I love to solo hike, often to the dismay of well-meaning friends. People don’t understand why I want to be alone in the middle of nowhere. They tell me it’s dangerous, to which I reply, “So is walking in a crowded city.” They ask me what will happen if I’m injured and my cellphone won’t work. They imagine all kinds of terrifying scenarios, but what they don’t understand is its noise — human-created emotional and physical noise — that drives me to solo hike.
Anything can happen when I’m hiking by myself, but anything can happen in my truck on the way to work too. If I lived my life imprisoned by fear, I’d never leave the house. That’s not how I want to spend my precious few years on Earth. When my only companion is the wilderness, my mind shifts into another gear — a space that exists only in the realm of self-reliance and solitude.
One of the hardest and most awesome times of my life was the first night I spent alone on the Appalachian Trail. I’d been backpacking for more than a week with coworkers as part of an AmeriCorps program (yes, we got paid to hike), and one of our challenges was to spend a night alone in Pisgah National Forest. Rain was constant, we had only small tarps for shelter and nightfall brought sub-freezing temperatures.
I was afraid of many things — some rational and some irrational. I strung my tiny tarp between two trees to make an A-frame shelter, laid down my mat and sleeping bag, and began building a fence of sorts around my tarp. I found as many large sticks as I could and rammed them into the ground with the butt of my knife until my sleeping quarters looked like a rudimentary fort. I talked out loud a few times to remember what a human voice sounded like, and I wondered if I should try to sleep or stay up, vigilant all night, just in case my imagination became reality.
Just before sunset, my nerves calmed a little, and a commercial jet flew many thousands of feet overhead. I scowled at the intrusion, then laughed at myself for being scared of sleeping alone in the woods. Those people are the crazy ones, I thought. They’re way up in the air in a metal tube. I’m just hanging out in the woods for the night. As the airplane passed and the quiet returned, I watched peacefully as darkness swallowed the trees around me.
I settled into a place that suddenly felt like home. I stretched out in my sleeping bag and took the deepest breath I could, feeling the cold, clean air reach every space in my lungs. The rain that’d followed us for nine straight days finally let up, my mind slowed down and I closed my eyes, surrounded by more peace than I’d felt since I’d been a baby.
When I rejoined the group the next afternoon, we hiked a few miles, then circled our tarps for one last night under the stars. The company was nice — especially since one of my friends made pizzas over a backpacking stove, which is no easy feat — but as I shivered in my sleeping bag, I stared up at the black sky and missed being alone.
The sounds of fellow humans — some snoring, some shifting restlessly — felt like an infringement on my emotional peace. The night I’d slept in the forest alone, the only sounds I’d heard were natural, peaceful. My own breathing began to sound invasive in that wild space, and I cringed when leaves crackled as I shifted on my foam mat. Surrounded by friends and their myriad human sounds reminded me that soon we’d be heading back to civilization, to a city where solitude and quiet did not exist.
I wriggled my way out of my sleeping bag to stand up and have one last night with the peaceful sky. As I crawled out from under my tarp, I saw one of my friends standing a few feet away, staring at the sky with tears in his eyes. He looked at me and we locked eyes for a second, then nodded without saying a word. I could tell he missed being alone too. We both understood that the peace, the solitude, was a blessing that wouldn’t last forever.
When we got back to Atlanta, the usual comforts were celebrated — nachos, a real bed and dry clothes — but I quickly realized I’d left a part of my soul in the forest. From that week forward, I’ve revisited the missing piece of myself every time I solo hike, even if only for a few hours. Aloneness — true stillness and self-reliance —was a gift I never expected to receive, and to this day, every solo hike reminds me that I’m hardly a speck in a universe too large for human understanding.