“Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
In mid-April when the weather turned expectedly warm, Steve and I stepped out for our first backpack of the year on the 16-mile Boulder Mail Trail, a route that traverses up and down, in and out of canyons carved by creeks that drain the Aquarius Plateau to the Escalante River. The trail was once used to deliver mail by mule to the small town of Boulder, Utah, hence the name. Being modern Americans, we started out by dropping a car at the trail’s end less than ten minutes from the house. There’s a certain silliness to that. One sets out for no reason but the pure joy of walking across the desert and instead of simply continuing the walk home—maybe another four miles—we leave a car where the trail widens into a road. I could try to justify the action in all sorts of ways (everybody does it!), but the truth is that walking home would demand nothing more than a shift in thinking about where the hike ends. Additionally, the possibility of reaching wilderness from my front door without the aid of an automobile—something few Americans can do—excites the hell out of me. Next time.
From there we drove a second car to the trailhead in Boulder, Utah, about 30 minutes from the house, and wandered through juniper, pinion, sage, and cactus under a canopy of non-threatening clouds before dropping into the first slickrock canyon to camp for the night at Sand Creek, a peaceful, inviting cut of water through white sand and stone. After setting up camp under a juniper overlooking the creek, we walked upstream to exhaust the afternoon. After wandering an hour or so, we splayed our bodies on a rock and discarded shoes and socks. We listened to Sand Creek gurgle, watched the sun and clouds compete for space in the sky, and beyond that did absolutely nothing. And I realized sitting there, my feet dug deep into the cool sand, that I seldom do absolutely nothing, that I seldom allow myself to be silent and still for extended periods of time without the aid of some distraction, usually a book. And I further realized that the practice of such stillness is soothing—and maybe even necessary—to the wellbeing of a human soul.
The next day, we climbed out of that drainage in brilliant sunshine and hiked about five miles across desert and slickrock before I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of Death Hollow, our destination for the second night. Two things about it yanked me to a stop. The first was the stupendous beauty of the place, the sight of which brought me then, and the memory of which brings me now, to a point of speechlessness. There are only so many times you can repeat the phrase, “oh my God” before you start to sound like the triple-rainbow guy on You-Tube. After a few exclamations, I clammed up, dropped my pack, and crouched down on the rock for a moment to catch my breath. Once I recovered from the visual magnificence in front of me, the second progress-halting aspect of Death Hollow came into focus, which was a beckoning rock cairn that teetered on the edge of a 650-ft drop into the dark gorge below. With that came the lingering story of how Death Hollow earned its name when a mule slipped off that particular trail and plunged to its death.
Now would be the time to admit that I have a malady known as Benign Positional Vertigo (BPV), which is episodic and, as the name implies, positional, meaning it comes on by tipping the head in a certain way, in my case upward and to the right. When it hits, I tend to bump against walls and zigzag like Wahoo, the town drunk who lived up the street from me as a child. As the name also implies, it is benign, more accurately described as simply annoying, unless, of course, one intends to camp creekside in Death Hollow, in which case it takes on a new severity. I pushed the thought of it out of my mind, assuming that I would have no reason to be scanning anything above me and to my right.
When we reached the teetering rock cairn, which gave us a view of only the single next rock cairn, which would be the case most of the way down—meaning you have to trust that the next one will appear when you need it—Steve stopped me and said, “every step counts, stay focused.” I appreciated his reminder, but I had pretty much reached that conclusion on my own. If you’ve ever been mentally frozen in a place with that kind of exposure—and I have—you know there’s little psychological wiggle room. It’s one of those times where deep contemplation is not only useless but dangerous. Intention and flow are everything. I set my intent and my mantra—my way of staying focused—and stepped out.
Once we set up camp, rinsed off in a deep, clear pool, found a place to sit in a lingering splice of sunshine, and poured ourselves a titanium cup of wine (we pack light but we don’t give up the essentials), I was struck again by the splendor of the place. Death Hollow runs faster and deeper and with more vigor than Sand Creek. In other words, it cuts a more striking path—its rock walls taller, its vegetation more flush. The profound beauty of Death Hollow, however, stems from the fact that it remains inaccessible enough and inhospitable enough—its favored flora is Poison Ivy—that we found ourselves in the increasingly rare condition of utter solitude.
Throughout my life I’ve been pulled toward solitude, and I have found the maintenance of such within a marriage, within a community, and within friendships a difficult thing to balance. Generally speaking, our modern society shuns solitude and the people who seek it. In her 1987 book, Hide and Seek, written from a small trailer perched in the desert on a bank of the Colorado River, Jessamyn West writes, “It is not easy to be solitary unless you are also born ruthless. Every solitary repudiates someone.” I feel the truth of West’s words. At times I find the recoil of repudiation so great that I’m encouraged to tell an outright lie—I’d love to but I’m committed elsewhere!—rather than admit my desire for solitude, as if such a desire represents a weakness in character. From what I have witnessed, it is more difficult for women—the traditional caretakers of others—to both demand and grant solitude. In my experience, we are slower than men to demand solitude and possibly quicker to feel repudiated if someone demands it from us.
Only in hindsight—once we’ve measured the “production” of solitude—have we been willing to accept it from the likes of John Muir, Carl Jung, and Thomas Merton to name a few who insisted on periods of extended solitude. (I’m not tossing Thoreau into the mix since his solitude was somewhat exaggerated. Not only did he walk to town from his cabin almost daily, but he had a near continuous stream of visitors to Walden Pond.) And still, even after we’ve seen what can come from solitude, we hold it at arms length. We fret when our children spend too much time alone. We can barely walk down a tree-lined street alone. We want to share the moment with another, as if it isn’t quite real unless another confirms it. Upon telling friends that Steve works ten days a month in Salt Lake City while I stay in Escalante, some have offered up alternatives for my “aloneness.” I dare not tell them that I look forward to that time of solitude because it seems impolite to do so, and, unless I’m talking to another solitary who will understand immediately, it requires too much explanation.
We humans have gone to extreme means to distract ourselves from solitude and avoid it altogether—television, internet, email, facebook, texting, cell phones. Cell phones remain, to me, one of our most perplexing inventions. I concede the convenience factor (especially now that phone booths have all but disappeared), but to be regularly available to others—even those I love—is one of the most unpleasant ideas I can think of. I don’t believe my life is diminished from not owning a cell phone, in fact, the opposite. Based on the number of people I pass on city streets who are seeing nothing more than a small screen in front of them, I daresay my view is more expansive than most.
According to the omnipresent research, human beings are social animals, relationship-forming creatures. Some research goes so far as to say that our immune systems are deeply affected by the relationships we form—that bad relationships can sicken us and good ones can heal us—and further that relationships determine how we feel about ourselves and how we view the world. I don’t doubt this research at all. Certainly humans innately seek companionable mates like many other animals, and certainly good, nurturing relationships—whether it be with lovers or friends—fulfill human needs and enrich our lives in innumerable ways. But I wonder if we’ve internalized the research to such an extreme that we’re caught in a cycle where the research drives our actions, thereby creating more confirming research, which further drives our actions to the point that we’re near incapable of solitude. The benefits of solitude come slowly and require enough patience that we let them develop before we reach for the nearest distraction. Are we now in a place where we are no longer able to process such benefits?
In one of my favorite books, Fifty Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach profoundly captures the fears and rewards of self-induced isolation. She does this in a mere 114 pages. I believe that to be one of the benefits of solitude—the waste of words falls away as if in a smelting process that leaves only precious stones. Of her decision to give herself fifty days of solitude, Grumbach writes:
In this way, living alone in quiet, with no vocal contributions from others . . . I was apt to hear news of an inner terrain, an endolithic self, resembling the condition of lichens embedded in rock. My intention was to discover what was in there, no matter how deeply hidden . . . if I dug into the pile of protective rock and mortar I had erected around me in seventy-five years, perhaps I would be able to see if something was still living in there. Was I all outside? Was there enough inside that was vital, that would sustain and interest me in my self-enforced solitude?
Perhaps the fear of answering Grumbach’s last question in the negative is what keeps many of us from seeking solitude. As she sinks into her fifty-day solitary routine, Grumbach arrives herself at what the research tells us—that our relationships determine how we view ourselves:
Our points of reference are always our neighbors . . . our close and distant families, all of whom tell us, with their hundreds of tongues, who we are. We are what we were told we were, we believed what we heard from others about our appearance, our behavior, our choices, our opinions . . . Rarely if ever did we think to look within for knowledge of ourselves . . . Would we think we existed without outside confirmation? And how long could we live apart from others before we began to doubt our existence?
Has the creation and popularity of social networking given us an answer to those questions? Or has it merely provided us with an opportunity to avoid them?
As Grumbach begins to understand “the great gift of time alone” she looks back with dismay on opportunities lost, times when she found herself living alone and couldn’t embrace it. “I was lonely because I had no experience with solitude,” she writes. I can relate. I’ve had times in my life when solitude was imposed rather than chosen, and I spent much of that time hand wringing. The irony, or maybe the strange twist of the universal plan, is that as soon as I let myself settle into the great gift of time alone it disappeared in the form of a lover or friend. It seems solitude readies one for relationships. And maybe the opposite is true also.
The other day I asked my husband, who is also a solitary, to think about the longest period of time he’s spent in complete solitude—no conversation with another, no human intrusion except books and music. A wistful look came over his face, and I could see that he has missed his extended periods of solitude—for him also, solitude is difficult to balance within a marriage. What would have once been a solitary camp for him in the bottom of Death Hollow is no longer. Solitary week-long backpacks were once his. And, of course, they could be still. He knows I would not consider myself one of the repudiated. But it’s more complex than that, as the delicate balance between solitude and relationships tends to be. Because we are both solitaries, we like each other, and we like spending time together as inconsistent as that might sound. In other words, we never get enough of either option, togetherness or solitude, so the choice of one comes with a sacrifice of the other.
I now find myself in a marriage, in a town, and among friends where solitude is, indeed, acceptable. This is a place—metaphorical and literal—that I’ve searched for my entire life without success. Until now. I have a few theories to explain how this change came about at this stage in my life. One theory is that we’ve reached a critical mass of humanity populating the earth, and the tremendous noise we generate has simply overwhelmed our ability to live within it. Something, some innate survival instinct, is telling us to dash for cover, thereby, making solitude not only acceptable to many but preferable. Maybe that’s just me.
My second theory is that the town I’ve chosen to live in is remote and, therefore, attracts fellow solitaries. I think there’s some truth to this. But again, this rouses the solitary paradox. Never in my life have I felt comfortable around others the way I do here. When I am extended a social invitation here, I am free to say, “nah, I don’t really feel like it,” without explanation and with knowledge that I will likely be invited again, which makes me truly like the people here. That, of course, raises the likelihood that I will not only happily accept social invitations but extend them as well—an act that is foreign to my pre-Escalante life—because I enjoy the company of my fellow Escalantites. A solitary’s quandary.
My third theory is that I have subconsciously, over 55 years of life, inched myself to a place where solitude lingers near and can be accessed without commotion. I’ve placed myself in such a geographic location, and I’ve placed myself in such company. If someone, say a 20-year-old woman in desperate need of solitude, were to ask me how I managed to get here, if she were to ask me to provide her with a template for getting here, I would suggest to her that she take a more direct route than the one that trails behind me. Who was it who said “seek and ye shall find”? Was that Matthew? Wise disciple. I’m pretty sure he was talking about solitude.
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