To know yourself you must sometimes be by yourself

Last month Backpacker magazine ran a tough-minded Mark Jenkins essay on journeying alone called Go Solo. At its heart it goes something like this:

Ever since Aron Ralston got himself caught between a rock and a hard place in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, hung there for five days, and then amputated his right forearm to escape, going solo has gotten a bad rap. When his story comes up in conversation, someone inevitably proclaims that “Ralston was an idiot. Going alone is stupid.”

Such a person is someone who should not go alone into the wilderness. Ralston’s mistake, if he made one at all, was not that he went alone, but that he failed to leave word with someone of his likely whereabouts. I have gone out alone and told no one where I was going too many times to count. Is this behavior really reckless and irresponsible?

There was once a time when exploring the backcountry by yourself was seen as a primary path to understanding topography, both geographical and psychological. Our most cherished wilderness heroes—Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Abbey—frequently went on solo adventures. Can you imagine free-spirited Muir leaving precise notes about where he planned to wander? In Walden, Thoreau’s manifesto about humankind’s relationship to nature, he writes, “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Leopold spent weeks alone on horseback in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness without a second thought. And Abbey! He would have pissed on a personal locator beacon.

What’s happened in the last few decades? It feels as if the weight of technology has ironically pushed us back into the Dark Ages, when the wilds were believed to be so treacherous and malevolent that they could not be assailed alone. The modern mantra is you must go with a partner, or better yet, a group. But does that really get you where you want to be?

“Distrusting our capacity to be alone, we too quickly look to others to save us, often from ourselves,” writes Sarvananda in Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View. This seems to me to be a clarifying description of our hyper-social age.

Simple as it sounds, to actually know yourself you must sometimes be by yourself.

Jenkins thinks through our doubts about going alone, and thoroughly, ultimately making clear that although honest-to-God he treasures going solo, and has good reason to trust his capabilities, still he's often grateful for company. Which no doubt is true, but methinks he dismisses as irrelevant the shame and fear with which many contemplate solitude.

Not sure he's thought that part of solitude through, in other words, Yet thank God for a popular writer who will stand up and say that yes, solitude is a human right, and, in the crowded 21st century, a rare privilege.

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This weekend, with luck, will return to a pinyon pine I happened upon on in the Mojave last year and want to see again.

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