Learning how to travel alone, independent, and unafraid (even of squirrels)
I used to be convinced that squirrels were evil and plotting to take over the world. Or at least, there used to be a running joke in my family that I held such a conviction. I don’t remember how it started, but throughout my childhood, every time someone in my family saw a squirrel behaving even mildly out of the ordinary, I would be notified immediately.
On a more serious note (which is not to say that the squirrelpocalypse isn’t serious), I’ve always been a little more self-conscious than I would’ve liked. My college friends have been quick to point out my apparently absurd refusal to go to the dining hall by myself. There’s just something about the idea of eating alone in public—or doing anything alone, for that matter—that feels so vulnerable, and honestly I’d rather just avoid the discomfort.
So the other day, when I decided to pick up lunch from one of the many food trucks lining the streets of Washington, D.C. and eat it on the sidewalk, I had the sudden revelation that traveling by myself may just have taught me how to be a functional human without accompaniment. For the past week, I’d been doing everything alone: going on tours alone, working alone, eating alone. I mean, I was literally sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of D.C., eating lunch and ignoring the concerned looks I got from passerby.
It was a small thing, but this discovery made me happy. I was so pleased with myself, in fact, that I decided to do the same thing for dinner. The city had cooled down and the sunlight had dimmed to an ethereal golden glow, so I ordered my kale caesar salad to go and found a bench in a small park, where I sat cross-legged and pried open the plastic container.
I had barely taken two bites before something hit me in the back of the head. I was too shocked to make a sound and could jump to no conclusions, so I just turned around and looked behind me. At first I couldn’t see anything. Then I saw him.
A squirrel, of average size and color, sitting on the ground behind my bench, staring up at me with fervent determination through tiny, fiery black eyes. It was clear from the moment our gazes met that this meant war.
Nonetheless, I decided to ignore the assault and continue with my meal. In a matter of seconds, he had leapt up onto the bench’s metal arm, less than twelve inches from my salad. I jumped up from the bench. He crawled closer.
This was when I began talking to the squirrel. “No,” I said firmly, as though he were a pet dog. But he wasn’t. He was a malicious wild animal, ready to do whatever it took to win this battle. He didn’t budge. “Why?” I asked him. “Why are you doing this?” No response.
After several moments, he jumped off the bench and scurried away behind a tree. I sat down again, thinking that the ordeal was over. I was wrong.
Over the course of the next hour or so, the squirrel and I faced off as I attempted to finish my salad in peace. At one point, a friendly (read: naive) young couple came by and offered the squirrel some pastries (“Squirrels don’t carry rabies,” she said), provoking an entire squirrel battalion to join the cause. But my enemy remained focused. He jumped from behind again, with unclear intentions. Did he want to climb on my head? Did he want to knock me unconscious so he could steal the salad? Was he just trying to provoke me?
The couple had joined me, sitting at the bench beside mine, and as the girl continued to try to pet the squirrels, the guy pulled his feet up onto the bench and perched on the armrest. His façade of bravery had disappeared, and it was clear that he was as apprehensive about our impending deaths-by-squirrel as I was.
I managed to finish the salad in the end, and I stood up, wished my new friends a good evening, and gave one last triumphant look at the squirrel as I strode away with my empty salad bowl.
Despite the squirrel’s best attempts, he didn’t deter me from eating alone in public. But maybe next time I’ll find some nice stone stairs instead of a park bench.