a park with waterfalls in downtown Greenville. (Travel tip: when in doubt, try walking to a waterfall.)
After a few days, I was getting really sick of driving. Still, I decided to suck it up and drive all the way to the coast in South Carolina. My destination was Edisto Beach, a quiet stretch of the coast with a state park. At least I would get to see the ocean and feel a sense of accomplishment for making it there.
Visiting a cold Atlantic beach alone may not sound like the best activity, and in some ways, it wasn’t. It was 65 degrees, so no swimming for me. I spent time watching the ocean, trying to appreciate the scene. Waves gliding in steadily, birds flying by occasionally, the sound of sand and shells crunching together, and a backdrop of palm trees. I don’t know why, but things just seemed better after a while. There’s something about being by the ocean that shifts your perspective. You feel more connected to everything.
After the beach, I headed back to Columbia, my home base for adventures in South Carolina. As a solo traveler in the middle of a pandemic, I found it was really a challenge to see the city. I tried in vain to find places to hang out. Restaurants were closed, patios were hard to find, streets were not very walkable. I ran into so many dead ends, I ended up getting fast food a lot and hiding out in my hotel room. (Thank you, Chik-fil-A, for saving me from hunger.) It was frustrating. I started to worry: “what if I’m just bad at this? What if I’m just a bad traveler?”
I stuck with my plan to visit Congaree National Park, one of the main reasons I came to the South Carolina midlands. The park is named for the Congaree River that flows through Columbia and borders the park. There are no mountains or canyons in Congaree; the draw is the forest itself. Massive old growth trees soar in the tallest deciduous forest in the US. I arrived to find the park mostly flooded, which happens a few times a year, and I set out to walk along the elevated boardwalk.
It was a really cool scene, walking through the forest and past huge trees that shot upward out of the water. I tried to enjoy the surroundings, like I had in the mountains and at the beach. But as I was walking, I felt like I hit a figurative wall. I didn’t want to explore anymore. I didn’t care about reaching the end of the boardwalk trail. I was annoyed at the other hikers for being loud and just…being there in my way. (Sorry, other hikers! You were fine. This was totally my bad attitude.) I realized I was feeling burnt out. I wasn’t feeling connected with the place at all. I walked back to the visitor center, talked to the rangers for a few minutes, and then headed out.
At this point of the trip, I was feeling totally discouraged. I was definitely a bad traveler, who didn’t have the patience to enjoy nature or the resourcefulness to explore new places. Why did I even come here? Negative feelings overload!
It took me a while to get out of that funk. I knew I needed a no-fail plan for an activity later in the day, so I decided to visit the zoo. Cute animals are a lot less stressful than trying to explore a city. (I’m learning that it’s good to have some less challenging activities when you’re traveling solo.) With lots to see and plenty of room for social distancing, the zoo was a nice break.
A successful zoo visit helped my mood, but I was still feeling lonely. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really connecting with places while I was traveling. All the pandemic-related worries were getting in the way of talking with people and enjoying activities. I knew I needed to get out of my head, to push beyond my comfort zone. I needed to do it in a safe way, though.
“I’m a big believer in winging it. I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one.”– Anthony Bourdain
Nearing the end of my week on the road, I headed back north to Asheville. I was determined to turn things around and enjoy my last day of exploring. I headed for downtown Asheville, which ended up being a good call. It was very walkable, and I found lots of cool shops and restaurants. Some places were set up with temporary outdoor seating and makeshift pickup windows; obviously the city was adapting to the pandemic better than other towns I had visited. Most people were wearing masks, too. I did part of a walking tour with some quirky art like a huge sculpture of an iron.
Later on, I was determined to enjoy the evening out…somewhere. I did a bit of research and found a cider taproom in West Asheville with a big patio. When I arrived, everything seemed to click. Heroic efforts to keep things safe were obvious. The bar was encased in plexiglass panels, and there was a place to line up at a window and order. I ordered my cider flight and went outside. It was cold, but I didn’t really mind—I was out enjoying a new place, almost like in the before times. I found pizza nearby, too. Another success!
I felt great. I was excited to be traveling again. And, yes, the pizza was definitely a contributing factor. I thought “maybe I should have just come to Asheville for a week.” But that’s part of what makes travel exciting: you don’t know what places you’ll love until you go there.
So, what did I learn from my pandemic road trip? First of all, COVID-19 is affecting everyone in the eastern US, but the response looks very different from place to place. In some places I saw people and businesses going to great lengths for safety, while in others I barely saw anyone wearing a mask. Cities seem to be doing more for safety measures, but it’s not consistent everywhere.
I also learned some things about solo travel. Being on your own definitely has highs and lows. I guess I knew that already, but I started to feel more ok with the pattern as a normal part of traveling. You have to give yourself time to hit dead ends and feel disappointed, especially with pandemic craziness happening. Let’s be real: lots of things have been disappointing in 2020. It can take time to find the experiences that bring you joy amidst everything else.
Overall I realized that getting back to traveling is going to be messy. COVID-19 has affected everything about travel: transportation, restaurants, hotels, even the National Parks. There isn’t much consistency with how places are responding, so planning a trip is more complicated and less certain than before. This road trip showed me it’s possible, though. We travelers can prioritize safety, make plans flexible, and find ways to adapt. That’s what travel is going to look like for the foreseeable future.