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Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone and Embracing the Solo Travel Spirit

Tonya Prater, Owner

Perhaps it was a midlife crisis, a sense of lost purpose, or the stress and strain of recent years.

Whatever it was, when the chance for a three-week road trip through several southeastern states came up, staying home wasn’t an option for me. The past few years have reinforced a vital truth I’ve always known: time marches on, and the time we’ve been given is too precious to waste.

At 51, I have a loving husband, grown children, and adorable grandbabies, stepping away from them and my familiar life for almost three weeks stirred a mix of excitement and apprehension. I looked forward to exploring solo but anticipated missing my family deeply. In full honesty, I also felt a twinge of guilt and fear at the prospect of embarking on this adventure alone.

It’s not like solo travel is new to me. I love to travel. But in recent years, fear and anxiety have quietly taken hold of me. This journey was my chance to prove to myself that I could overcome them and that traveling throughout the country alone wasn’t beyond my reach.

After all, I’ve been traveling solo since I got my driver’s license, so why the sudden hesitation? The echoing thought, “If not now, when?” nudged me forward. I knew this trip was something that needed to happen for me. And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

With that decision made, I planned a route from Ohio through Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, before heading back to my home.  I loaded more than I could ever possibly need for the length of my journey in my Nissan Pathfinder, created yet one more Spotify playlist, and with a prayer and a few deep breaths, I hit the road before I could change my mind.

In three weeks, I would catch up with friends, attend a conference, see my daughter’s new home, spend time with my youngest son before he deployed, and visit two locations for a work assignment. It was a packed schedule, yet I was confident that once the journey began, everything would fall into place.

The beauty of solo (or mostly solo) travel lies in the freedom to choose when and where to stop. I looked forward to exploring several roadside attractions, a quirky passion I indulge at every opportunity. While my family will tolerate them, no one appreciates them and dare I say, loves them like I do.

Tennessee

My road trip began quietly, with a late start leading me to postpone my adventure until the next day. Arriving in Clarksville, TN, in the early morning, I found the downtown area buzzing with activity from the filming of a Nicole Kidman movie. Roaming among the crew with my camera, I felt like a paparazzi. I soon turned my attention to the local architecture where I found a church with metal steeples, a Starry Night mural, and the beautiful courthouse that was rebuilt after it was destroyed by a tornado in 1999.

Hidden in the lap of a sculpture on the courthouse lawn, I found a beautifully painted rock that had been hidden for someone like me to find. A few minutes later, I met the mayor who presented me with a gorgeous coin and I knew my trip was off to a positive start. 

On my journey from Clarksville to Franklin, I ventured along backroads and paused to marvel at E.T. Wickham’s haunting headless sculptures, standing starkly in an open field by the road. Their eerie presence, coupled with the distant howls of dogs from a nearby home, quickened my visit. I snapped a few quick photos and quickly hopped back into the safety of my black SUV to go meet a friend.

Downtown Franklin was charming. I was thankful to explore with a local who guided me through its not-to-miss spots on a comfortably warm Saturday evening. Our first stop was Philanthropy Fashion, a quaint shop with a small prayer chapel in the heart of the store where guests write prayer requests on a tag and hang them from a nail on the wall. I wrote mine, posted it to the wall, and prayed that I’d find whatever my trip held for me.

We continued down the road, past the statues on the square and into Landmark Booksellers, an extraordinary bookstore in Franklin’s oldest commercial building. After a quick photo at the postcard mural, I left Franklin, promising my friend I’d return for another visit.  

Alabama

Next, I made my way to Huntsville for a conference, the most challenging part of my trip. Not because I don’t love the area, but because it rekindled fond memories from 12 years ago when my family and I lived there as full-time RVers.

This North Alabama destination held a special place in my heart, filled with connections to the people and places we cherished. I had anticipated a happy return, but instead, I felt a pang of loss for friends who had moved away and a father-like figure who had passed the previous year. The wave of emotions and flood of memories hit me unexpectedly as the Saturn V Rocket towering over the U.S. Space and Rocket Center came into view. 

Attending the conference in Rocket City gave me the chance to revisit spots near to my heart like Monte Sano State Park, Mooresville, Harrison Brothers Hardware, and the Weeden House. It also opened doors to new discoveries, such as the Cosmic Christ and the Secret Art Trail, blending the familiar with the new.

Cosmic Christ, also known by the locals as Egg Beater Jesus, stands out as one of the largest mosaics in the U.S., with its unique design resembling egg beaters as Jesus’ legs. Located near a downtown art trail spanning several blocks, this vibrant area features murals and art installations, not just on the sides of buildings but also hidden in alleyways and parking garages. It’s a true adventure and so much fun to explore.  

I had a few stressful moments midweek when plans changed but I’ve learned through years of travel that flexibility is key. This time the unexpected shifts worked in my favor, allowing me a couple extra days in Florida, where my husband joined me so we could spend time together with our Florida kids. 

Leaving Alabama, I paused in Scottsboro to explore the new museum at Unclaimed Baggage and couldn’t resist visiting the unique Rock Zoo in nearby Fackler.

Florida

Jacksonville is the largest city in Florida and while not my favorite to drive in, it sure beats driving in Atlanta.  While our kids were busy working, my husband and I took the opportunity to explore the natural areas around the city.

A highlight was Boneyard Beach at Big Talbot Island State Park. Just a short 6-7 minute walk from the parking area revealed a beach scattered with bleached tree skeletons, reminiscent of Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, one of my favorite spots.  I made a mental note to stop on my way through Georgia.

Georgia

My time in Florida seemed to fly by. Before I knew it, I was saying goodbye to my husband at the airport and continued north to my final stops.

On the way, I visited Jekyll Island, a place I dream of calling home one day. Although initially planning to wander along Driftwood Beach, I chose to explore Mosaic, the Jekyll Island Museum, and learn more about the island’s history instead. I considered taking a tram tour again, but the next one was fully booked and I didn’t want to wait.

So, after interacting with several exhibits, I took a quick jaunt on the bike trail and hopped back on the Interstate towards North Topsail Beach and Onslow County, North Carolina.

North Carolina

Ever since my first trip to the ocean in second grade, being near the water has always soothed my soul. This time, it felt particularly comforting.

The sound of the waves, the feel of the wind on my face, and the dampness of sand squishing under my bare feet as I strolled the beach in the early mornings were familiar memories. The sunrise strolls were my moments for prayer, meditation, and self-reflection, each step quietly restoring parts of myself I hadn’t realized were lost in the busyness of day-to-day life. 

My Onslow County work trip was unforgettable. I learned about oyster farming, beachcombed on a deserted island, explored the historic town of Swansboro, enjoyed a gorgeous picnic on the beach, and teared up at the Camp LeJeune Memorial Garden.

I was charmed by sea turtles at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, interacted with donkeys at Mike’s Farm, and conquered my fears while kayaking in a bay full of stingrays and waterfowl. For four days, the ocean and waterways nourished my soul, until it was time to head to Abingdon.

Virginia

I fell in love with this charming Virginia mountain town the minute I arrived.

Surrounded by history and the Blue Ridge Mountains, this quaint destination welcomed me with open arms. From the innkeeper where I stayed to the local boutique and shop owners, to the people I met standing in line to see a performance at the renowned Barter Theatre, I was welcomed with a smile and kind words. I loved the theater performances, mountain vistas, and tasty cuisine that I found in Abingdon.

Three days proved insufficient to fully explore this artsy town. I hope to return for a fall bike ride along the Virginia Creeper Trail, where the countryside transforms into a vivid canvas of yellow, orange, and red foliage.

Reflection- Waiting for Someday is Over

My journey took me from the familiar comforts of home in Ohio to Alabama, a place I once cherished, and then to Florida, where I created new memories with my two youngest children. Finally, I found solace by the Atlantic shores and in the mountains of Virginia.

Leaving home for a challenging but rewarding three-week solo adventure prompted me to reflect on the changes of the past few years. From my husband’s accident and year-long recovery to the loss of my dad and my mom’s leukemia treatment, these experiences have reshaped my perspective on life. 

I’ve shed the waiting-for-“someday” mentality. Someday may never arrive. Instead, I’m embracing a new self who seeks adventure beyond the familiar, steps out of her comfort zone, and seizes opportunities. This road trip was just the beginning of a new life journey, one I hope will be filled with even more fond memories.

Have you ever taken a trip to “find yourself?” Leave a comment below and tell me about it.

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