Imagine cresting a mountain pass, taking off a heavy pack, and looking at the view ahead: miles of wild expanse and rugged peaks without signs of human influence. If you’re a Colorado College student reading this section, I probably don’t need to convince you that being in the mountains is incredible. But I do want to persuade you a less popular sentiment: that solitude in the outdoors is an even more powerful experience.
CC students tend to use the outdoors as an extremely valuable social venue: a place to relax and have fun with friends and engage in deeper conversation. However, this isn’t the only way to get outdoors. Many of the most awe-inspiring and lasting accounts of nature experiences come from those who have ventured out by themselves (think John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau).
This summer, I experienced extended solitude for the first time, on a three-day solo backpacking trip in which I had my first wilderness bear encounter, sat alone on the top of a high mountain pass, and experienced the liberating feeling of singing at the top of my lungs without being judged by human ears. I came back with a better understanding of my life.
It sounds like a cliché: a girl goes out into the woods and “finds herself.” The cliché is founded, though, on a grain of truth. We are under constant pressure to be around people all the time and create a public identity characterized by “likes” and “follows.”
We define ourselves largely by our social circles. Being alone for an extended amount of time gives us a break from the constant influx of social pressures and a chance to begin to define ourselves not in relation to others. It also holds true that sometimes the best way to understand is to step back and gain a wider perspective; being far removed from the everyday concerns may offer you a different perspective on the problems that plague you.
Michael Cassan ‘19 spent part of his gap year hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the border of Mexico to Canada, an endeavor which required spending long periods of time alone in the wilderness.
“Generally, if you get uncomfortable in ‘real life,’ you can pull out your phone and text someone,” Cassan said. “On the trail, that doesn’t really happen. You can’t hide from yourself when you’re out there for that long. You have so much time to think that eventually every little thing is going to come up.”
Our society tends to convince us that being alone is degrading to our social skills, but Cassan found it was just the opposite; when he did encounter people on the trail, they were in the same mindset as he was, and it was much easier to get to know them. “I had deeper connections with people that I’d been with for a day and a half than with friends that I’d known for years and years back home,” he said.
Though Cassan had setbacks, trials, and tribulations, including a broken foot and a near-death lightning strike, he concluded, “Just as general life advice, go hike a long trail.”
Perhaps the PCT isn’t the best stepping stone; trips of shorter duration and intensity are also a valuable experience. You will still be challenged to take full responsibility for your own decisions, potentially in tough or dangerous situations.
Before you embark on such an adventure, you should have some experience in whatever undertaking you choose. Make sure that you feel comfortable with your route, have communicated a detailed plan to another person, and consider carrying a SPOT or satellite phone in case of an emergency.
Be prepared for loneliness. Three days isn’t a long time, but sometimes I was scared, uncomfortable, and made very aware of the fact that I was in the mountains without a soul within 10 miles. But learning how to be lonely is part of the process of knowing and understanding yourself.
If you’ve ever thought about hiking, backpacking, cycling, traveling, or embarking alone on a venture of any kind, I urge you to overcome your fears and try it. It will give you a new perspective on your own identity, life, and the world around you.