Rick Stanley hiking the trails of Chirripo National Park, Costa Rica; Photograph by Gabby Salazar

Rick Stanley hiking the trails of Chirripo National Park, Costa Rica; Photograph by Gabby Salazar

When I read Walden in 9th grade, I was convinced that Henry David Thoreau was a bit off. Spending over two years living in solitude on the shores of a pond seemed a recipe for madness. Now, I have begun to appreciate Thoreau’s search for isolation and communion with nature. I have become a seeker of quiet places and escapes from the bustle of city life.

I don’t think that finding solitude requires you to go to an untrammeled wilderness far from the nearest road. After all, we can’t all take off on an expedition to the mountains of British Columbia or the deep Amazon for a few weeks. For me, it often means sneaking off to a small park after a long day and venturing down a rugged path and climbing on a mound of boulders a few hundred feet off the trail.

I picked up my first camera when I was around 11 years old and I’ve been an outdoor photographer ever since, spending most of my free time exploring wild places. My photography has taken me far afield to the Indonesian jungles and to the savannas of Africa, but I am still excited by the scenes near my home. I moved to Pennsylvania over a year ago and I am still finding new locations to explore in the region. Finding solitude in the wilderness near my home not only allows me to think, it allows me to dream. There is something about the expansiveness of a mountain vista and the tranquility of a forest grove that helps my mind open up to possibilities. I plan my daily schedule at work on a computer, but I plan my life and answer larger questions when I am alone outside.

My first series of solo wilderness experiences were in Texas when I was 16. I worked on a 5000-acre ranch as a photographer, where I was given a two-way radio and instructions to watch out for mountain lions. I hiked a few miles on one of the ranch roads to a spot near a small stream using a hand-drawn map as a guide. I remember being conscious of how small I was in the vast landscape, and I remember listening to the sound of my breath. Freed from the pressure of making conversation, my mind wandered to recesses it rarely explored. I sat near the stream for nearly three hours alone, waiting for a kingfisher to land on the perch in front of me. I was silently hidden on the hillside when I saw a bobcat creep down the opposite bank and sip water from a stagnant pool. I realized that a whole world would open up to me if I entered it quietly and unaccompanied.

Being alone in the outdoors is inspiring, but it can also be a little scary. A few days ago, I hiked a part of the Appalachian Trail with two friends and we sat down to lunch at an overlook. A few dozen peanuts later, my friend pointed out a timber rattlesnake curled up under the rock next to us. My first thought was, “What if I had sat on that rock?” The next was, “What if I had been alone?” When I do go out on solo adventures, I am conscious of my vulnerability and I always make sure to tell someone where I am going and when I plan to be back. I also keep my cell phone nearby (but turned off, so that I can truly get away!).

Instead of escaping to the gym this week, try spending a few hours alone outdoors. Leave your computer and iPod behind so you won’t feel the need to be connected. You don’t need to wait for a big adventure or a vacation to take that time to yourself. By venturing outside on your own, even for just a short time, you may find something that you didn’t realize you were missing.

Comments

  1. Ruth Heil
    Pennsylvania
    September 5, 2013, 8:06 am

    “I realized that a whole world would open up to me if I entered it quietly and unaccompanied.” Beautiful. I’m in (and from) PA, too, and I’m grateful for state’s wonderful opportunities to venture outside. It’s not exotic; it’s just right. For me, that has a lot to do with the fact that it is my home. Your post perfectly coincides with the message in most of my essays: it need not matter where you are, the outside awaits. It’s also amazing what you notice when you go there alone. Thank you for the post.

  2. Cheryl Garrity
    Madison, NC
    September 5, 2013, 3:57 pm

    Gabby,
    Your adventures sound exciting and you are right-on with your comments about solitude. It is rare for many of us , but so welcome when find it.

  3. Monica Gott
    Missouri
    September 7, 2013, 1:52 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. When I was a child my favorite spot was in the top of the nearest tree. Now, I walk the beauty around my little town. Such a renewing that takes place when we are alone in nature. I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you Gabby.

  4. SatKaur Khalsa
    yadkinville, nc
    September 7, 2013, 10:49 pm

    Very lovely. Our trip to the wilderness can truly start in our own backyard and creeks that run though the land.

    Our wilderness and isolation can start with that one photograph that propels us into our own hearts and visions of adventure.

  5. Dylan Rainwalker
    Exploring
    September 8, 2013, 6:35 pm

    The fear and “what if” question in regards to the Rattlesnake is one that I often have during my adventure travels. I am legally blind due to an eye disease which is not correctable, and so while hiking trails I often wonder how many snakes I may have been inches away from stepping on because I couldn’t see them. But at the same time, I think my vision may be a blessing in the regard that I just have to keep going anyways, and can’t let the thought of what I may not see hamper the continued mission I have to keep going to more and more untamed places.

    Excellent post! Thank you,
    Dylan – http://www.dylanrainwalker.com

  6. Ed Radike
    Illinois
    September 16, 2013, 7:22 pm

    Great blog, especially having just finished a 66 mile canoe trip down the St. Croix enjoying the beauty of nature and the solitude that comes with it. I take Gabby’s advice often too – skipping the gym for a bike ride through the forests and prairies near my home. The sooner we figure out Gabby’s secret, the happier our lives.

  7. Andre Philippi
    Florianopolis, Brazil
    September 21, 2013, 11:41 am

    “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

  8. Liz
    Atlanta, GA
    September 21, 2013, 12:18 pm

    Absolutely love this – and it’s so true! It is so important to just get away, but also to go somewhere that you can experience the sounds, smells, and beauty of nature. It’s rejuvenating!

    While we love to travel to far off places, we also make it a point to visit our state parks here in Georgia. There are some wonderful hiking trails that are so peaceful, quiet, and scenic.

    You will be surprised how great you feel just by spending some time outdoors. It’s just wonderful. It doesn’t have to be strenuous – just breathing in the air and relaxing among nature makes you feel alive and happy.

    Thanks for the great post!

  9. Eduardo Bardales
    Guatemala
    September 21, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Pura vida!

  10. Krishna Giri
    Kathmandu, Nepal
    September 21, 2013, 1:05 pm

    Nice Post!
    After looking at this topic, I felt the beauty of forest (Annapurna Conservation Area,West Nepal) exploration, that I made lonely a couple of years ago. That has increased my faith to the amazingly great; nature.

  11. Anibal Paredes
    Peru
    September 21, 2013, 5:44 pm

    Solo wilderness experiences are not just a matter of turn off the iPhone and walk away of everything and everybody else but it is a matter of tune and connection with nature with nothing else but your soul and feelings, dispose your fears, leave your “what ifs”, preoccupation is a misuse of imagination. Whenever you feel free of these mental loads then you will enjoy what the solo wilderness experiences are about

  12. Deidra Fell
    Vancouver,B.C, Canada
    September 21, 2013, 7:20 pm

    That’s why I <3 living in B.C. It isn't far from the solitude of the Mountains and Ocean :) Beautiful B.C

  13. Chew TY
    JB, Malaysia
    September 22, 2013, 3:32 am

    I am solo. But i am not alone.

  14. julie
    London
    September 26, 2013, 2:27 pm

    I strive to get away from crowds as often as possible, despite
    living in a massive big city.
    I found your post very inspiring and liked that you said being out in the wild alone gave you room to dream.
    After having spent a few weeks off work without being on holiday as such, i found it difficult to be within my usual restraints, but at times I felt so relieved once i realised I had room to breath and think. It’s so important. Sadly a lot of us spend a lot of time chasing our tails.
    good blog.

  15. […] Why We Need Solitude (adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com) […]