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On the Road, Again

By Emma John

Aug 18, 2021

From the September/October 2021 issue

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Photograph by Kelsey McClellan

A longtime solo traveler takes her first postpandemic trip—and wonders if there’s truly such a thing as traveling alone anymore.

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As lockdown began to lift in the U.K., I decided to attempt a grand tour of my own country: At the wheel of my trusty two-seater, I would explore the British Isles end to end, from the Scottish Highlands to the west of Ireland to England’s south coast. What an adventure! I could hardly wait.

But soon, I realized something—I didn’t actually want to go. The distances felt overwhelming; the thought of booking hotels made my chest tighten. Logistics I would once have reveled in now weighed on me. My heart and mind were in emphatic unison: They wanted me to take it much, much easier.

In the past, I’ve felt compelled to put as many miles as I could under my tires; now, I found myself sketching out possibly the slowest road trip of all time. I would set off from my Buckinghamshire home in southeast England, taking quiet country roads through the Chiltern Hills and the rolling South Downs to the rural county of Wiltshire. I made Bath—a city I once lived in for a year and knew well—my turning point, and plotted a homeward route through the quaint villages of Oxfordshire, where some of my friends lived. In 16 days, I planned to cover 160 miles. I could, frankly, have walked it.

“If I was going to resume travel, I couldn’t in good conscience ignore the potential impact on those making it possible.”

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There was another reason for miniaturizing my ambitions. As someone who tends to take trips alone, I revel in my freedom, the sense of being beholden to no one but myself. But if I was going to resume travel, I couldn’t in good conscience ignore the potential impact on those making it possible. The selfless service of so many frontline workers during a period of global existential crisis had inspired in me a desire to be a better citizen. At the very least, I could approach travel with an increased sense of personal responsibility. And in a way, that meant putting others before myself.

I set off with a suitcase loaded with plastic vials and long-handled swabs—courtesy of the U.K. government’s free rapid-result testing kits—and a contact-tracing app downloaded on my phone that was silently, but continually, scanning my environment. I wanted to ensure I wasn’t unknowingly carrying the virus to the very people (accommodation hosts, waitstaff, museum volunteers) facilitating my trip. Pulling up at my first night’s lodging, a chalet in the garden of a couple who lived in beautiful seclusion in the Hampshire woods, I was aware of a powerful new perspective: the understanding that I was being allowed into other people’s space and that this was a privilege in itself.

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As the days rolled on, there was an incongruous sense of drama as I checked in at every venue I visited. Tearooms, cathedrals, the house where Jane Austen wrote her novels: Any one of these seemingly harmless locations could bring an abrupt end to my trip. If I was closely exposed to a confirmed case, I would be notified and instructed to self-isolate for a week.

I chose activities that would lessen my exposure and my hosts’ exposure to risk. Gardens and walking tours were safer than crowded galleries, alfresco dining preferable to the indoor kind, especially if I kept a blanket handy in the trunk of my car. Throughout, the generosity with which I was welcomed—by folks whose very livelihoods are so dependent on visitors—made me determined to repay their efforts by being a better guest. Communicating well seemed a good place to begin, as did honoring their time by arriving (and departing) when I said I would. I left every place as neat and tidy as humanly possible, knowing that stringent hygiene-safety regulations put considerable additional burdens on those cleaning up after me. The less they had to do, the better.

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I was determined, too, to acknowledge and learn more about the people I was encountering on the journey. Social distancing might keep us physically apart—even encourage a certain wariness—but I could counter that by arriving with a sense of the fellow human I was about to meet. I read the “About Us” sections of restaurant websites and the public profiles of my Airbnb hosts: Simon, the carpenter who had built by hand the Hampshire cabin I stayed in; Brian, the Canadian actor–turned–tour guide who took me on a literary walk around Winchester. I paid more attention to the waiters and chefs and bartenders and swimming pool attendants whose all-but invisible ministrations had never seemed more tender.

After a couple of days rediscovering Bath’s resplendent Georgian streets and cozy wine bars, I climbed out of the steep Avon valley and along quiet Oxfordshire roads for the final leg of my trip. It occurred to me, as I savored those last lingering days of village pubs and quirky high streets, how quickly we become attached to places when we see them not as destinations, but as communities we’re invited to temporarily belong to. As travelers, it’s natural for us to want to get the most out of the time and money we’ve invested in a trip. But along with its many harsh legacies, the pandemic has offered this softer one: a reminder that when we’re traveling, we’re sharing life with others. A reminder that their experience of our mutual encounter is just as important as our own—if not more so.

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