Photo by Eric Nyquist.
Only one other person showed up at the designated meeting spot, though at least she brought trail mix. Everybody else wussed out. All the shared excitement from the previous night—about our big plan to hike through a Maryland state park that contained what we’d been told were the actual woods from The Blair Witch Project—had vanished by the time our alarms went off early that morning.
I was disappointed but not truly mad that there weren’t more of us. It was 2001, we were students at the University of Delaware, and we’d decided to go along on a bus ride with a campus club that was doing a day trip to Maryland. But we were all talk sometimes, buzzed and holding our red Solo cups, filled to the brim with Natty Ice while we made grandiose plans—usually without a shred of coherent thought as to what shape we might be in the next day.
I only got mad later. Not just at the people I was hanging around with back then for being kind of obnoxious, but also at myself for continuing to travel with them.
Because I partially blame myself for the mistakenly high expectations I had about the concept of group travel in those days. In theory, it seemed so glamorous and grown-up. When I was a teenager in New Jersey, desperate to be old enough to experience road trips and adult vacations, I should have paid more attention to how every movie or TV show I loved depicted these activities as featuring a fair amount of drama. Then I might have anticipated that my longed-for cabin-in-the-woods weekends—all hot tubs, sex, and beer—would end up feeling more like a slasher film where everyone gets murdered by a chainsaw-wielding psychopath.
“Where were you?” The accusatory statement hit me the moment I came through the door of a rented condo in the Catskills one winter.
“I’m sorry, did you think I’d gone missing?”
The question was rhetorical, because we both knew she hadn’t been concerned for my safety. “She” being the self-proclaimed organizer of that particular trip, and God forbid someone step out on her pristine and careful itinerary. Everyone had been napping after a late night, and I’d gone on a walk through the grounds of the resort we were in. I’d discovered that the spa had a last-minute opening for a massage, and I was on vacation, after all. (I thought.)
But apparently my absence prevented everyone from doing anything, because we weren’t all together to make a group decision, and Organizer Lady was pissed. Which made no sense, given that the group’s decisions were always just a disguised version of her telling us what she wanted to do, and no one argued.
In general, something always fell apart when my crew formulated any kind of travel plans. New Orleans, Disney World, Las Vegas, upstate New York, the Jersey Shore—the location didn’t matter. There would be someone who didn’t like heights (me), someone who didn’t want to do much walking on a tour (not me), someone who was late, making us miss the shuttle to this thing or that (definitely not me).
Back then, there was a core—sort of. We were all women, college friends in our twenties, getting together in groups that usually started with two people having an idea for a trip, then inviting friends who also invited friends, so that on any given trip you’d probably know half the people fairly well and the other half in name only. It was an understandable mismatching of personalities based on the shared experiences of living in dorms together and thinking that would transfer over to being together anywhere. Because if you can share a communal shower, you can handle anything, right? (Wrong.)
During that weekend of skiing in the Catskills, a sullen “we all go or we don’t go” attitude marred every single thing we attempted to do, including breakfast, snow tubing, and a Golden Oldies night at a lodge that had a very strong Dirty Dancing vibe.
If someone didn’t want to go, what was the point of guilting them into it by announcing that unless they went, no one would? If someone didn’t feel up to or couldn’t handle a walking tour, why all the huffing and muttering? Just let them lie by the pool and read a book or blow their money at a slot machine if that’s their preference when you’re in Las Vegas! (No, I’m not still upset about that one.)
“What the hell do you mean no one is coming to pick me up?!” I shrieked in the quiet NJTransit train car, earning several disapproving looks and a hushed “Language, please!” from a mom with her two young kids.
I was on my way to a beach house that we’d all chipped in for ahead of time. The two organizers had said the money would go toward a big dinner and enough booze for both days. I couldn’t get off early from work on that particular Friday, so I missed the various carpools leaving New York and was relegated to taking the slow, bumpy, often-delayed train into New Jersey.
Earlier, when I explained my predicament about work, I was promised that there were at least two nondrinkers with cars who could come pick me up at the train station, which was a couple miles from the beach house. But then, when I was one stop away, my phone rang. It was someone from the house calling to say, oops, sorry, everybody is drunk, so no one can come get you after all. The cab companies I called quoted $45 to $60 to travel the two miles from the station to the house. Without any options, I grudgingly forked over the dough.
After the exorbitant cab ride, I arrived to find that the dinner and wine had already been snarfed. It was 4:30 p.m. I was sheepishly offered half a bowl of lukewarm rigatoni and a bottle of water, making me mad enough to say, prior to my first bite: “This better be the best fucking rigatoni I’ve ever eaten.”
Rigatoni Weekend is when I gave up and officially decided that my answer to group trip invitations going forward would be an across-the-board hell no. As nerve-wracking as this position was, and after all the Lifetime movies I’d seen that scarred me about traveling alone, I thought I had to bite the bullet, because no fear of mine was worse than overpriced pasta.
Going forward, I didn’t want to compromise so hard on a potential daily activity that no one ended up liking anything we chose to do. I wanted to be the travel director and itinerary planner. The one who made all the decisions without having to check with anyone else or uncomfortably stretch my budget to fit the group dynamic.
And for years, it was glorious. I rented a beachfront apartment on the Jersey Shore, all on my own. Made several trips to California, where I did portions of the coast drive, stopping whenever the hell I felt like it. Went to Indianapolis to visit all the Kurt Vonnegut tourist spots, like the nerd that I am. My biggest solo trip—a month in Iceland—was life-changing, but it was also the first time I felt a nagging sense that maybe, just maybe, I wished my friends were there with me.
Years passed, and I no longer had relationships going with the people who’d driven me crazy in the past. Now I was using WhatsApp, FaceTime, and iMessage to talk to my new friends every day from Iceland, whenever I saw some beautiful waterfall, black-sand beach, or lagoon that I knew they would love. I was saying “wish you were here” and meant it.
All my solo travel had taught me to embrace the fact that I actually was something of a control freak, and that, in the old days, I hadn’t been surrounding myself with people I could be honest with. All the exhausting round-robin conversations—with everyone casually saying, “Yeah, I’m easy, I’ll do whatever,” when the opposite was true—seemed long behind me. I’m not that easy! I’ll admit it now! It just seemed easier to tolerate the seemingly well-intentioned whims of others than to fight for what I wanted to do or spend.
Thanks to a combination of my failing to sound off and choosing ill-suited travel companions, I ended up not enjoying my trips and regretting my expenditures. I had shouted from the rooftops for a decade that group travel was terrible, but it wasn’t, necessarily. When group travel didn’t live up to what I’d hoped for, I blamed the whole institution instead of examining the various individual components. Including myself.
I know now that the right kind of group travel lets anyone involved make decisions and might include smaller groups splitting off for various activities, with some people doing solo adventures and catching up for dinner.
Or maybe not! It just takes time to find your group, and there might be different groups, depending on the kind of trip. Imagine thinking you have to do everything with the same people all the time, no matter what it is. Who knew that you could do solo travel and group travel and it could all be great? Actually, lots of people probably knew, but it blew my mind.
In May, I did my first group travel trip in years: to Miami, where we all had a wonderful time. Our beach stints were mostly together, but we ate, went shopping, looked at art, took naps, got coffee, and went for walks in various twos and threes without any set schedule or drama. When someone wanted to go back to the hotel because they were tired, they went without getting grief. If someone wanted to get up early and go do yoga on the beach, they went, while the rest of us pretended not to think about our unhealthy choices!
So, I don’t speak ill of group travel anymore. I’ve made my peace, and we’re all cool now. Which is also the reason I can confidently say that I would rather throw myself down a sewer grate and feed myself to the raccoons than go on your big group camping trip next weekend. I don’t care if there are s’mores.