When I was single and in my 20s, I loved traveling alone. Traveling with friends required compromises I resented having to make: They wanted to sleep til noon while I rose with the sun raring to go; they preferred booking tours to eliminate any uncertainties while I liked using public transportation for self-guided exploration and saw those uncertainties they worried about as the adrenaline that fueled the experience.
But how we take our coffee and our travel changes, I learned, as we pass through life's stages. At some point, standing in front of the Eiffel Tower without someone to pose next to me in the picture made me feel sad and lonely instead of bravely alone. I still wanted to be the captain of my ship, but I knew I wanted a co-captain.
The shape of my traveling changed further after I got married and had a family. I not only didn't get to travel alone anymore, it would be accurate to say that I pretty much never went anywhere, including to the bathroom, unaccompanied. I remember a rare stolen moment once when I found myself alone in the grocery store without kids pulling on my arms or needing to be chased down or taken to the bathroom just as I made my way to the front of the checkout line.
Being alone was so liberating, even if it was just at the supermarket. I lingered in the vegetable aisle thinking the leeks and arugula were as beautiful as the gardens of Versailles; the produce misters reminded me of a Rome cafe in August; and the stranger who struck up a conversation with me in the deli line recalled the handsome Italian tourist I met in the line at the Louvre and with whom I wound up having dinner. When I returned to the car parked in the supermarket lot where my husband had remained behind with our two napping children, he sarcastically noted how long I had taken and asked, "Did you have a nice little vacation in there?" Yes, I had, actually.
Now, my kids are a teen and a tween and I just had a new travel epiphany. The kids were off school for Spring Break and at the last minute, my desert-averse husband begged off on our planned trip to the Palm Springs area. At first I balked; this would be the first time we took a family vacation without all of us there and it simply felt odd. My son joked about how we could "photoshop him" in to the photos when we got home.
"Dad, we'll leave room for you on the left," my daughter told him. I wasn't comforted or found any of it funny. I was focused instead on not having him there to do all the things he normally does for us on vacations -- research what stuff we should to do, read the restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor.com so we'd know where to eat, get directions to everything, share the driving, check the hotel bill for extra charges with the passion of Sherlock Holmes and of course remember to bring an extra pair of reading glasses so, between us, someone could see the menu.
Small stuff, you say? Sweet stuff, I would answer. Stuff that epitomizes the team work we bring to a marriage, the division of labor where one person's shortcomings are addressed not with resentment but with support. Let's just say this small taste of flying solo was leaving me with a sense of dread.
As we loaded up the car for the three-hour trip, I flashed back to a woman I met in a youth hostel in Istanbul about 40 years ago. She was a single mom with kids about 8 and 10 and was on an extended year-long journey, homeschooling her son and daughter as she went. I remember thinking how cool she was and how if I ever became a mom, I wanted to be just like her. She was adventurous, untraditional, and with an unending reserve of patience to be alone with her children non-stop. The Istanbul mom and her kids traveled for a year carrying less luggage than I was taking to a resort in the desert for five days. And I was feeling not-so adventurous and quite traditional. I ran out of patience with my kids before we even left the driveway.
"Are you sure you won't come?" I asked my husband a final time.
He understood where I was coming from immediately. He packed me an emergency travel "kit" that included jumper cables, a photo copy of our AAA card to keep in the car, printed out directions (and programmed the GPS as backup), threw in a case of bottled water, two extra pairs of reading glasses and a suggested itinerary (with directions and discount coupons) to area activities.
So how did the kids and I fare? Just fine, of course. In fact, on some level not having to worry about whether my husband was having a good time left me feeling more relaxed. We also realized that the pace of our activities was greatly slowed when Mom was the only adult there to direct them. My husband has a tendency to treat vacations as the Bataan Death March, a non-stop activity fest with no rest for the weary. He believes that sleep is something you do on the plane coming home and every waking moment in a foreign locale (and there should be 20 hours a day of waking moments) must be filled with doing something.
In the desert, the kids and I kept to a much less rigorous schedule. We slept in, stayed up late playing Words For Friends with each other, and passed up the experience of trying a hot new restaurant in favor of a poolside dinner of burgers and fries.
My husband would have hated it. But thanks to photoshop, he'll be smiling in all the pictures anyway.