“Is Peter going?” they always ask.
“No, he has other plans,” I reply.
I am a loner when it comes to vacation. To the bewilderment of some, and the horror of others, I vacation without my spouse. I’m no Hester Prynne, but I feel the shame and then defy it.
Part of my rationale is logistical. I am an obsessive birder (a term I prefer to the more passive “bird-watcher”). I invest an irresponsible amount of my disposable income and the bulk of my vacation time on my loopy ambition to see as many of the world’s birds as possible before I die. To spend day after day of a vacation, from dawn to dusk, in this pursuit is insane, I know. To subject a non-birder to it would be cruel. Peter has no interest in joining me. I understand.
I’ve been to Ghana and Brazil, China and Colombia, Borneo and Australia, and a dozen other countries in between—all to see birds. Most often I join organized groups, so these trips are not ornithological walkabouts where it’s just me and the sunshine and the call of the jacamar or the kookaburra, but more like a version of adult camp. (“If you want to go owling, get your headlamp and meet at the van in 15 minutes!”) I often do these trips with people I don’t know and will likely never see again. My parents have joined me on a few occasions, but most of the time, I’m off to the airport alone, and my friends, family, and colleagues know my flight plans. And they judge.
One friend jokes that I must be in the CIA. Another kids that these trips must be a cover for sexual licentiousness—that “chasing birds” must be a euphemism.
I swear these trips are wholesome, but regardless, we can all be prudes about how other couples construct their lives, and their vacations. If the family that prays together stays together, then perhaps the couple that beholds the Taj Mahal or snorkels in the Great Barrier Reef together does the same. Clark Griswold wasn’t a holy man, but he had holy aspirations. Taking your family or your spouse on vacation requires sacrifice and savings, planning and patience.
Solo travel, in contrast, is selfish work. If a couple or family has one budget, a solo vacation is money spent on one person; it’s not money spent equitably on, say, a new dishwasher or a subscription to a local theater. This disparity is magnified by the vacation itself: While one person toils at home, the other is busy doing work’s opposite.
Vacations are also scarce, especially for Americans. According to a recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, roughly one-quarter of American workers get no paid vacation time, and the U.S. is the only advanced country whose laws do not compel employers to provide paid holidays. Even when employees do get vacation time, they don’t use it all (a recent survey found that of the average 13 vacation days employees had to use, two went unclaimed). I have friends and colleagues who demonstrate a silly stoicism about not taking vacations. But for the privileged sybarites among us—those of us with paid vacation time, and the flexibility and the courage to use it—two to four paid weeks of vacation is both paltry and precious. To disburse that time alone tackling a bucket list, and not visiting in-laws or repainting the house, upends the ledger of family values.
But the discomfort with the notion of separate vacations, I think, goes beyond the costs of time and money. It has to do with the idea that vacation affords couples and families “quality time” together that they can’t get in “normal life.” Vacations are about an idealized time—a week or two so idyllic that it should be shared. As someone who is married but childless, I vacation with enviable freedom. If I were a corporate road warrior or a harried homemaker, I would see vacation differently, but my husband and I live our lives as if on a tandem bike. We don’t work together, but almost every other moment of our lives we spend together. If a vacation is meant to be a break, why don’t we get a break from one another as well? Peter deserves as much.
In fact, the only spats I can remember having with Peter over the last 15 years had a vacation as the backdrop. We visited Morocco, at my suggestion, back in 2000. Upon seeing our dank Agadir hotel, a one-night stop on our way to a hiking trip in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Peter whined, “This is how we’re spending our vacation. We’re sleeping here?” After I pompously lectured him about “roughing it,” he took an Ambien and slept in his clothes. More than a decade later, we had a similar altercation in Agadir’s opposite—high on the cliffs of Santorini, in a stupidly expensive hotel—where I complained about what I thought to be a far too leisurely itinerary. Princess problems, to be sure.
Rarefied though they may be, these problems reflect the far-too-utopian narrative we craft for our vacations, often months and even years ahead. Some of us expect to climb a dizzying peak, or to learn how to cure prosciutto, or to read all three volumes of Shelby Foote’s Civil War. Others, displaying a mixture of sloth and stamina I can only admire and then judge, hope for nothing more than a week in a beach chair. But whatever we want out of our vacations, hope and experience don’t always share the same line on an itinerary.
To navigate vacation’s shoals of tedium and its high winds of euphoria by oneself provides an autonomy and a set of mental exercises I don’t often get at home. Perhaps that’s what makes solo travel most satisfying: the anticipation of coming home, of leaving solitude and strangeness for solidarity and familiarity, of looking forward to a set of circumstances in which you are both depended on and dependent. And what seems ridiculously paramount while traveling alone—my next meal, my claim to the entire bed, my decision to forgo another museum for a few lazy hours in a cafe—is indulged and exhausted until the next vacation, wherever in the world that may be.