I am and have always been a rather self-reliant individual. I derive a strange sort of pride about this aspect of myself. While by no means a social hermit, I am comfortable being by my lonesome to a degree that few people are. I am not immune to social norms, of course, nor to feelings of awkwardness, even shame, that arise in situations in which a lack of company is decidedly irregular. But I’m generally able to accept then ignore potential judgment. I go to the movies by myself. I go to baseball games by myself. I even do road trips by myself.
I can speculate as to the multitude of reasons behind my solitary nature. The lack of a childhood best friend perhaps removed me from any kind of mutual dependence early in life. The interrelated frequent switching of elementary schools meant that social circles remained consistently inconsistent. Residence on the outskirts of school districts perpetuated the difficulty of organic relationships. Mostly, I think my need to feel unique required a degree of independence, which was compounded by a generally quiet and introverted disposition.
I’ve never really been a loner however, developing a somewhat stable group of friends in high school. I gained a bona fide best friend: quite independent himself, which paradoxically allowed us to relate. A bigger circle would come to emerge around this relationship. But I never became dependent on the group. Perhaps because others were at the opposite extreme – “Who else is going?” being a frequent rejoinder to invitations, and one I quickly came to hate – I was always conscious of the need to maintain my individualism within the group.
My sense of self was further solidified with my driver’s license. There’s something about driving I absolutely relish, something about the open road that has always captured me in a primal way. One of my most vivid memories is the ride from the airport to my aunt’s place as a freshly-immigrated six-year-old, and the feeling of amazement from seeing the vastness of the Los Angeles freeways. With license and car, I was free to venture new ground, to pursue the horizon. It became my sanctuary. Sure, I had company sometimes, but I was in control. I was the driver.
I suppose then the car provided me with the means to being solitary. I never felt stuck in unwanted situations. A terrible movie at a friend’s house, as decided by the girls in the group? I snuck out and drove home.* My mom’s angry Asian disappointment in my retaken-SAT scores? I peaced out and took to the freeways the entire day. It was so easy to get in the car and go. I drove past Cabazon at 16 because it was farther east than I had ever gone. I drove to Phoenix overnight with a friend at 17 to watch a playoff basketball game between two teams I didn’t care about. The possibilities felt endless.
*To this day, I haven’t seen Keanu Reeves’ The Replacements.
My experience in college turned me further inward. I hated my roommates. I hated the environment. I was determined to be different, to avoid the false sincerity and artificial friendliness and all the bullshit. I still remember how one of my dormmates would declare that he was starving, and then literally sit there waiting uncomfortably, hungrily, until the other worked up an appetite so they would head down to the cafeteria together, so that he wouldn’t have to head down there alone. I was determined not to be where he was in that moment, ever.
As I have written, my solitary nature in college was also symptomatic of a newfound, unhealthy loneliness. But it promoted my self-reliance, which remained even as I moved onto graduate school and developed normal social networks. I’d see movies with people, but there’d be others I was interested in. I wanted to go to Angels games all the time. I’d attend academic conferences and couldn’t care less about networking, preferring instead to check out the city’s attractions. Ultimately, it was simple: I would rather experience things by myself than not experience them at all.*
*The slogan for the Masturbation Council of America, incidentally.
In my early 20s, I wanted to take a real road trip. My family did a few when I was a child, to San Francisco, Reno and Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Death Valley. In high school, I had planned an epic drive from California to Florida, but just about everybody backed out a week before the departure date, including the car-provider. My best friend and I ended up stubbornly flying to Disneyworld for a few days; point is, high school is retarded and everybody’s a moron. But I still had that itch, and thanks to grad school, I now had enough money and flexibility to follow through.
So at 24, I plotted out a 15-day, 3,500 mile road trip through the Pacific Northwest. I really liked the idea of following a freeway to its conclusion – thus the conceived but never-attempted I-10 drive to Florida – and the I-5 provided a perfectly capable substitute. I had a bit of company in Seattle, but mostly explored that city, Vancouver, and San Francisco all by myself, staying at shitty motels or university dorms (rented out during the summer in Canada). There were lonely moments, but I got to drive to new places and take pretty pictures and think and write introspectively and just be.
With any apprehension gone, I did it again the next year, I did it again. I saw my cousin ever-so-briefly in Casper, Wyoming, but drove as far east as Chicago on a 16-day, 5000 mile road trip that took me through Minneapolis and Milwaukee and St. Louis and Kansas City, and their assorted stadiums and museums and parks. I did an 11-day, 3300 mile trip into the heart of Texas after that. I didn’t care that it was weird or abnormal or whatever. Hell, I had friends, even traveled with them to plenty other places. But those road trips were utterly my own.
When I travel by myself, I don’t feel the need to share myself, to find traveling companions or strike up conversations with strangers at hostels. I’m not built for that. I like doing my own thing, controlling my own itinerary, jotting some memories down, taking in places – many of which I’ll never experience again in my life. That’s me. Certainly, I welcome companionship on many of these endeavors, large and small. It’s great when I do have a close friend or partner or whomever by my side to share it with. But fuck it. The lack thereof isn’t going to stop me. It never has, and it never will.