Solo Travel: Life’s Greatest Teacher

Shelby Parks
6 min readAug 19, 2018

Right now at this moment, I’m sitting on an airport chair, trying to ignore the bacteria gorwing on it from dozens of humans that sat on it in the hours before me. I look up at the gate screen and my flight is delayed, but there is a feeling of relief for this delay allows me to reflect and write this very piece.

I have 53 minutes to get these words out before boarding time. Go.

If you asked me three months ago about my next international trip, I would have said that I would be traveling with some of the people I love most in this world. The trip would be full of creating memories and experiences together, deepening friendships and growing together as well as individually.

But, things change. And so did this.

Instead, I am sitting alone, enjoying each moment of solitude, ready to board a plane to Italy — back to the country that I discovered tremendous healing about two and a half years ago. But, I’m not lonely as one would expect, because I know this is exactly where I am meant to be at this very moment. And solo travel has its own undeniable bliss.

Two and a half years ago I left on a solo backpacking trip. I was determined to discover the essence of my true self that had been masked under the voices and opinions of those I love most. Let it be known that these people I love were not trying to shape me, rather I was allowing their own experiences and thoughts to shape me and my future, rather than creating my own.

You see, I left a very comfortable and predictable life. I left my family who has done nothing but provide me with support and love over the years. I said no to a job that I had been struggling to land because I knew the opportunity to travel for an undefined period of time alone was more unlikely than finding another suitable job. And I walked away from a new relationship that I thought was it because I knew in my heart of hearts that we would find our way back to one another if it were meant to be. At the time, all three of these things, family, love, and career, were all blinding me from the reality of who I was. And I was lost because I allowed myself to get wrapped up in the comfort of expectations and normalcy, rather than breaking down the barriers to see my truth.

So I tossed the comfort aside, and I left, opening my mind and heart to the complete unknown.

But when I say I solo traveled in Europe, I don’t mean the solo travel where you party most nights and wind up in brief love affairs. I don’t mean the solo travel where you find other lonely souls to bond with, and ultimately mask the self-discovery you intended on finding through this travel. None of these things are wrong, but my intention was clear: figure out who the hell I am.

I chose to travel alone with nothing more but the company of myself and my thoughts.

When hostel mates would ask me to join on their next adventure, I said no. Did I crave the companionship? Absolutely. Was I torturing myself? In a way, yes, but I knew the reward would be greater than any suffering I endured. This travel was not easy or fun. It was the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life.

Most mornings I woke up before sunrise for a run or a hike followed by a period of journaling. I’d often find myself on mountaintops or in the middle of the ocean in a kayak crying or full of intense emotions. But, I wasn’t crying because I was alone, sure loneliness contributed to the emotions, but I cried because despite being over 6,000 miles from home, I couldn’t see who I was.

And then I arrived in Italy, and it was as if the fog lifted, and I could see myself for the first time. As I trekked along a 23-mile hike, my body aching to make each step, I woke up. I started crying, and I woke up to everything I was, and everything I wanted to be. And it wasn’t until that moment that I knew I could return to the society I knew as home, but that was also the moment where I felt entirely okay being alone.

I sat down on that beautiful and treacherous hike, put pen to paper, and identified my wants and needs in life. Today as the minutes are ticking down to my boarding time, I have that same notebook in hand that traveled with me two and a half years ago, and I smile because today, I still can see myself. But more than that, I know myself. I know my values. I know my worth. I know the life I want to live, and I’m doing it.

The Path of Gods, The Amalfi Coast

I have tried to explain how I got to this place of recognition. I wish there were a step by step formula, but at least to my knowledge, that doesn’t exist. So here is the closest I can get to it: Find a remote place and strip yourself of every comfort and distraction: no music, no books, no technology, no friends or family, no chatter with strangers. And let yourself be. It may take days. It may take weeks. Or, as in my case, months. Allow yourself to sit in the silence of the unknown and just be with yourself, but do it in nature. Sit along the edge of a cliff and watch the ocean and breathe. Do not fight the thoughts that enter your mind, but observe them. Do not hide from the emotions that boil up from the depths of you, but release them. And when you are ready, you will know. You will feel light, and you will see yourself for the first time.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia (PC: Sanford Reed)

But you should know, that when you return home, wherever that may be, the challenge will begin then. You will waiver, and you will have to fight to find your way back and push aside the noise around you. And you will want to blame others for things or feelings that are missing or challenges you are facing. When in reality, whatever you are missing or confronting in your life can only be found within yourself. You will rediscover yourself time and time again because you put in this initial hard work and I promise you once you have done it, and have gone to your true depths, you will always find your way back.

But, as with any growth, you will lose things too, most likely people. Be okay with this.

If you aren’t, you may try and hold onto friendships that no longer serve you or them, and ultimately causes pain. Let go, because when you let go, you will make room for new people, experiences and the unbeknown to enter your life. You will discover that the work you have done with yourself is now being reflected by everything in your life: beings will appear who you have an unexplainable bond with, and experiences will come forth that you could only dream of. Your relationships will become deeper because, for the first time, you fully know who you are.

Sharing life with this special human PC: Charles Irby

And what a beautiful gift that is.

As the minutes tick away, the excitement begins to rise within me. For while this adventure is not what I was expecting, it was in fact expecting me. And it is undoubtedly exactly where I need to be.

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Shelby Parks

Harmonizing people’s relationship with themselves & the natural world through storytelling.