Prospects for Solitude: Digging for gold in them thar hills

Equally inspiring as mountaintop vistas and moments of connection with nature are the opportunities for solitude I seek on my long hikes, most especially along the Grand Enchantment Trail.

The notion of solitude means different things to different
people. For some, solitude could be an hour’s walk away from
the car in woods near home, encountering no other people.
For others, a weekend backpacking trip along the Appalachian
Trail can provide sufficient solitude, meeting other hikers
here and there, perhaps camping among others, but for the
most part traveling alone.

Most long-distance hikers I’ve met spend the majority of
their time walking alone, or at least at a certain
figurative distance from other people, moving quietly
through their own thoughts and emotions. To varying degrees
we all experience some definition of solitude on our hikes.
For some hikers the solitude may be more than they would
prefer, or the prospects for solitude too daunting to tackle
without a dedicated partner (with whom they can share the
solitude).

Yet for those who seek solitude in the strongest terms,
increasingly there is less and less of it to be found on our
hiking trails and in our national forests and parks. More
trail users and a greater diversity of user groups have made
the trails more crowded in many regions. In these regions
and others, our public lands are increasingly used as well
for motorized recreation, the impacts of which we see and
hear with greater frequency, whether at length or directly
along the trail corridor. High-standard roadways bisect our
long-distance trails at ever shorter intervals. And where
our trails leave the larger tracts of public land to travel
on narrow corridors or easements, residential and commercial
development moves steadily closer.

Solitude, under these circumstances, becomes an ever more
rare commodity. And long-distance hikers, in particular, are
vulnerable by virtue of their constant, rapid linear
movement. In a day or two we’re in and out of a remote
wilderness area where others might spend a week hiking
shorter distances, intensively mining the island of solitude
available there. When it comes to opportunities for escaping
a crowded world, long-distance hikers, it seems, are the
proverbial canaries in the coalmine.

The more long walks I’ve completed, the less I see solitude as an
obstacle to my enjoyment and the more it becomes a genuine
objective of the hike. To seek solitude, now, is to abandon
myself from the ills of modern life, and the more I find of
solitude the higher my hopes for a fragile planet. In the
months and miles spent along the AT and PCT, like many other
long-distance hikers I’ve undoubtedly experienced a great
deal of alone time, either physically or emotionally, and to
an extent it’s made me who I am today. It has become a part
of what draws me back to the trail experience again
and again.

As my expectations for solitude have shifted over time, I’ve
found myself drawn toward different experiences, such as the
Grand Enchantment Trail project. Where solitude existed on other trails before, it had been less well defined for me, either as I did not yet know quite how to see it, or certainly because it was often less dramatically presented. Had solitude meant a week of seeing no vehicles throughout the roadless High Sierra with the caveat of seeing many of my fellow hikers? Or was solitude, perhaps, an extended stretch along the Pennsylvania A.T., southbound in fall with no other hikers encountered (but with plenty of busy road crossings)? Each of these solitude experiences were interesting novelties in their own way, but “full solitude” was a much less common occurrence.

On the CDT, and especially now the GET, I’ve become better acquainted with the notion of “full solitude,” or “full-day solitude.” It’s one of those things that can’t be predicted, but that usually puts a silly grin on my face at day’s end, when, rolling into camp, I suddenly realize that the entire day has passed without intrusion from the outside world – no people and no vehicles, no signs of man. It’s not that I take pleasure in being misanthropic – I’m really not. But perhaps what it is, at long last, is a readiness to distinguish and to relish the distinction between what is and is not natural and untamed, a recognition that the unnatural, tamed existence will always be there, filling up the majority of my days. Better, now, to embrace the solitude I’ve been granted as a rare and precious gift.
With these thoughts in mind, I headed out this spring on my 5th hike along the Grand Enchantment (this one a section hike). As on previous GET forays I found my solitude. I experienced a few familiar stints of “full-day solitude” – no people, no vehicles – as well as the occasional stretches of “full-day sensory solitude” (no people or vehicles near or far, seen or heard). In one case I went 6 straight days in “full-day sensory solitude” mode, which was absolutely staggering and, as it turns out, became the inspiration for this banter here, as well as a solitude log.

My “solitude log” is nothing more than an account of my day-to-day encounters along the trail with other resource users and society at large. As it turned out, while reflecting upon my hike it wasn’t difficult to recall whatever encounters had occurred each day. And so I broke out the information into table format. I probably went overboard with the concept, but in any case, for anyone interested here’s the resulting log:

http://www.simblissity.net/get/get-solitude.shtml

The blue shading offers a visual depiction of my “full-day solitude” days. The frequency of such days seems noteworthy given that I hiked this portion of the route during prime hiking season, both in terms of GET thru-hiking, and generally speaking, for outdoor recreation in this region. The table ends with a bit of statistical analysis (groan, snore…), and as the grand finale tabulation:

Percentage of Total Hiking Days offering full-day solitude: 46%

Stay with me folks, that’s nearly one in two! Given that most of the other days were also mostly solitude-filled – a hiker here, a passing vehicle there – this hike felt more like walking on the back side of the moon. (Never mind that the sun was shining, there was mostly plenty of water to drink, and the desert was in bloom.)

I loved every minute of it!

But that’s me. And for anyone similarly disposed, know that this is only one such opportunity for achieving solitude, the great antidote to modern life. Granted, there were surely also times and places along the GET where modern life had run amuck, where the aforementioned ills do exist and where in some cases they now appear more threatening than ever.

Where else do we continue to find solitude on our long-distance trails and within our system of public lands? Where can we travel, thru-hiker style, and still escape from the outside world and our fellow man for a time? For that matter, where is our solitude, like our public lands themselves, threatened by encroachment and overuse? At the top of the Solitude Log, at the URL above, is a link to download a blank log for your own use. Open it as a spreadsheet within MS Excel or Quattro, and adjust the number of rows as necessary to accommodate the length of your hike.

The notion of “getting away from it all” is not the only source of satisfaction in heading out on a long walk. But for some of us, it is equally compelling as the memories of hiker friendships and the wonderful trail town indulgences along the way. Our moments spent walking in solitude can also say much about the health of the natural world that is the cornerstone of our trail experiences. Let these moments speak when next you venture afoot, and then share them with the world upon your return.

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