The Maine Event
Twenty years ago, after an impossible romance, I went on a trip by myself. I took a windjammer off the coast of Maine and ended up on Monhegan Island. My first day there, while walking on a path high above the ocean, I looked down and saw a man in the distance, sitting on a rock by the sea. I had always been the kind of person who, if I saw an attractive man across a crowded room, I'd turn and go in the other direction. And I thought, Should I step off this path? Should I go down there and meet that man? I did. I climbed down the side of a steep cliff, walked up to the man—and met my future husband. I remember how amazingly blue his eyes were.
I was on a plane on my way to Madrid. Across the aisle sat a sweet family with two small, impressively well-behaved children. When it was time to land, we descended onto the runway, our wheels touched the tarmac, but we suddenly took off again. As we climbed back up into the sky, the captain announced that our landing gear wasn't working properly. We tried landing again, with the same result. By now everyone was getting nervous, and the cabin was filled with a sort of silent fear. On the third attempt, we were instructed to assume the crash position. Some flight attendants were telling us to grab our ankles, others to place our hands on the seat in front of us. The conflicting directions only added to the tension. No one was talking, and loved ones were hugging each other with near-death intensity. The children across the aisle were snuggled into their parents' arms. I was by myself and had no one to hold on to. I just kept looking over at the family, trying to steal some of the comfort I saw in their embrace. Finally, the wheels touched down and stayed down. I could feel the brakes working hard to slow the plane because we were traveling faster than usual, making it that much more of a relief when we finally came to a stop. I could feel the tension dissipate, and then the silent cabin broke into applause. It was one of the best sounds I've ever heard.
Falling Off the Face of the Earth
In 1993, while traveling in France, I split up with my friends to take a jaunt on my own. Someone had told me about a lovely island off the coast of France called Ile de Ré, and it sounded nice. After two trains and a bus ride over the bridge and onto the island, the remoteness of the place started to remind me of Nantucket 20 years ago, when no one really went there except those families who'd been going for 100 years. Ile de Ré had one inn—20 rooms—and it was full. Where was I going to stay? No one spoke English.
Eventually, I met a nice woman who told me she knew someone with extra rooms. She showed me where this person lived and called her to say a young man was coming. When I got there, an old woman came to the door in her bra and a big skirt. Not at all friendly. The first thing she said was the price of the room. The second was "No women." The house was old, musty, and a bit freaky.
So I'm in my room. It feels more like a cell, very small, with a very small window. Who is this woman? Is there anyone else in the house? No one on earth knows where I am. I'm totally alone. I try to tell myself what an adventure this is. It's not working. I could die here. I decide that I want to live and I want to sleep, so I write a note, in broken French and in English: "If something happens to me here, please call, in the United States, 001-212-737-xxxx." As I drift off to sleep, I peer at the note to be sure it hasn't blown off the table. I wake up, and I'm alive. The note is right where I left it. I dress. I walk downstairs. The old woman is in her bra—does she even own a shirt? I say merci and hightail it to the bus. I still have that note.
One weekend I went kayaking near Point Reyes, California. I reached a desolate beach by nightfall and quickly set up my tent and built a campfire. As I warmed myself and gazed at the endless stars, I heard a noise behind me. I'd been warned that there were elk on the island—and that they were in heat. Slowly, I turned my head, and a sound—a piercing, you-scream-like-a-girl scream—escaped my mouth. Only a foot away were six pairs of red eyes staring through the darkness. Shining my flashlight on the animals, I realized they were raccoons. No problem—I had been doing TaeBo and had seen a few episodes of Buffy. When my spastic movements didn't scare them, I picked up a stick and insanely clanked a rock. Success! But once they returned and I realized these were no Disney characters, a brilliant idea hit me: Run for the tent. As I hid, I heard them dragging away what sounded like a dead body. Then...scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch. They surrounded the tent and were itching to get in. Sometime during the assault, I passed out from fright, I mean fell asleep. When morning finally arrived, I emerged to see that the crazed beasts had dragged the dead body a hundred feet—and that the carcass was actually my backpack. To top it off, they had eaten all my Power Bars, which explained their ceaseless energy.
Famous Last Words
I was flying to Detroit to visit my family. As I got up to use the rest room, I noticed that the man seated behind me looked ashen and was breathing hard. I knelt beside him and gently asked if he'd like me to call a flight attendant or get him a glass of water. He yelled, "Mind your own f—— business." People stared, as I made that pathetic snuffle sound that comes out when you're young and someone who looks like your dad screams at you in front of a planeload of strangers. Soon I was back in my seat, and several flight attendants gathered behind me, whispering things like "Do we know if he was meeting anyone?" and "Check his wallet." I waited for them to ask if there was a doctor on board. But then the pilot announced that we'd be landing shortly and we should all just calmly exit the plane, after which the rude, dead guy would be removed. Actually, that's not exactly what he said, but I knew that was what he meant.
Next: Why traveling alone can be good for the soul