Modern Americans are rarely deliberately alone, even when pursuing activities that can be solitary (as many outdoor sports are).
For example, my outdoor activity of choice is hiking, but I almost always do it with someone else, which usually includes my two canines. But when I’m with others, I’m usually engaged with them, talking, listening and reacting to their signals and needs and making sure the dogs are not too tired or dehydrated. While I enjoy company while hiking, I wonder sometimes whether solitary hiking might be a completely different experience.
So, I went to the woods (in Shenandoah National Park) to think deliberately in an environment with little distraction. I picked a trail called Buck Hollow/Mary’s Rock that was rated as “lightly traveled” by my guidebook, left my dogs at home and waited to hike until a Tuesday afternoon when it was forecast to rain. I wanted to be confident that I would truly be alone for this journey, even though it was a short one.
The entire hike was a strenuous nine miles and I started late in the afternoon. I’m a fast hiker, though, and figured I could do it in four hours without the dogs, which would put me back at my car at sunset.
By 4:30 in the afternoon, it was already dark on the east side of the mountain and the trail clearly hadn’t been hiked in several days because I ran into spider webs about every 100 yards. They soon coated my hair and stuck to my skin.
In keeping with my Type A personality (plunge ahead and get it done) I ran into the webs for several miles before I figured out that if I slowed down enough to look for them shimmering in the sunlight between the trees, I could duck before they hit my face.
I began to reflect on all the other times I had failed to slow down to see the metaphoric spider webs that could have been avoided. It was strangely difficult to turn off my full-speed-ahead attitude even on solitary hikes.
So a few miles in, I began (or at least attempted to begin) shifting my mind from a cell phone, email and Facebook-fueled overdrive to a space that was more serene.
It was more challenging than I had anticipated. But eventually, I started to really notice things: a heron, an owl, a frog – animals who never would have shown their faces had I been with my dogs or friends, but were less daunted by a solitary hiker. Moments of extraordinary color and soft light passed and I was aware of them.
But the light and colors that dazzled me didn’t stay. What had been beautiful minutes before became silhouettes and shadow. It almost seemed sinister. Through the trees I could see the gathering of deep cloud folds threatening thunderstorms. Wonder turned to trepidation.
Nevertheless, I continued climbing up the switchbacks hoping that as I rose in altitude the light would get better. It did, which is fortunate because it helped me see the bear before she saw me.
She was just off trail with her cub. In retrospect, I realized they were probably just foraging. But at the time, she seemed to be thinking about challenging me for the ground between us. I backed around the bend until they were no longer in sight and stood there panting slightly.
By this time it was late and I was clearly nowhere near the top. The idea of finishing the hike in darkness and NOT being able to see potential bears was unappealing so I did something I almost never do. I turned around.
Going down was faster than going up and I began a half trot to try and beat the coming rain without tripping on a stray root. My senses hummed.
The normal distractions inside my head had vanished and were replaced with a powerful awareness of the world around me. The prospects of lightening, bears and things unseen made me anxious and slightly uneasy. But I also heard nighttime calls I normally would have ignored and stopped several times (albeit briefly) to admire funky mushrooms and leaves. It was as if my fear had burned away my over stimulated fog and produced an intimate, sensuous focus in its wake.
I got back my car seconds before the first major downpour. I was glad to be done even though I didn’t actually finish what I had set out to do. But the hike did leave a feeling of vitality that lingered long after I had left the trail.
I won’t be so bold as to say that hiking alone is better than hiking with others – both ways have their virtues – and I certainly feel more comfortable in others’ company. But the brief discomfort forced me to open my senses to bright, extravagant (and sometimes frightening) pockets of experience I hadn’t even known I was missing.