Learning to like solitude
July 24, 2010 at 2:24 a.m.
"I am 20 miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness." - Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"
A friend recently asked me how I've handled the solitude of my long walk around Texas.
Like the land itself, my time alone has had a changing topography, and no single answer encompasses the whole of my experience.
Nonetheless, I shall attempt to do the question some kind of justice, if for no other reason than to honor those semi-quiet moments from dusk till dawn when our civilized world reduces itself to a modest hum and surrenders the floor to nature's conversation.
I have learned to enjoy being by myself, welcoming chance conversations where they might be found, but I wasn't always so comfortable.
The beginning of this trip was a misery. Those early days and weeks came attached with a profound societal rejection of my station. I was a bum, a pariah, someone to avoid.
Though I put on my best face in interactions, I saw the fear in people's eyes, the anxiety in their movements, the open disdain, the pity. Though this was far from a universal reaction, I hadn't anticipated its everyday occurrence and was forcibly ushered into a kind of solitude I hadn't been prepared to handle.
Coupled with my own insecurities about life and the immensity of my hiking goal, I'd never felt more needy and alone.
Solitude isn't meant to be like this. While it can lend itself to loneliness, over-reflection, or boredom, its allure lies in its tranquility and equilibrium.
I started my trek wildly off balance, but as my experience and confidence have grown, I've come to accept my time alone.
I also attribute some of this stability to the countless supportive and nice people I've met along the way as well as my puppy Raisin who licks me several times a day.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to walk over 120 miles in Big Bend National Park. The summers are scorchers in West Texas, and some points in the south of the park regularly reach temperatures above 110 degrees F.
Because of the heat, the park's attendance is sparse, and we had the place to ourselves. However, Raisin couldn't accompany me on any hiking trails, so I temporarily turned her over to a dogsitter.
I was alone again.
The Chihuahuan Desert, a sandy, cactus-filled, and usually dry area is not the best place to experiment with the merits of solitude. It regularly humbles the strongest of athletes, and a simple bad decision can be a traveler's undoing.
Like many a nimrod before me, I charged into the wilderness, aware of the dangers but unconcerned, like that stuff couldn't possibly happen to me.
And it didn't. But I paid a price nonetheless.
I drank water from mud puddles. I crossed a high trail near Mariscal Canyon and ended up getting blown into a cactus.
I attempted to hike 40 miles in a day, and several times nearly wobbled off the trail due to fatigue.
I disturbed a mean-looking rattlesnake and shortly thereafter intruded upon a couple of bears scrounging for dinner.
On the fourth day, I sat high up on the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains and looked across the land. It was still morning, cool and crisp at 7,000 feet, the trees lending a fragrance not found in the desert below. In the distance I saw my starting point and followed the sandy, dusty contours from west to east, then northwest to where I was sitting.
I hadn't seen a soul in three days, but I didn't feel alone. I didn't even consider my solitude. I was only aware of my immediate world - birds chirping, a light breeze, the sweet air, calm - and that I was there in it, feet dangling in the loveliness.
Smatt is the penname of S.Matt Read. A writer, inventor, baker, and hiker, he is currently hiking the entire outline of the state. Follow his adventure here and at www.texasperimeterhike.blogspot.com and www.twitter.com/perimeterhiker.