Penny wanted to reconnect with the adventurous person she’d been before motherhood. So she went on a very long drive.

Last year I went on a very long drive. It was a solo trip to Chamonix and Provence that in all honesty I didn’t need to make. But I just had this really strong urge to get away and give myself some space. Driving does that for me. And in fact it was the best thing I’d done in ages.

The pretext of my trip was to go and tidy up the studio flat my partner owns and that we rent out in Montroc, outside Chamonix. But really it was just an excuse to escape. I just wanted to get away, get some space and visit an old girlfriend in Provence on the way back.

I had that “I’ve got to get out of here” feeling – and driving gives you a sense of complete agency over what happens to you, of infinite possibilities – something I needed. It was a long drive there and back, over two thousand miles, and some family members questioned me going on my own and worried about me driving so far. But I just really love driving. When I was younger I wanted to be along distance lorry driver. I love that feeling of ‘let’s just go’.

I’ve always been good at doing things on my own. When I was younger I went to live and teach English in Czechoslovakia (I’m half Czech), after the Velvet Revolution. My then boyfriend came to meet me and we drove across Czechoslovakia in a 1950s Riley, but he got ill so I had to drive us all the way us back. So doing things for myself and taking off and having adventures is part of who I am, but you kind of forget if you haven’t done it for a long time.

As a younger woman I’d taught English in a few different places, living on my own in foreign countries. When we’re younger we take these things on unquestioningly because we can. And as you get older you forget the kind of person that you were and life tends to make you more conventional or impose limitations on what you do.

But in my head I’ve always been adventurous and a slightly restless person and movement is quite therapeutic for me. I can remember being in a car as a child and feeling amazing with my head sticking out the window. I love that feeling of possibility that movement gives you and the sense that there are no parameters and no fixed place.

When travelling on your own you have complete freedom and autonomy. I loved just doing what suited me and being slightly random about it, not being answerable to anybody. But I also love the way your ‘inner thing’ comes out and you remember what your ‘inner thing’ is, which can be really hard in a relationship, however good it is. And with my daughter having left for uni the month before, that whole change in lifestyle had given me a bit more head space.

I think I’d always been the kind of person who just did spontaneous stuff. It was my character and it defined me a bit. And I think it’s important to remind yourself of the things that define you when you’re younger, because they don’t disappear. They’re still lurking and it can feel good to reconnect with them. Your life can get almost claustrophobic when you have children because of the routines they impose. And when they leave home you remember you don’t actually need any of those routines.

I still enjoy going away with my partner, but travelling on your own is a completely different experience. I talk to people that I would never talk to if he were there because on your own you’re not off-limits in the way you are if you’re a couple. On the way back from Provence I stopped in a beautiful place called Vézelay, where I stayed in a b&b. There was another woman there on her own and she and the female owner and I were roughly the same age. The other woman, it transpired, was also on a solitary road trip, and the owner was quite eccentric and we had a great chat, joking about how wild we all were. It was just felt like a real connection, the kind I could only have because I was travelling solo.

With driving, it doesn’t matter where you’re going – it’s just the going. And being in the car is a way to explore in a way that’s safe. It’s your little world and you can shut out the outside world when you want to, or get out and explore. It’s a sense of power with a car, a mixture of protection and exposure.

This road trip served as a delineation between my life when I had family responsibilities and my life without, and gave me the chance to contemplate a different way to live that I might aspire to, that might shape what I do next. I felt on the cusp of something different, dipping my toe in the water to see what I feel.

I wanted to work out who I am – am I still the same? What has changed? And where is the next bit of my life going to go? Travelling has always been an important part of my life, so this road trip was my way of expressing it. Once your children leave home you have this sense of ‘what next?’. It’s like being a teenager again. You don’t have all the answers.

For me, being a parent was all consuming and while in that phase I couldn’t really think ahead – you don’t really think there will be an ahead. There wasn’t much space for me between work and my daughter and I just kept going. But actually, now at 53, there’s this whole other section of my life that has to have some purpose.

And this quest for meaning becomes all consuming. What does life consist of if not your job and family duties, how do you make a new meaning for your life? We become aware that we’ve got limited time. It’s exciting and quite scary to think how to fill up that space once schools and structure and routine are out of the equation.

I expected I’d think more while on my drive and come up with solutions, but in fact I just let a load of air flood into my head. It was nice not to have to think. I was listening to talking books and gazing at the scenery as I moved through all the different landscapes. That sense of scale and almost spirituality of mountainous landscapes makes you feel more open-minded. I felt more optimistic and free and connected to the place I was in, the amazing skies and landscape and the atmosphere of being in a little French bar or cafe on your own. You just absorb a lot more on your own, your eyes are more open, your senses stimulated.

That long drive gave me the chance to explore what I might do in the future. I’m still in flux about that. I feel like I’m on the cusp of doing something a bit different, but I don’t yet know what shape that will take.

Words: Marina Gask

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