There is something I need to explain about solitude. It is beautiful. It is absolutely beautiful to be alone and have no one to depend on but yourself. Granted, it isn’t healthy to always be alone and have no one to depend on, because we are social creatures, and we need interaction with other humans in order to experience life fully, and it is wise to accept help when you are struggling and help is offered freely and lovingly (something I am learning out here on the PCT with all of these generous trail angels who invite us in and feed us, etc.). But, occasional solitude is also necessary for happiness. From time to time, being completely alone, and even feeling utterly helpless, is good for us. Let me explain.
I mentioned earlier how I lost my hiking partner and looked for her for three days. I tried to slow down in case she was behind me, I sped up when I thought she was ahead, I left notes behind, I sent messages ahead with faster hikers and even park rangers. I planned to be with her in the part of the Sierras that was snowed-in and icy and where the snow melt caused the rivers to swell and the currents to be rather forceful and river crossings to be dangerous. When I ended up reaching the part of the trail where I began to see snow, and I still hadn’t found my hiking partner, I was upset and felt a bit uneasy. When I heard that she got off of the trail to meet up with her boyfriend who flew in to see her from a different country, I tried to be understanding, but I was also angry. My anger stemmed from fear, and it wasn’t at her that I was angry, but at myself for feeling inadequate without her. I’d only hiked with her for about three weeks. She and I usually didn’t even hike together, but rather, met up at different water sources and camped together at the end of the day. But, suddenly, I realized that there was snow ahead, snow for which many people prepared by hiking in the snow prior (which I didn’t do), purchasing the proper equipment (which I ended up without), and finding a partner to cross the steep, icy passes with (whom I didn’t have). Turns out, this is exactly what I needed.
Last year, when I hiked several sections of the PCT for a month, I was extremely nervous about cowboy camping (camping on the ground on a tarp and in a sleeping bag but without a tent). I worried about the dirt, the bugs, the cold, but mostly about my shattered illusion of safety. Sleeping in a tent provided me with a false sense of comfort. I felt surrounded by something (granted, a flimsy piece of plastic that offered me no protection from wildlife, lightning, falling rocks, etc), and this made me feel secure, hidden away from danger, and at peace. Remove this thin layer of nylon and polyester, and all of a sudden, I felt exposed and insecure. So when a fellow hiker tried to convince me to cowboy camp with him, I refused the first few times, and eventually did give in, but only once. At night, I rolled off of the tarp and into the dirt, and woke up with my face covered in dust and sand and told him that I’m never doing this again. This year on the PCT, I have cowboyed about 80% of the time, and it’s been a wonderful experience. The air is fresher, the temperature within my sleeping bag is regulated better, the stars are right above me for me to look at as I fall asleep, and I feel more connected with nature than ever. But, the reason I am sharing this with you is not to convince you to camp without a tent–by all means, camp how you like, hike your own hike. I’m sharing this with you so that we can discuss this false illusion of safety that we develop, with our own doing, in order to feel comfortable in the wilderness.
Most people feel safer in the woods with a hiking partner. Earlier, I made a video clip talking about how important it is to have a night hiking partner in the desert (that clip can be seen here), and I still stand by that. I hiked in the desert at night by myself after I made that video, and after nearly peeing on a tarantula and hearing what could have been a mountain lion and discovering that there was a group of illegal immigrants–all men–hiding in the shrubs, I confirmed once more that, for safety’s sake, having a hiking partner is a wise decision. When hiking in the desert at night, or in the snow, or while crossing a river, or in bear country, it is most definitely a good idea. Even in areas that provide no threat, if you have a hiking partner with whom you get along with great and who adds to your PCT hiking experience, then, of course, hike with that person. But what I’m saying is, from time to time, give yourself a chance to hike alone. It is not wise to always hike with someone. You’ll be missing out on what nature has to offer you when you pursue solitude in the wilderness. There are many benefits to hiking alone, these being physical, mental, and spiritual. These, I will not explain fully, because I want you to go and see for yourself. But I will explain one thing, and this is how you find your own strength when you shed this illusion of safety that you obtain when hiking with someone else.
So, back to the illusion of safety. When I night-hiked in the desert, I had a hiking partner. We later split up because I wanted to hike alone, and then I met the awesome Tumbleweed. We had a lot of fun together, and so we hiked together for a bit. We planned to go our separate ways after the snow in the Sierras (her boyfriend would be hiking with her afterwards), but we were to hike in the snow together. I felt comfortable with the idea. It made me feel like I’d be so much safer. It made me think that I could depend on someone in case of danger. And this, actually, would take away from my experience.
You see, you can really only depend on yourself out there. You are the one who is responsible for you. You are the one whose feet you cautiously lower onto the ice and decide whether to put your entire body weight down or to find a better place to stand. You are the one who will choose where to place your trekking poles (or ice axe, if you have one) when the slippery trail beneath you propels you forward. You are the one who will catch you when you slip and begin to slide. You are the one who, while falling, will choose in which way to fall in order to hurt yourself less. You are the one who has to make a choice when you see a dangerous, steep pass full of post-holes and rocks, or a much longer way around it but with less snow. The list can continue on and on. But, what I’m saying is that you must depend on you and you alone. And having a hiking partner sometimes prevents you from realizing that you are strong enough and wise enough to depend on yourself, and you instead place that power in their hands (which is unfair to them and detrimental to you).
So, when I ended up without a hiking partner, I realized that it was entirely my responsibility to take very good care of myself in order to get over this pass and to safety. The fact that I was alone, in the snow, without the right equipment, and in the dark, added to the challenge, and caused me to find within myself the strength I didn’t know I had. I was now making decisions without asking for advice and discussing the pros and cons. I was choosing what was best for me. I was getting myself out of danger’s way. I was finding my own way when I got lost. I was pushing myself forward without someone else’s encouragement, and I was proud of myself when I placed one foot in front of the other, and not because I was following someone, or because someone was behind me, hurrying me along. I had to keep going no matter how exhausted I was or how much I was hurting, and only I could comfort myself and tell myself to suck it up and push on and not to be afraid.
And the strangest thing happened. I became entirely unafraid. I don’t remember ever feeling fear while climbing Forester Pass. Nervousness, yes, when I slipped and slid downwards. Anxiety, yes, when I was anxious to be done. But fear, no, never, not even for a moment. I believe this is because I was responsible for getting myself out of there safely, and I knew that fear would not serve me well, but instead, deter me. Maybe it was adrenaline, or the desire to have Forester done and over with, or maybe it was that inner strength I found that I’d mentioned earlier, but I hiked on, cold, alone, sometimes lost, and in the dark, without fear, and this feeling was absolutely worth the “disadvantage” of not having a hiking partner. I knew that I wasn’t safe, that what I was doing was dangerous, but my fear was nonexistent. And this, I felt, not because there was someone else there to make me feel safe, but because I trusted myself to keep me safe.
Afterwards, I was overjoyed that I’d hiked Forester by myself. I was glad that my hiking partner wasn’t with me providing me with this false sense of safety. I’d have hiked with her and felt comfortable and happy and be done and not have encountered many of the challenges I have encountered on my own. Together, we might not have gotten lost, or we might have found our way back more easily. Together, we would have chit-chatted and taken more breaks, and I’d have eaten more and been warm at night. With her, I’d have someone to complain to as I dealt with the pain between my shoulder blades, and she’d have offered me some verbal comfort, and I might have felt slightly better. With her, I’d have felt that, if I made a foolish decision and stepped on an icy patch and fallen and hurt myself, she’d be there to help me. Without her, I had to be more cautious, more protective of myself, more gentle with myself and my fragile body and mental state, and I had to be strong. Stronger than I would have been if I depended on someone else.
So, this is what I’m saying. To find your inner strength, you must pursue solitude–especially solitude in places where you’d rather not be alone. I needed this experience to discover that. I hope that one day you do too. I sincerely hope that everyone who goes on a long-distance hike experiences hiking alone at least for a short period of time.
Yesterday, I got back on the trail at Red’s Meadow with my new hiking partner, Necktie. He and I will sometimes hike together, but sometimes we will not. For the most part, we will camp together, but hiking alone is something we both really enjoy. No matter how great we get along, I’ve warned him (although he didn’t need the warning and understands completely because he is exactly the same way) that I will need to sometimes be by myself, and that it will have nothing to do with him, but with me. The new, strong, capable me, who doesn’t feel inadequate without a hiking partner, but pretty badass.