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File photo shows Monica Bialobrzeski during her Western-Canada road trip in the summer of 2019. Special to the Globe and Mail.Monica Bialobrzeski

There is something romantic about doing things alone. Growing up with immigrant parents who promoted independence, travelling alone was something I longed for early on as a way to explore my autonomy.

So in the summer of 2019, I decided to embark on a solo road trip across Western Canada. Almost immediately, I was reminded of the general concern that still surrounds solo travelling, particularly for women. Friends and family asked me whether it was safe. Did I really want to do this alone? What if my car broke down in dead zones? In the Uber ride on my way to the airport, my driver couldn’t comprehend why my boyfriend wasn’t accompanying me. An airport security guard applauded my bravery as he waved me through the gate.

Although some of their concerns were valid, I didn’t see this trip as different from anything else I did independently in life. I knew preparation for my trip would be important. My car would be my home, and like my city home, I wanted to be safe and feel safe. I preselected my vehicle to avoid any last-minute surprises, settling on an SUV that would allow me to see higher off the ground, and which included features such as lane-departure warning that signals if you’re unintentionally leaving your lane, adaptive cruise control and tinted windows to protect my belongings. I created a list of necessary accessories such as an extra gallon of gas and a printed map for if (and when) technology failed me.

I hit the road from Edmonton to Vancouver, hitting a handful of cities and towns in between. Wheeling cautiously across narrow cliffs while singing along to Fleetwood Mac, driving through rocky gravel to reach hiking destinations, opening my trunk to enjoy midafternoon picnics, staring onward glacier ponds – I found myself living in my ideal, romantic, solitary escape. And the more the trip went smoothly, the safer I felt. By the time I made it to downtown Vancouver, I felt as if a weight had lifted from shoulders. I had proven all those earlier concerns wrong. I felt as if I had defied the stereotypes and experienced all the wonders that make travelling alone worthwhile – life’s funny way of lining up the right people at the right time, meeting a group of German travellers who became instant life-long friends and taking the perfect shot of the Rockies, just for me, with no pressure or deadlines.

File photo shows Monica Bialobrzeski attempting to capture the perfect shot of the Rockies during her solo road trip across Western Canada in the summer of 2019. Special to the Globe and Mail.Monica Bialobrzeski

Little did I know that my celebratory mood was premature. As I got into my car after a quick dinner, I heard the faint echo of broken glass crumbling. Turning around to check my blind spot, I noticed my windows were smashed. In disbelief, I realized all of my personal belongings – laptop, camera, equipment, passport and journal – had been stolen. As the night settled in, I realized that I had craved solitude throughout this trip and had gotten exactly what I wanted. Now, in a different way, I felt incredibly alone.

What happened next was a blur of filing a police report, totalling up the value of my belongings, reporting my passport stolen and taping up my windows. I tried my hardest to make the best of a lacklustre trip ending, but, feeling defeated, I was ready to go home.

The next few weeks continued to be filled with unexpected moments of distress – my insurance providers unwilling to help me owing to fine print, sleepless nights fearing a break-in and even a newfound nervousness passing strangers, in my own neighbourhood. I replayed my own imagined version of that night – the people who saw the break-in and didn’t report it before me, the people who walked right past me without stopping to see whether I was okay and the insurance representative who deeply emphasized with my situation, but coldly told me there was nothing they could do.

With a little distance and time, I had to ask myself whether my feelings of elation during the trip were worth all the distress by the end.

The answer is yes. It was worth it and I don’t regret my trip. But when I look back through the few photos I do have – the ones taken on my phone – I realize that the question of whether women should travel alone is a lot more nuanced than I had thought. I know that I cannot allow the fear of the unknown to outweigh the fear of doing something that grows me. But I also now know that the question of whether a woman should travel alone is not just one of independence, but of our collective commitment to safety.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility. I can do as much as I can in order to be safe, but the rest is up to everyone else. We (me, you, communities and government) are all responsible for making contributions to create safe environments and build a world where everyone gets the opportunity to experience independence and freedom. As we celebrate International Women’s day, let’s make sure to celebrate the great achievements women have made to extend their own rights. But let’s also not forget that it is the contributions we all make together that will have the greatest impact in driving us forward.

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