A few years back I was driving up a terrible unpaved Romanian country road into the Ciucaş Mountains with my old, red, Dacia car. It was Saturday morning, it was my birthday, and I was about to start my first solo travel adventure into the mountains. In about half an hour, I reached the Red Mountain Chalet at the end of the road. The easiest mountain trail to Ciucaş Peak started just behind the chalet. I grabbed my backpack and started my adventure on the trail.
During that time, I was single, working hard during the week, and in a constant lethargic state. For that reason I intentionally made no plans for my birthday. But deep inside my heart, I wanted to offer myself something special as a gift: the new, and possibly exciting, experience of traveling alone.
When I told people that I wanted to travel by myself, their responses discouraged me. “It’s dangerous,” “You don’t talk to anybody,” “You’ll get bored,” “You’re so weird,” and the best of all, “What will others say about you?”
Others’ opinions influenced me for many years. Yet for my birthday, I felt it was time for a change. To me, it was an adventure to travel alone, and I knew that I had to do it. That’s why I chose a familiar place in the Ciucaş Mountains; an easy and beautiful trail, where I had been many times, and it was popular during the weekend as well.
At first, the trail went along a contour line through the forest. It was around 10 o’clock in the morning. I was alone on the trail and a thought crossed my mind, “What would I do if I met a bear?” The Universe had an answer for that; the forest was quiet, the birds were singing. It was just my fear that I had to face.
After an hour of trekking, I reached John’s Well in the Beer’s Valley, the first stop along the route to Ciucaş Peak. I took a short break and then continued up the valley. A man was trekking solo and a couple of young people were also going in the same direction as me. I felt as if everybody stared at me because I was trekking alone.
The Beer’s Valley trail ended right under the Ciucaş Chalet. I reached the chalet just as the sun came out from behind the clouds. The Ciucaş Chalet was a new, enormous building, probably a better fit for the city rather than in the heart of the mountains. I would have preferred to see a small wooden chalet instead of the modern concrete hotel, and for this reason, I didn’t take a break there. I just passed by and headed further toward Ciucaş Peak.
A large green upland spread between the chalet and the main peak. It offered panoramic views over the surrounding massifs of Siriu and Grohotiş. Far ahead of me, stood the large rock formations called the “Bowls,” with a variety of round forms. When I saw them, I felt comfortable seeing familiar places. Knowing the trail beforehand made me feel safe even if I was hiking alone.
I was close to The Bowls rock formations, when I passed a man hiking with two children.
I greeted them without stopping, “Hello.”
The man replied, “Good morning.” I didn’t look back at them. I thought that if I started the hike alone, I shouldn’t interact with other people unless to exchange a simple greeting.
I kept moving forward, toward Ciucaş Peak. While I continued walking, I somehow got lost. I admired the landscapes instead of keeping an eye on the marked trail that I needed to follow. I didn’t panic. I found an old sheepfold which I recognized from my first mountain hikes in the area. From there, I had to ascend a steep mountainside to return to the trail toward the peak. Eventually, I found the trail and realized I had less than one hour left to trek. It wasn’t even midday yet. I had plenty of time for another break.
I turned right on a mountain ridge and sat down facing the area called Întorsura Buzăului. I grabbed some chocolate from my backpack and ate it slowly. In the same time I gratefully admired the landscape surrounding me and I took as many photos as I wanted. After a while, I lied down on the grass and sunbathed. In a few words, I did everything I wanted and for how long I wanted. Being alone, I felt free without having to depend on others and without having travel companions that rushed me.
In those moments, I saw things in a different light than before; I felt that I connected with my soul. I was finally listening to what my intuition had always whispered to me, but that I had never listened to previously. It was easy to be me, but I had never allowed myself to know “me” better. It was simple to be happy by myself. I was glad that I had found the necessary faith to confront solitude and all its mysteries.
A wave of cold hit me when the sun hid behind the clouds. I regrouped and continued my hike to Ciucaş Peak. Soon, I discovered that a competition, the Ciucaş Marathon Mountain Trail, was taking place in the massif. More than two hundred participants passed me. I realized I had no reason to be scared as the mountain was literally full of mountaineers.
“Run, run, run. Keep going!” I cheered, encouraging them to finish the run. I felt as if I was sharing their experience and running a marathon myself.
When I reached the checkpoint on Ciucaş Peak, the marathon volunteers greeted me. They even asked what number I was.
I laughed and said, “Don’t worry! I am not running your marathon.”
Ciucaş Peak was windy and crowded with the marathon participants. It was cold and I didn’t want to stay among the crowds. I reminded myself that I was in the mountains for the experience of a solo trek. I hiked down the mountain toward the Pass of the Bowls and did a loop around The Bowls rock formations. I intended to get back to the Red Mountain Chalet before dark.
After I completed the loop, I was close to the Ciucaş Chalet. Again, I saw the man trekking with two children that I had greeted that morning. They were enjoying a picnic.
“Hello again,” I greeted them, not stopping and continuing forward without thinking of interacting more with strangers.
“Hello to you too,” the man answered, and added, “Maybe this time you stop and stay with us.”
I was puzzled. I wasn’t used to stopping or staying with strangers. In the same time, I felt overwhelmed by their invitation, but I remembered I had the privilege of traveling by myself. It meant I could decide when and with whom I could spend time.
“Well, hmm, yes, sure,” I sputtered and sat down beside them.
The man had an athletic body, gray hair, and was about fifty. He offered me some sweets. In exchange, I offered some energy bars to the children, his sons. They weren’t more than ten, but each of them had their own small backpack. They were always joking and laughing.
“We are living in Braşov,” the man continued the conversation. “You?”
“I am also living in Braşov. Do you go to the Red Mountain Chalet?” I was hoping I found companions for the rest of the day. I still felt strange trekking alone, and my natural reaction was to join a group somehow.
“No, we parked our car at the beginning of the Beer’s Valley,” he answered. “You can come with us to the John’s Well and from there you’re almost at the Red Mountain Chalet.”
I was happy that someone offered to adopt me for the day, but once again I remembered that my goal was to experience solo travel.
“No, thank you. I will hike up to Zăganu Ridge and come back on another trail. It won’t get dark for a while. I am in a good shape and I want to experience solo trekking more.”
“You’re right,” the man agreed. “You have plenty of time. Have a nice day.”
I waved them goodbye and left them without even learning their names.
When I had sat down for the picnic with the family, almost all of the participants to the marathon had passed by. The mountain was wilder without hundreds of runners. I continued walking for half an hour through the upland, covered with small pine trees, and finally reached Chiruşca Pass. I continued up towards Zăganu Ridge from where I knew another marked trail down to the Red Mountain Chalet. My body felt good and I still didn’t feel tired, so I kept hiking up towards the ridge.
By the time I reached the place called The Crossroad, I had just half an hour left to go before reaching the end of the trek, the Red Mountain Chalet. I decided to take another break. The afternoon air lingered above me. Ciucaş Peak towered in front of me, I admired it, thinking about how I had been there just a couple of hours before. As I sat there, I reflected on the day’s happenings: I had a picnic with strangers and, for the first time, I chose to refuse an invitation to travel with someone.
I stayed up in the mountains for another hour and enjoyed looking at the nature surrounding me. When it started to get dark, I hiked down. Finishing my hike, I realized that my birthday trip had offered me the chance to learn the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘solitude.’
‘Loneliness’ is connected with fear; the fear of rejection. The fear that people will laugh at you for being alone; the fear of feeling embarrassed when you go alone somewhere; the fear that nobody cares about you; the fear of not being able to do something without others; the fear of not always having something to do; the fear of being bored; the fear of your own company.
When I decided to give it a try and experience how loneliness really felt, I had no choice but to accept my fears and access my inner courage. And just then, when I let go of my fears, I discovered ‘solitude.’ I found out that what I had considered ‘loneliness’ was just a way of seeing only the negative side of ‘solitude.’
‘Solitude’ doesn’t mean the absence of company, but embracing my own company and having the freedom of letting my soul speak to me. Now, I see ‘solitude’ as a positive way to connect with myself in order to discover who I am, how I grow, and how I am authentic. ‘Solitude’ helps me decide what to do with my life. It is a way of having faith that my happiness depends on me, and just me.
Nowadays, I choose to be solitary from time to time. On that birthday, solitude became part of my life and now I need it regularly. I regard solitude as a blessing, as a form of respect to myself and a way of connecting with the Universe. The adventure of traveling solo taught me how to overcome my fears. First I thought of it as an adventure, but gradually it became a lifestyle. For this reason I consider that hike the most wonderful and unexpected birthday gift I offered to myself.
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Iuliana is a passionate explorer, travel writer, and blogger. Her life motto is simple: “We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting” (Kahlil Gibran). She currently lives in Sibiu, Romania, where she is writing for several Romanian and worldwide journals. Iuliana has a Master's degree in Architecture and a Doctorate in Heritage Tourism. In her writing, she focuses on the cultural aspects of her travels, with a special interest in the authentic experiences of a place.