Once, while traveling alone, my flight was delayed because it did not have a pilot. According to the frazzled Delta flight attendant, our pilot had called in sick that morning but was never replaced. She did not know when the next available pilot would arrive. She made everyone get off the plane, which had already half-boarded, and me and the other would-be passengers – my new partners in suffering – were left to wait for four extra hours.
The flight was a redeye from Los Angeles to Boston. Now I would be landing in Boston at 8 a.m., making my 11 a.m. Spanish class seemed unlikely at best – I don’t sleep on planes.
Somewhere, I hoped the hapless flight scheduler who had left me so cruelly stranded was getting fired.
I called my mom and took out my frustration on her. She hung up on me. Then I called my roommate so I could yell at her, too. She had more patience and talked me down from rage to resigned misery. She reminded me of a bit that the comedian John Mulaney does about how much he hates Delta Airlines. She quoted it to me and I half-laughed, half-cried.
I have never thought of traveling alone as lonely. I have also never felt unsafe, although I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. My problem with traveling alone is that in disaster situations, there is no one to help you but yourself.
I could call and complain to my mom and my roommate all I wanted, but they were on the opposite side of the country. Calling and ranting about the hell I had landed in wasn’t the same as having someone there to suffer through it with me.
I sat alone among a hundred-or-so other people as we languished at the gate. My fellow stranded displayed a variety of reactions to the delay. Some people yelled at the gate employees, who had no power to make our new pilot drive to LAX any faster. Others just took the free snacks they offered us and sulked and ate. I was in the latter group.
Traveling alone, sitting alone, among scores of others doing the same things as me – holding their heads in their hands, ranting to relatives on the phone. I don’t know why I didn’t talk to anyone. I could have made a friend, taken out my frustrations, found some camaraderie in one of the most annoying situations modern life can throw at you.
I guess I was too miserable to feel like interacting, yet that is exactly what I should have done. Half the reason I was miserable was because I was suffering by myself. Traveling alone is not lonely, because when you’re seeing beautiful sights and doing amazing things, there is no time to dwell on or be bothered by solitude. Dealing with four-hour flight delays 3,000 miles away from home, powerless to make the pilot drive any faster, powerless to make the plane fly faster so you can make your 11 a.m. class, is lonely.
Traveling alone is not lonely because when you travel alone, there are so many opportunities to connect with people. Traveling with friends is fun, but you rely on your friends for entertainment and counsel. Without anybody you know propping you up, you have to turn to strangers. And in those strangers, you might be able to find some friends.
When we finally boarded the plane, I set my head against the window and wondered if I would ever run into anyone from this flight ever again. If I did, I wouldn’t recognize them.