I have a history of celebrating milestone birthdays solo. By choice.
I don’t have a mental catalog of when, where or with whom I have spent every birthday. But I do remember these:
21 … In Indianapolis. Alone.
25 … In Singapore. Alone.
30 … In Eufaula, Alabama. Alone.
And 40 … In Aspen, Colorado. Not alone. (With my wife and sons, having recently moved to Colorado and exploring it for the first time as a foursome.)
When I was 21, I was an intern for the Indiana Pacers. I had no group of friends to go out and drink with. Didn’t matter. I’d been doing that for several years, anyway. I went for an early dinner to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand restaurant. For some reason.
I was more or less the only patron in the place. The young servers must have thought it sad that I was there alone, at an early-bird hour no less, on my 21st birthday. The restaurant had a promo of some kind on a cocktail, in which the glass was a souvenir to take home. I ordered that, for the gift of the glass. “Oh, sorry. We’re out.”
But then someone found one for me, having dug it out of a box of broken glasses not yet thrown into the dumpster. They cleaned off the shards and presented it to me.
When I was 25, I was a soldier stationed in South Korea for a year. I took leave to travel in Southeast Asia, planned at a time that would span my birthday that summer. I spent a few rainy and otherwise unmemorable days in Singapore, including on my birthday.
When I was 30, I was not yet married and not yet a father. I was on a three-month roadtripping adventure of sorts and working on a book. I’d been granted a writing fellowship, my first “real” money as a professional writer, for a book project in the vein of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.”
I was roaming the broad, oft-overlooked American interior and living in my 1975 Volkswagen Type II, that is a VW bus (or van). I was camping and, in that post-Heat-Moon and pre-social media era, I was writing “From Flyover Land” as I went. I published pieces of the work on a blog so my now-wife, Becca, and others could follow along with me.
I spent that milestone birthday having went down yonder on the Chattahoochee of Alan Jackson’s country music renown. As a teenager who grew up in rural flyover land in the early ’90s, I knew the lyrics to that song and still can summon many of them.
I parked my VW bus named “Boio” with a wide view of Lake Eufaula and marked the milestone birthday. Alone.
This year is not a milestone year of birthdays, per se. It’s not 50 yet. But at 47 years of age, it does seem to tick across a sub-threshold in my mind. I think this year officially makes me a man in my late-40s. And that seems strange enough as I step closer to that mark of 50 and what lies beyond.
This year, I bought myself new camping gear and headed to one of the countless camping spots in the mountains that surround me where I live. Solo once again for my birthday. Once again, by choice.
It’s been many years since I have gone camping, with Boio or otherwise. My sons weren’t sure what to make of the outing, especially on my birthday. Before I left that afternoon, I overheard my younger son ask Becca, “Why aren’t we treating this like a birthday?”
I chose to camp in a place near Leadville, Colo., where I could pitch my tent between a sizable mountain lake and the Colorado Trail. A place that would give me opportunities to hike, run, gravel bike, SUP and sleep a bit closer to the stars at an elevation of 10,000 feet.
As it turned out, it was rainy and cold. No stars visible. But happily enough, no phone signal, either. Just quiet, but for the sound of rain.
I set up my tent, then got in a short trail run. I took a rainy evening walk and made lots of wet photographs. I ate summer sausage, colby jack cheese and Wheat Thins for dinner. Later, I ate Little Debbie Swiss Rolls as a birthday treat and sang a few lines of “Happy Birthday” to myself while I walked the lake’s rocky edge. I don’t know why. For amusement, I suppose.
When I climbed in my tent to stay, I journaled and meditated and read by lantern light. I layered against the near-freezing temperature and fell asleep listening to the rain fall on my tent, and to the flow of snowmelt feeding the lake.
I never put on my wetsuit or unpacked my paddleboard. But I enjoyed a short bike ride before driving home.
When evening came, we treated it like a birthday. Family dinner, cake and ice cream. A day late, but together.