(Not So) Free Solo

The bummer of being alone in the wild.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: I’m not scared of the dark. I don’t sleep with a night light or anything like that. So, when I tell you that I don’t like spending the night in the woods alone I don’t want you to think it has anything to do with the darkness of those woods. It’s not about the pitch black that pervades the wilderness, per se. It’s about being alone. By myself. Without a companion. In the woods. Overnight. I don’t like it. 

It’s a weird thing to admit as a 45-year-old with a wife and kids, but there it is: I don’t like to be alone in the woods overnight. I’ve done it, a bunch, but it’s not for me. I’m just uncomfortable with all that…me time. Which is weird because as a dad who works from home, I cherish the 7 to 9 minutes of solitude I get during the typical day. When my kids were younger, I would look forward to those few minutes in the evening when I’d take the trash out to the bin behind the house. I’d crack a beer and linger around the trash and recycling bins just reveling in the quiet of it all, while all hell broke loose inside because either A) some kid didn’t want to eat the food on his/her plate or B) some other kid didn’t want to eat the food on his/her plate (most of the hell breaking loose in our house was about kids not eating food). I’d really make an evening of that nightly trash run, looking up at the stars and drinking my beer.   

My dad was the same way. He had four kids to contend with (twice as many as me), so he would look for any opportunity to engross himself in an activity that those kids showed no interest in at all. Like, say, removing dog poop from the bottom of a pair of sneakers. My dad would spend the better part of an evening by himself in the backyard with a stick getting the poop out of the grooves and lugs of one of our shoes. He threw himself into the project with gusto, often telling us that, “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” For years I thought my dad was meticulous, but now I know he was just seeking out some solitude.  

And I do like my solo trail runs and mountain bike rides. At this stage in my life, I see them more as therapy than exercise. Those lunch runs or post-work rides make me better equipped to handle the daily business of deadlines and leaky faucets and lost retainers. But those rides are brief and I’m able to keep my mind busy on the task at hand, which is either trying to not die on my mountain bike or trying to not have a heart attack while running. But spending the night in the woods alone, or dare I even think it, spending multiple nights in the woods alone…all by myself…just doesn’t appeal to me. 

Maybe it’s because I have an active imagination, so you know, werewolves are a lingering concern. Or maybe it’s because the first time I ever went camping alone, when I was in college, I spent the night huddled around my hatchet inside my bivy, because some rednecks rolled up to a dead-end gravel road nearby to throw some sort of party. I don’t like to make assumptions and suggest they were up to no good (they could have been gathering to discuss a book of poetry), but all I could hear were gunshots and screams of laughter, so it must’ve been a lively poetry discussion.  

Mainly I think it’s because I’m just not good at being alone. After grad school I spent a month driving and camping across the West, hitting a series of bucket-list national parks. It was awesome, but I went to bed at sundown every night because I couldn’t figure out a way to entertain myself.  

Being alone is a skill. Being able to just sit with yourself. Just yourself. With nothing to distract or entertain you other than the stars up above and maybe the fire at your feet. That’s a skill that I have yet to develop. All of that aloneness is unsettling. I avoid meditation for the exact same reason; I’m scared of my monkey brain. All of that quiet is…disquieting. 

I’m willing to guess with the advent of smart phones and infinitely scrollable social media feeds, that I’m not the only one who isn’t good at being alone. I’d bet being alone is a skill that is quickly vanishing from our modern society. With our phones we never have to be alone anymore. There are always thousands if not millions of people keeping us company.  

But because we no longer need to be alone, most of us don’t even know we’re missing that key skill in our repertoire. It’s like blacksmithing. Do any of us miss not being able to forge steel with fire in 2022? No, we don’t. But it makes me wonder what I’m losing by not spending more time solo in the woods. Am I missing out on some key element of my own personality that I would discover if I just went camping for a few days solo? Would I come out of the woods with a new understanding and purpose in life? Like, maybe my calling is to be a sandwich maker? Or a balloon artist? I love balloons. If I just sat with myself for a few peaceful nights, would I know myself better? Would I learn how to settle my monkey brain? 

I think about all of the thru-hikers, van-lifers, train hoppers…or those people that sail across the world by themselves. They get to experience some amazing adventures, but maybe the true value of a solo quest into the wilderness like that is the solo time itself. Imagine the epiphanies they have about their own life, their own being. I think about those brave individuals so much that I start making plans for a solo backpacking trip. Maybe knock out the Art Loeb, or a piece of the A.T. in the High Country. I’d start the trip as an emotionally stunted man-child and finish with a deep pool of wisdom and certainty about myself and my place in this world. Or I’d spend the entire time bored and lonely and maybe come back a werewolf. There’s really no telling. 

Places to Go, Things to See: