When I think back on my life, I can think of only one time when I was completely alone for an extended period of time – The Pacific Crest Trail.
On the trail, I went for three days without seeing a single human being or any sign of civilization, except perhaps faint imprints of a hikers trail-runners. No campfire smoke in distance. No low grumble of distant 747’s. No music blaring from across an echoing canyon. No Skittles left on a stump from a hiker farther along the trail. Absolutely nothing to tell me that an apocalypse hadn’t wiped the out the human race and left my solitary soul to wander the world alone for the rest of my days.
Three Days Of (Complete) Solitude
After day one I felt pretty normal – really good in fact. I was finally getting the solitude I had been seeking. The birds were chirping, trees rustling in the breeze, the sound of my feet crunching the rocks was pleasant and calming.
About halfway through day two I began to worry a bit. The soft sounds of nature receded into the background behind my mental chattering, which had amplified to fill the void. Songs I had once loved but currently despised began to play on auto-loop in my head. I talked to myself more frequently – out loud. Outbursts of singing became frequent. I no longer stepped off the trail to pee and I took less care to hide myself when digging a cat-hole.
When I woke up on day three and realized I was still alone, I felt extremely disheartened. I began to despise the birds, and the annoying wind just wouldn’t leave me alone. I walked with my head down, faster now to get to the next town more quickly, where I knew people lived and laughed and did other people things, for I had become lonely and longed to hear the sound of another human voice.
I felt like I was in a vacuum. The outside world ceased to exist and I was left to walk the world alone, forever.
CDT To GDT Thru-Hike – A New Level Of Solitude
In two months I will begin a thru-hike of the CDT and GDT, and due to the timing of that hike – beginning earlier than most other hikers to give myself a chance of completing the hike before snow falls on the Canadian Rockies – and the remoteness of the trail, I will be hiking alone for much of this experience. (See my planned CDT To GDT itinerary)
Forget three days. Week-long stretches of complete solitude will likely be my new reality, with only once-per-week trips into town to remind myself that I am not alone in the universe. This psychological test will be a bigger challenge than any physical test I will experience on the trail. The physical tests I have mastered; I averaged greater than 20 miles per day over my 136 hiking days on the PCT. However, I have yet to test myself with loneliness for such an extended period of time.
How I Plan On Coping With Loneliness on the CDT and GDT – Embracing The Lonely Brutality?
There is a phrase often repeated about how to cope with the extremes on the Continental Divide Trail – “Embrace The Brutality!” The idea is that there is a lot to endure, and only when we relax and embrace the extreme environment on the trail, overcome fear, and know that we are strong enough to get through it, only then will we be able to fully appreciate the experience.
I will embrace this attitude as I seek to cope with loneliness on the trail as well.
Am I taking it too far by testing the limits of loneliness to such a degree, 167 days mostly alone on a thru-hike? I don’t think so, and testing the limits of loneliness is not my goal. If I could find a hiking partner willing to hike my schedule, I would love to have the company. But instead of letting it prevent me from a dream, I choose instead to see it as a challenge and find creative ways to deal with it.
Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better. – Henry Rollins
One of the things I regretted on the PCT was not having enough mental stimulation on the trail. I had a thousand songs on my iPod, but every single one of those songs quickly became over-played and I had no strategy to deal with that. I also brought no books, but was too exhausted after a long day of hiking to read anyways. The most I could muster after a full day of hiking was to write a page or two in my journal before letting sleep take me.
My goal on this trip will be to have access to more mental stimulation. I will load up audio books and eBooks on my smart phone. I have also signed up with a premium Spotify account so I can refresh my smart phone with new tunes whenever I have wi-fi access. I will also be writing daily in my journal, and translating these to blog posts when I get access to the internet. Regardless of how much “distraction” I bring with me, there is no doubt I will get to know myself more intimately than I have ever before.
How Have Others Coped With Loneliness On The Trail?
The short answer is, not very well!
I know a 2013 CDT thru-hiker, who has now completed his triple crown of hiking, who had a miserable time on sections of the trail, many of these sections he hiked alone. While others hiking the same trail during the same year had the best time of their lives – they were hiking in a group.
I know another 2013 attempted CDT thru-hiker who quit after about 850 miles because he decided to go southbound, solo, and got so lonely he decided it was not worth continuing.
I know that most hikers on the CDT tend to cluster in groups at the start of the trail. With less than 100 hikers attempting a CDT thru-hike every season, on a three thousand mile trail, if you are not starting with a group you are most likely in for a long solo adventure. The Great Divide Trail (GDT) is so untraveled that starting it alone pretty much guarantees that you will be alone for the entire trail.
Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter. – John Muir
Then there are the hundreds and thousands of people who will let the fear of loneliness beat them before they even step foot on the trail. Their dreams surface for a brief time: dreams of walking through pristine wilderness, conquering mountain peaks, observing herds of Elk and Antelope, and falling asleep under the Milky Way to the sounds of Coyotes whelping and under the watchful eyes of night owls.
They share this dream with their friends and coworkers, anybody who expresses interest, and one of the first responses, “Won’t you be lonely out there all by yourself?” leaves them feeling confused. Slowly the dream fades, the fear of loneliness overshadows all of the positives from such a journey.
What will happen to me on the trail this summer? Will I have the emotional self-sufficiency needed to not give in to despair? Once alone with myself for so long, will I be able to accept myself and everything that resurfaces during those long stretches of alone time? Will loneliness drive me off the trail before I learn how to cope with it, and before I reach my destination at Kakwa Lake? In two months I will find out.
Would you venture out for a solo multi-day hike knowing that you will likely not see another person for several days or longer?
Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It