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.