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The Luxury Of Solitude

Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, near Freeport, Maine. Linda Holmes/NPR hide caption

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Linda Holmes/NPR

Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, near Freeport, Maine.

Linda Holmes/NPR

There are people who have no idea what they would do with themselves if they had a little under two weeks with no commitments, a car, a duffel bag, and a series of motel reservations making a loop around New England with a spur up into Maine.

I am not one of those people.

A cove ... somewhere. Near Camden? Probably near Camden. Linda Holmes/NPR hide caption

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Linda Holmes/NPR

On my Late Fall Foliage Solo Tour, of all the anxieties that occasionally gripped me, not knowing what to do with myself — by myself — was not among them. I examined racks of jewelry and adjusted room thermostats and had chocolate chip ice cream at a place my family used to go when I was a young teenager. (It's the same, except that now it's next to an enormous Walmart.) I read books. I had clam chowder four times and had breakfast at a little place right by Amherst populated by students, and I eavesdropped on a Rocklandite in a laundromat explaining that he'd gone mudding that weekend and needed a story to give his girlfriend about why the truck was all scuffed up. I walked a trail at Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park near Freeport and heard total, hum-less, fan-less silence, which I rarely do. I visited a cemetery where some of my relatives are buried. I dropped the valve cap into the wheel of my car while putting air in my tires, got distracted enough battling the air hose that I forgot to dig it back out, and happily found it peacefully hanging out inside the wheel cover many, many miles later when I remembered.

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I spent Halloween on Cape Cod, where behind me, the door to wandering tourists was swinging shut for the season. I spent an evening in a Ramada with the power out, and I chatted with the Banana Man at the Kennebunk service plaza, and I managed to keep my composure and not crack up when I overheard a discussion at a Rockport Denny's in which a woman said, with a certain guilty, gossipy glee, "She worries so much about havin' lines on her face, but what about that mouth full of choppers? That's all I could see." ("Choppers," of course, was "chaw-pahs.") I walked down a steep trail at a botanical garden where, at the bottom, a nice lady comes and picks you up in a golf cart to haul you back up the hill. I tipped 50 percent to servers to whom I said "Just me!" when I asked for a table, who filled my coffee over and over because they had plenty of tables and it was foggy and gray outside. I took a picture of a butterfly I suspect has been photographed by thousands of tourists before me.

A butterfly takes it easy on some daisies at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Linda Holmes/NPR hide caption

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Linda Holmes/NPR

We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can't tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it. Most of the time, I want good company, like most people do. But the experience of earned, voluntary aloneness is, among other things, instructive. I don't think you can really understand how accustomed you are to being scheduled and operating off an internal to-do list at almost all times until you think to yourself, "My goal will be to get to Providence by 4," and then you think, "Why is there a goal?"

And then it begins to make you internally rebellious: What if I drove with no goal? What if I had nowhere to be all day until it was time to sleep and I discussed with no one where to stop and take a picture, where to have lunch, what shop to go in, or which way to turn on the trail? What would I do if I could do anything — in this micro-environment, in this moment, at the point of this particular pause, what is my wish?

Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park. Linda Holmes/NPR hide caption

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Linda Holmes/NPR

Because the experience of good company is in part the experience of matching your wishes to someone else's; that's part of what makes it great. You build a common wish with another person: to go somewhere, to meet, to have sushi instead of steak. And those shared wishes are profound.

But if you collaborate constantly, both professionally and personally, it's easy to forget what undiluted self-determination feels like, and there's something to be said for remembering.

While I was staying in Freeport, I realized that the clouds and rain that had accompanied the first few days on the road had broken, and I started to wonder if I could see stars. I don't see a lot of stars in my day-to-day; there's an awful lot of light pollution in my section of the East Coast, and if I'm being honest, I doubt I'd take the time to stare at them anyway. But on this particular night, I went out and waited for my eyes to adjust, and when they did, there were many, many, many stars. I decided to try to take a picture.

I am a casual hobbyist at best when it comes to complicated pictures of any kind. I play around — enough that I had a tripod and a remote shutter release in the car — but I didn't really have the right lens for this, and I wasn't really in the best place (hunkered down between two big evergreens in the darkest corner of the motel parking lot). I just wanted to see if I could do it. Had I had to explain it to someone else how long I was out there fiddling and turning dials and pushing buttons and counting seconds in my head, I would have felt silly. There is a diabolical internal voice that feels external and belongs to no one that says, in moments like this, "What are you doing? You are bent over a camera on a tripod in the dark, and you're all in black, meaning you really, really do appear to be skulking around like a crazy person, and this picture is going to have power lines in it anyway, and it won't be in focus because that's the part you haven't figured out, so it's not going to be a good picture anyway, so what are you doing?"

The luxury of solitude lies in hearing that, and training it to settle down. "I am taking a picture of these stars, and it's going to take me a bunch of tries, but eventually, I'm going to make it work because I have absolutely no responsibilities on this particular evening and I can stay out here until 3 in the morning if I feel like it."

It did not take until 3 in the morning. And it's not a good picture, but when I look at it, I remember in my fingers the precise temperature of the air, dropping the lens cap in the grass and feeling around for it, and wondering whether people in passing cars thought I was crazy. "Just me," I would have said with a wave.

Stars in Freeport. Linda Holmes/NPR hide caption

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Linda Holmes/NPR

Stars in Freeport.

Linda Holmes/NPR