Team Jessica

A few weeks before flying to Hawaii, I was FaceTiming one of my best friends, ranting on about my preparations and how excited I was getting.

“And you’re going all by yourself?”
“For that first week, yes!”
“That sounds terrible. Like that would be on my list of top ten things to never do.”

Solo travel wasn’t entirely by choice. I had three weeks off from school, so I decided to fly out of Christchurch a week before my family would touchdown in Hawaii for our annual #ComptonsConquer trip. Much as I love NZ, why stay in wintertime with a 5 pm setting sun when I could be enjoying that same sunset sipping a cold beverage on a white sand beach? Yeah, I’ll opt for the latter.

I reached out to a few friends to see if they could join me, but there’s this thing that begins in young adulthood called work that really messes with spontaneous travel. I also knew I wanted to backpack the Kalalau Trail in Kauai – 11 miles skirting jagged cliffs along the Na Pali coastline. After a relatively demanding day of walking, you are rewarded with a campsite in paradise. It’s often voted one of the top ten hikes in the world, and to camp there, you have to book a permit about a half year in advance. (That is, apart from the naked hippies who have permanently moved out there, sustained by the native fruit trees, community gardens, and lots of ganja.)

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I scanned the permit reservations in January, kept asking around for a companion, and by the time I checked back on the website a month later, there was one space – not even one campsite, just a single slot for one lone person – available for my chosen dates. Call it fate, destiny, God’s plan… so much for a travel buddy; that was my spot. I wasted no time booking it, along with the necessary island hopping flights to get between O’ahu, Kauai, and the Big Island.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about solo travel. My only real experience was that very first trip to Abel Tasman when I arrived in New Zealand. In some ways, I knew it would suit me. Studying abroad in Italy, I was infamous for wandering off by myself without telling anyone. The first few times, my friends would be alarmed and look for me. Then they learned that that’s just me, that despite my extroverted, people-centered nature, I am also fiercely independent; I need to explore on my own. I would reconnect eventually.

It’s the same for my day-to-day schedule, too. A friend in New Zealand bluntly explained this tendency of mine last month:

“It’s like, ‘World Jessica’ – Population: One.”

Perhaps this highlights some real selfishness on my part, and I do need to be more considerate of those around me. I don’t mind people joining me though. I’m just not going to allow others to determine my own direction. This is my plan; you’re welcome to come along.

So it really was high time I put on my big girl panties and check out this world by myself. As I wrote in my last post, this past week involved a lot of hitchhiking, couchsurfing, and fairly rigorous hiking. My parents bade me well, with one final warning:

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These continual cautions did sober me enough to ensure I kept my wits about me. Most people are good, but it only takes one nut for a horror story.

After landing in Honolulu, I did get a few butterflies in the pit of my stomach as I walked out of the airport and stuck my thumb out. DCIM100GOPROIt’s just a vulnerable place to be, especially as a female in a big city, just after you got that text from your father. I waited longer than I would have wished – maybe fifteen minutes, which feels like hours when you’re just standing there with your forty-pound pack and a smile glued to your face.

Gary, an Uber driver who is legally not allowed to pick anyone up for money from the airport, eventually gave me a free lift. He took me straight to AT&T at the mall to get a US SIM card. He also said this was the central bus station, and he encouraged me to use it. “Be safe, and have a great time.” I heeded his advice, and learned that in O’ahu, the bus system is pretty good. I am more than happy to pay $2.50 to get where I need to go and not endure the awkwardness of standing on the side of the road. A few days later in Kauai, on the other hand, I relied almost entirely on hitchhiking, and I felt fine doing so. It’s the oldest island with a much slower, safer vibe.

Here’s the thing about solo travel: you’re actually almost never alone. The moment I sat down outside of McDonald’s during my long layover in Sydney to pilfer their wifi, an amiable Fijian named Sunny asked if the other seat was available. We proceeded to have a twenty-minute yarn about family, religion, and making a life in a new country. He wasn’t homeless, but he maybe wasn’t totally on his rocker. I’m not sure how many people would have offered up that other seat. When you’re alone and open to whatever may come your way, though, the experiences you have will be memorable. That first interaction with Sunny seemed a promising auspice for the week ahead.

Everyday, I met kind people, and each of them pretty much had the same reaction amidst the small talk of me explaining my circumstances:
“You’re alone?!”
“Wow, I could never do that.”
“Backpacking on your own? All those miles?!”
(From the locals:) “Here’s what you should do. Make sure you start before dawn. Have plenty of water. Filter it. Do you have trekking poles?…I don’t want to see you on the news.”
“Good on you.”
“That takes a lot of courage.”
“I admire you so much.” (One glamorous LA woman even said I was her hero and asked to take a picture with me.)

And upon our farewell, always:
“Have fun, and please be safe.”

People were so helpful – affirming in their words and caring in their deeds. By the time I hit the trail, I felt like I had a whole fan club of strangers rallying behind me. Even though I was technically alone, I was quickly building a strong hodgepodge of Team Jessica supporters. Something bad can always happen, but so many people were for me. I felt a little like Forest Gump; I was just doing my thing, it didn’t seem that special, or difficult. People came alongside me, though, and their encouragement instilled extra votes of confidence in my solo adventure.

The last night in Kalalau, the sunset – the last one of the country, as the most western horizon in the States – was serene and clear.

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I watched it with my camping neighbors, a crew of mid-thirties guys who, rather than backpacking, boated all their stuff (and their alcohol) in for a bro weekend. One of them had spent a year traveling with his wife through the third world in South America and Africa, and we continued talking on the beach as dusk set in.

“Jessica, you are awesome, I can already tell. And believe me, I know, I meet a lot of dumb people – I work in the tourist industry. Probably 90% of Americans are idiots.”

I smile. Another member joins the team.

“But those 10% of awesome people need to meet other awesome people. To make eye contact, smile, speak, and acknowledge each other’s common humanity. You should be a part of that. Just use that good head of yours, and you’ll be fine. So go. Travel the world.”

I have, as the amassed blog posts of the last few years attest.
I am, and this past week figuring things out on my own really was one of the best weeks of my life.
I will. With the help of good people, I now know I can do it by myself.

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