Friday, August 22, 2003

Solitaire's the Only Game in Town

Cross-posted on Dervala.net. On a wilderness hike last week I was struck by the reaction of women tourists I met along the way. They seemed to be alternately drawn to and fearful of the prospect of being alone in the woods for a few days. Is solitude really that scary, or is it just the bears?

5pm, Day Four of the Coastal Trail. I am limping towards the old Agawa Lodge by the mouth of the Agawa River near the highway. A few more hours before I reach my cabin. A blond family comes out of the trees. They've been down on the riverbank and are heading back to the SUV. Mum interrogates me as we share the path.
  “Are you hiking the Coastal Trail?”
Yep. I shrug awkwardly to shunt my pack around on sore shoulders.
“The whole thing?”
  “Yes, except for the bit north of Gargantua.”
  “How long has it taken you?”
  “This is day four.”
  “And you're by yourself?”
I want to say, not any more, but instead I grunt again.
  “And you're not lonely or scared?”
Nope.
  “Do you see that, girls?” she says to her tweenies. She turns back to me. “We think you're very brave.”

There were just two other hikers going my way on the Coastal Trail that day. At several points, the trail crosses touristed day-use areas, mostly beaches. I dreaded them. These were the paradise days at Lake Superior--85°F, no humidity, lapping, lappable water. People stretched out like cats on a car bonnet, warming themselves at last in Northern Ontario. I was a curiosity, stepping out of the woods, picking my way across boulders to get to the beach instead of strolling in from the car park. Burdened and sweaty, wearing boots on fine sand. And alone.

I was stopped every time by people--mostly women--who wanted to confirm I was really hiking alone. Once a man on a deckchair shouted “Hey, the guys you're with are way ahead. Did you arrange a meeting spot?” I may be looking for the wistfulness behind the questions. But after a few days it seemed strange that women who had experienced so much more than me--childbirth, childrearing, passing a driving test--could hardly dare imagine spending a night alone in a tent in the wilderness. Was it physical fear, of bears, attackers or getting lost, or breaking an ankle on a mossy rock far from help? Fear of not being able to heft a pack, climb a boulder, build a fire? Fear of solitude and silence? Fear, or hope, that families or lovers could not survive without them?

  "You're so brave." This embarrasses me. I'm not brave at all. I'm a fearful chicken who screams at loud noises. Truth is, a blazed North American trail with pit toilets and neat backcountry campsites is not all that intrepid. You'd have to be inventive to die of thirst, hunger or cold in the bounty of a Lake Superior summer.

But I wouldn't have considered a hike like this two years ago. How could I? I didn't know to string food up in a tree or pick a good campsite or build a driftwood fire. It is too physically tough to count as the kind of relaxation I used to need: who wants to hobble back to the office after a 'rest'? Like most workers in America, I had ten or twelve days off a year, from which I was to allot time with family 3000 miles away and also somehow foster a marriage otherwise based around 70-hour work weeks. How could I take five days to walk alone in the wilderness?

I didn't know it, but I needed it then more than I do now. Our culture does not want us to spend that kind of time alone. We might get to like it. I was lucky; I tripped and fell out of the corporate world, and flat on my back I found the time to try things I thought I might hate.

Great religions understand the power of solitude. The Catholic Church sends the faithful on retreats and pilgrimages. Buddhists spend days or months in silent retreat. African rites of passage send young people alone into the bush. Woodsier types have their spiritual equivalent: Wordsworth's "natural piety". But many secular, city people are going to die too fearful to have ever spent real time alone in case their demons came out to do battle.

I'm an extrovert, but I've like my own company. Seek it out. I would do this every year if I could: five days or five weeks alone, preferably in the woods. I don't think you need to haul a backpack, though it helps: you're slow as a snail, but my God, carrying your house on your back bestows a sense of independence to make you yodel. (I'm surprised snails don't yodel.) But you could as easily experience your own thoughts in a canoe, on a bike or even in a suburban house with the TV, internet and phone switched off and books and magazines out of reach. Solitude is there to be taken. You might even like it.

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