Booking a one way ticket to New York City at the end of February is probably one if the biggest leaps I have ever taken in my life. Clicking “buy” on that first ticket was both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. I think my heart skipped around in a my throat for at least two hours afterwards.
A couple years ago, when I first toyed around with the idea of traveling solo, I picked Edinburgh, Scotland as my first destination. It seemed like a no-brainer given my fascination with castles, medieval times, and fairy tales. Planning a trip to Scotland felt like dipping my toes into the warm, inviting waters of the solo travel world. Booking the ticket to New York felt like diving into an icy lake naked and blindfolded.
When I started telling people about traveling to New York City, I usually received one of three responses: You are so brave; the city is dirty and smells horrible; the people are rude. I should point out that I was not completely oblivious to the ways of the city when I booked this trip – I did spend eight whole hours there last year – but these responses still had their way of eking their influence into my expectations of my first real experience in New York.
Expectations Vs. Reality
- Expectation: The city smells.
- When every person you talk to tells you that the city reeks of urine and garbage, you can’t help but wait for your senses to be accosted the most terrible of smells.
- Reality: Only a little bit.
- When you have that many people crammed into such a small land area, there are going to be smells. However, there most certainly was not a constant barrage of horrible assaulting my nostrils. I actually remember one corner specifically that had a gross odor to it right in Times Square. Unfortunately, I had to walk by it often, but other than that I don’t really remember anything smelling that bad. The thing most jarring to me was the piles of trash on the sidewalks waiting for pickup when I rolled into the city on a shuttle about 11:30 at night.
- Expectation: The people are rude.
- In the city that never sleeps, people don’t have time for tourists or anyone who gets in their way to wherever they are going in a crazy hurry.
- Reality: Just the tourists.
- Seriously, the worst people I encountered were the tourists – hands down. I tried very hard to fit in as I wandered the streets, and I think that it worked for the most part. I was hyper aware of common courtesy and even researched a few of the things that people in New York find annoying so I could avoid being one of THOSE people. Maybe that helped my case. But honestly, if tourists tried half as hard as I did, there would be a lot less rudeness in the city. The New Yorkers that I interacted with were all friendly (with the exception of the homeless man who turned nasty when I wouldn’t give him a dollar.) The tourists, however, were another story entirely. I really tried to immerse myself in the New York culture while I was there, avoiding for the most part some of the more touristy attractions. My venture to the top of the Rockefeller Center was probably the most touristy thing I did, and I came away from it appreciating the view, but hesitant to ever visit such a touristy spot again. As the sun set, the Top of the Rock became exceptionally busy and every single person vied for the best view of the city at night – regardless of who they stepped in front of or pushed out of the way. Attempting the apply the concept of common courtesy was completely moot, because the second you stepped back from the person in front of you so you weren’t breathing down their neck, someone else squeezed right in front of you. The idea of waiting patiently for your turn at the edge might has well have been a pipe dream. If you weren’t on your toes and ready to jump in the second the person in front of you left, you completely missed your shot. I honestly started to wonder if any of them were really taking it in or if they were part of some greater scavenger hunt where they just needed one crappy snapshot to prove they were there before racing off to the next location. I mean, really, once the sun went down it wasn’t going to matter if you waited 2 minutes or 10 – the picture of the city was going to look just the same.
- Expectation: There are people everywhere.
- Back to the idea of so many people being crammed into such a small space, you expect there to always be somebody around, especially coming from somewhere where you can hop in a car and drive for twenty miles on a dirt road without seeing anybody.
- Reality: Yes, there are a lot of people.
- Being based in Times Square, there were a ton of people. But, there are still moments when you are almost alone. I think this became one of my biggest fascinations with the city. Even the the middle of the hustle and bustle of a million people, moments stand out where there was no one around. Even half of a subway car captured in a photograph can suggest solitude. There may have been a dozen people behind me, but in the photograph there are none. Wandering through central park was really no different than hiking on a trail in the mountains back home. People were around, but not in the mobs and swarms you might expect, unless you were in Times Square.
- Expectation: It is always loud.
- Oh the infamous taxi horn. The sound of traffic, the constant swarms of people.
- Reality: The City is loud.
- I had barely been in the city for ten minutes before horns were sounding car to car like some bizarre symphony. I expected it and had to giggle because the horns for the most part are completely pointless. Honking at the person in front of you when the one holding up traffic is ten cars away really isn’t helping anybody. Aside from the incessant honking, the city also has a drone – a low, industrial hum that never breaks. I didn’t mind either sound, accepting it immediately as the ambiance of the city, kind of like crickets when you live in the country by the river.
- Expectation: I will have the time and energy to write in the evenings.
- Wasn’t the whole point of this trip to focus on my creativity, in particular my writing? And since I planned on being back at my hotel room fairly early in the evenings, I should have plenty of time and energy.
- Reality: Travel is EXHAUSTING.
- I really really kicked myself for not investing in a pedometer before I headed to New York. I know that I walked miles upon miles every day, even with my unlimited subway pass. I also didn’t account for the sensory overload that comes with traveling, not only in general, but alone. Without a second pair of eyes, my sense were constantly on high alert, keeping track of my surroundings, belongings, and whereabouts while still taking in the sights and sounds of the things around me. Even though I made a point to take my time going wherever I was going, I still had a checklist of things I wanted to see. By the time I returned to my hotel each night, I could barely stay awake long enough for a quick phone call to my husband back home. The couple of nights I did set to writing, I experienced technical difficulties on my iPad that caused me to lose nearly all of what little writing I did get done, so I came back from traveling with negative writing accomplished. It’s a month later and I am just getting around to this post – which I decided to write on about my third day in NYC.
Expectation: Solo travel will be an incredible, eye-opening and confidence building adventure.
There is a certain amount of pride that comes with pushing one’s boundaries and levels of confidence. I has always been easy for me to make excuses not to do things, but once a plan like this is in motion, there is no room for excuses. Stepping off the plane at JFK put me in an instant independent mindset knowing that I had no one but to myself to rely on, both in points of adventure and (if there should be any) trouble. It was kind of like flipping a switch. While having that switch flipped proved exhausting, it was also freeing. The ability to plan each day on a whim and take as much or as little time here or there led me from Times Square to The Cloisters in the northern corner of Manhattan to the Staten Island Ferry all the way south, across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset and even to a castle in the middle of Central Park. This trip as a whole went off without a hitch, and though I didn’t have a set schedule, I did do a lot of research ahead of time which allowed for me to skip around the city and group together points of interest as needed. My unlimited metro card became my personal tour guide, dropping me here or there and leading me down streets or through areas I wouldn’t have ventured without the need for the next closest subway station. And mostly, this first solo travel opened my eyes to how much there is to see in the world.
I started this venture thinking that New York was a crazy place to go on my first solo trip, when in reality it was probably one of the best places I could have gone. Part of that came from dipping my toes into the city for a few hours last year. Even though we weren’t there for long, it was enough to get me my bearings and avoid being completely overwhelmed when I went there on my own. The city forced me to test myself. There was a definite moment of “take a deep breath and just do it” when I dropped into the first subway station and purchased my metro card. By opening myself up to the city and the experience, I found the most difficult thing do was decide where and what to eat. And if I am honest, I was pretty okay with living on coffee, granola bars and some kind of egg concoction for breakfast. When I splurged on my last day in the city, the waitress did look at me a little weird as I ordered Gnocchi with a side of onion rings and a lemon drop martini at this little Irish pub. But hey, you only live once, right?
A note of perspective:
I am not typically one to put a lot of hype into my Montana roots, but it plays into the intimidation factor of taking my first solo venture to somewhere like New York City. Aside from maneuvering between the airport and my hotel, I spent approximately 5 days in Manhattan with my hotel base just off of Times Square. Manhattan is just about 23 square miles of land and home to about 1.6 million people. I live in Montana, which has a total land area of about 147,000 square miles. That makes my home state 6,391 times bigger than the city of Manhattan. And Montana only has a population of just over a million. The “city” I live in has about 40,000 people in a slightly smaller land area than Manhattan (roughly 19 square miles). We drive everywhere and have a public transportation system less than a decade old that I have never used. I grew up in the country on 5 acres where spare time was passed riding bikes with my best friend (now husband) up and down the 1/2 mile road to our neighboring houses.