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Traveling Alone Isn’t Lonely with Books

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

I travel alone a lot. Some of my friends aren’t good savers, some of them aren’t full of wanderlust, and some of them don’t have the energy I have while traveling. I tend to want to be doing things morning ’til dusk, non-stop, and some people actually want to relax on vacation (I usually get back from vacation exhausted). So when I wanted to go to the UK last year, I didn’t want to wait for someone who could go with. I wanted to do it my way, when I was ready. So I went.

A lot of people ask me how I travel alone. Don’t I feel lonely? Anxious? Those are fair questions. I have generalized anxiety disorder, and I can often feel insecure, especially when far away from the people I love.

And yet I didn’t feel alone in the UK. In fact, I loved my time there, for the entire two weeks, and I’m currently looking forward to an adventure across Spain in 2019.

This is largely because I brought the seven Harry Potter books with me on my travels. I’ve never been afraid to do things alone, because books were always there to keep me company. Eating dinner alone, having late-night drinks at the bar of the inn, on the train traveling through gorgeous Scottish hills, I always had my books to fill the space and keep me company. As a bookish person, it’s hard to feel truly alone as I travel.

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“They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travelers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface.” —from Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf ✨✨✨ The summer rain this week in Chicago remnded me of Glencoe, in Scotland, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I started climbing the rocky, slippery stair path up this mountain, past all the pink heather and the sheep, on impulse. I wanted to be closer to the waterfall I could see up on that Scottish peak, which is how I hear some fairy tales begin. When I reached it, there was a small waterfall in my way, but that was beyond my hiking abilities, so I sat on a rock and read a few pages, wanting to make the climb last before my descent. And then, just before I left, I looked down, and a huge rainbow had extended across this valley. It was one of the moments of my life that was filled with the most wonder. ✨✨✨ #glencoe #scotland #readingwhilewalking #readingandwalking #readingwhilewalkingabroad #harrypotterandthegobletoffire #jkrowling #literarytravel #bookishtravel #bookstagram #books #reading

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But even with the books, sometimes it did, indeed, hit me that I was alone on my travels. On one day in particular, with two hours of sleep due to nightmares that had kept me up until 5 a.m., I had to drive for the first time on the left, on the mountainous isle of Skye, and it poured the entire time. I had a mild breakdown up the mountain from the Fairy Pools.

That night I was at the inn where my parents had told me they’d made local friends in the ’90s. But here I was, 10 p.m., exhausted, with my whiskey, and I hadn’t met anyone. I decided it was time to give in. I took my book off the counter and went to slide it into my bag.

“Harry Potter girl—come on over!”

A group of people my age at the end of the bar urged me over. They all introduced themselves. We talked Harry Potter, and we talked my travels, and then we talked about other things, and they bought me a drink and refused to let me return the favor, and just like that, I had made friends. I saw them over the next three nights, and I still get updates from them on my social media feeds.

Books connect me to the world around me. They fill in the gaps, but they also connect me to others. Throughout my travels, people would often connect with me over the Harry Potter books. They would tell me about Scotland’s literary history, or give me tips about local places where scenes were filmed. In the end, my books reminded me of a quote from Dumbledore from the sixth Harry Potter book: “I’m not worried, Harry…I’m with you.”