When the Road Gets Lonely
I’m what you’d call a “road warrior”: someone who spends an inordinate amount of time traveling on behalf of their job. On paper, I live in the lap of luxury. I rack up frequent flyer miles as I jet from place to place, I often wake up in plush hotel beds and I get to try local fare on someone else’s dime. I’ve seen more of my country in the last six years than I did in my previous 22 trips around the sun, and I have go-to coffee shops in cities around the United States. My life seems interesting and exciting and those looking in from the outside always seem impressed by what I do for a living. I’m quick to set them straight.
This job—this “luxurious,” “exciting” job—is anything but. I’m away from my home, my bed, my dog for days at a time and I miss the humdrum of a routine in my own sleepy little town. I wake up in a new place, disoriented, most mornings, and have to put on clothes and leave the premises to find decent coffee. My belly bloats and my skin erupts from the additives and sodium hidden in all of the restaurant food I eat, no matter how healthy my menu choices are. I am forced to rove from one Wi-Fi-equipped cafe to the next between meetings, since I’ve checked out of my hotel and am wholly rootless until I’m able to check into the next one. But the number-one thing that grates at my soul during travel? I am completely alone.
As a highly independent introvert, I have a hard time grasping how any other type of person survives in this industry. Even I—a person who thrives on alone time—gets hit with debilitating loneliness at some point in my travels. It hits at different times every season, always knocking me off-balance and striking without warning, leaving me to fight through its grip so I can perform the job functions that led me here in the first place. Yes, I get to try fun restaurants and coffee joints, but there’s no one sitting across sharing my table; a work-issued laptop is my only company. Yes, I’m in the air about as much as I am on the ground, but I have strangers for seatmates, and they often spill into my personal space without permission. Yes, I talk to people all day every day, but they are strangers and they see me as a source of information, not a person. Yes, I check in and out of beautiful hotels, but I roll over in the middle of the night to find gaps where my dog should be. It’s just me, myself and I out there, and I’ve had to learn how to work with that fact instead of against it.
I always start with the basics and make sure I’m taking care of fundamental needs that, if neglected, could absolutely impact my overall mood. Have I been sleeping enough? Drinking enough water? Eating real food? Eating enough? Overdoing the caffeine? If I let these rudimentary things fall to the wayside, everything automatically starts coming apart at the seams. I know when I feel bad physically, I will feed bad mentally.
With those bases taken care of, I try to be mindful of how I’m spending all of this involuntary “me-time.” There are endless ways to take advantage of a spare five minutes here, a free 10 minutes there, so I try to make choices that fill my cup. The car and I are unwilling allies, spending hours together every week. Instead of defaulting to Top 40 radio, I catch up on my favorite podcasts or, better yet, call a friend or family member. That phone call, no matter how brief, gives me a dose of familiar human connection I need during a time when I’m spending all waking hours talking to strangers.
Ironically, social media is not helpful when I hit that brick wall of lonely. You’d think it’d be nice to stay in the loop and see what’s going on with all of your humans, but really, it’s just highlighting all the things I’m missing while on the road and a reminder of how far I am from home. That’s not to say it’s wrong to stay connected, but I try to do it on my own terms (text, FaceTime, call). I’ve even dropped postcards in the mail to give friends or family a fun surprise. The absolute best-case scenario is visiting a city where I know someone and reaching out to see if they want to grab coffee or a drink while I’m in the area. I work to actively interact with the people I care about, instead of sitting on the sidelines and watching it all go by in my Instagram feed.
Dining out is often a pain point for me. My advice if you’re in a similar situation: Sit at the bar, if they have one, and leave your laptop in your bag. You’re welcome to ask for a table or booth for one, but the excess, empty table space has always made me acutely aware of my lack of company. Furthermore, slogging through work during mealtime turns my delicious food into mere sustenance, because when your eyes are glued to your inbox you don’t really taste what you’re shoveling into your mouth. A space at the bar usually means you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other solo diners, providing a little solidarity, and there’s always some sports ball game on TV to watch as you enjoy your food. Some bars don’t have televisions, so I make sure to have a book on hand, and always snag the free paper in the hotel lobby each morning to have a crossword puzzle on deck.
Every so often, I find myself on a long stretch of highway with no podcasts left in my queue and no one left to call, at which point I try to straight-up be. I muster gratitude for the still, for the quiet, and remind myself most people don’t get the chance to experience this sort of uninterrupted introspection. I have frequent opportunities to check in with myself on my goals, my habits and my values, and by the time I pull up to the next hotel I’m at least a smidge more self-aware.
On particularly bad days, I try to focus on the obvious, plentiful perks of solo travel. Songs are belted at the top of my lungs in each rental car. The next dining adventure is one hundred percent up to me and my taste buds. Bedtime can be as early as I want it to be, and no one is rushing me in the mornings as I get dressed. Mealtime can be takeout, pantsless and braless, in my hotel bed. I can explore a new city on foot, headphones locked and loaded, power-stepping to Jock Jams as I make my way through each street. The hotel thermostat is mine, and mine alone. Most importantly, I can take as long as I damn well please to sip my coffee every morning.
Six years of independent voyaging has shown me I’m gritty, strong and mostly self-sufficient, but it’s also reminded me it’s OK to be a human being, to feel isolated sometimes, to pack that stuffed zebra you keep on your nightstand when you’re forced to endure yet another week away from your dog. And when you do make it back to your home-sweet-home, it’s OK to enjoy every second of that sigh of relief.
Sara works as a full-time admissions counselor at Flagler College in St. Augustine and runs a wellness Instagram to connect with other foodies. When she’s not in the kitchen, you can find her at the gym, reading a book, planning her next trip, or re-watching Game of Thrones episodes with her dog.