Even just a few years ago the thought of adventuring outside alone seemed to me to be beyond foreign, bordering on lunacy or even downright foolhardy. These experiences are meant to be shared, and I couldn’t wrap my head around why anyone would want to wander into the woods by themselves and come back with “empty” memories of just a beautiful mountain sunset, sans compatriots.
It wasn’t until I began my current day job that I realized the true power of experiencing the solitude of nature in its full glory. You see, my job is extraordinarily social. I brew beer for a living, so I’m often spending 9 hours a day interacting with people; discussing ideas, giving tours and answering questions. When I get home I’m a slave to my burgeoning social media career; updating my website, posting to Instagram, or editing photos for a friend’s blog. I would try to escape the bustle and grind of daily life with the same level of enthusiasm as any weekend warrior, but since most of my friends were also 20-somethings living in a college town I had more than a few adventure companions cancel at the last minute due to a few too many drinks the night before.
Being stuck inside on a beautiful Saturday because a friend didn’t want a bedtime is torturous and I began to realize that nature doesn’t have to be a team sport.
After a particularly messy breakup last summer I finally had the motivation. Lacking a “partner in crime” but certainly needing the indomitable therapist that is Mother Nature, I began exploring the mountains around my home, alone. At first simple day hikes – just a couple miles on the trail alone with my thoughts to achieve that sort of introspective zen that only fresh air and exercise can seem to achieve for me.
Soon, it was summits at sunset, watching the brilliant golds of early evening fade into gentle pastels of pink and orange, and finally vanish into deep purples. The incredible peace and quiet of twilight stars beautifully contrasted by the brisk headlamp-lit scramble down a scree slope back to my car.
Slowly my confidence built. As an Eagle Scout, I knew how to find a trail and basic wilderness knowledge like proper clothing, fresh water and wildlife etiquette had never faded from my memory. I started to realize that maybe I actually enjoyed my nature more alone than with a friend. Out here, I can truly be myself, and be with myself.
I don’t mean to say that one should always explore on their own. There are very few things that solidify a friendship like a grueling hike, or exhilarating rip down icy rapids in a raft guided by a half-drunk college kid on his summer break. But sitting alone, without the distraction of conversation is when nature can be truly experienced. Without the distraction of casual conversation the previously unnoticed minutia of an experience swell from the background. The way bird songs would be interspersed with the buzzing of a cicada, as though they were waiting their turn to make sure their stories were heard. The way a pinecone had come to rest against a rock. Hours spent watching clouds float lazily overhead.
I spent the better part of a year venturing into the mountains near my home, sometimes with company, but frequently alone. The peaceful solitude of a forest combined with the exhausting physical demands of a rocky trail provided the perfect conditions for deep introspection. Anything from a bad day at work to a legitimate life crisis could be worked through with a couple hours on the trail and soon my alone time proved to be nearly indispensable for managing my everyday life.
The benefits began to trickle into other aspects of my life; a meeting with an executive, a first date, or a job interview seemed like small beans compared to spending the night alone in an uninhabited forest. If I could plan and execute a summit hike at 2am to watch the sunrise, then why the heck would I be nervous to give a slideshow to my whole company? The confidence gained began a feedback loop of exploration and before I knew it I was planning my first solo road trip.
I headed north, through Jackson to the land of Big Sky, ironically because I had friends in the area that I wanted to visit. I packed my car with a weeks worth of provisions and sleeping arrangements, fully prepared to hike in and camp every single night if need be. I would be going through two different national parks and a couple hundred miles of wilderness, so I knew camping sites would be anything but scarce. I texted the only two people I knew in Jackson; an old friend from bluegrass shows in Colorado, and a digital acquaintance that I followed on Instagram. In my true adventurous spirit I wanted to rise at 4am to catch first light on the tetons, and miraculously they agreed to join me.
We spent the better part of the day hiking around to hidden gems for photographs, foraging wild mushrooms, and sharing stories of wilderness adventures we had all enjoyed on our own. A group of three avid solo-explorers (more or less complete strangers) forming a crew seemed unstoppable. We all had the unquenchable zest for exploration and fresh air that didn’t need the tethers of a crew, yet here we were…. as a team. As the days passed, campsites were built and broken down, meals cooked and consumed, dawns turned into dusks, and quiet nights under the stars turned into stories of our lives and raucous laughter. Amidst my zeal for solitude and pride of independence I had completely forgotten how good it felt to build memories with other like-minded individuals. I had headed north on a quest for independence.
I wanted time alone with my thoughts, to watch the world turn and jot down my thoughts around a campfire. Instead of clearing my head, I ended up filling it. Filling it with beautiful memories of beautiful people, and a reinvigorated appreciation for a world shared with friends.