Going It Alone
I didn’t intend to become a solo hiker. It just happened as a matter of circumstance. I was single, and most of my friends were married with babies and small children. Their lives didn’t much allow for day hikes, let alone a weekend trip in the backcountry with me. I’m shy and not really a joiner, so hiking clubs didn’t appeal to me. I started setting out on my own on long day hikes but soon got a little bored. Looking for a new challenge farther afield, I planned a camping trip with a friend who also wanted to hike to the top of Mount San Jacinto, one of southern California’s highest peaks. I arrived in Idyllwild where we planned to meet and checked my phone: my friend was sick and wouldn’t be able to join me.
Thanks to an encouraging park ranger, I walked to the top of the mountain alone and had one of the most rewarding walks of my life. Not only did I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment, an aspect of myself that had previously been closed off to others was suddenly open and alive. On my way down the mountain, I stopped to chat with people along the way and spent a while in the parking lot talking with some rock climbers who were hanging out there. Over beers and burgers with a couple of them in town, I thought of how much fun it was to meet these strangers whom I probably wouldn't have met if my friend had been with me.
My walk on Mount San Jacinto was a turning point. I understood after that weekend that my long walks on mountains were changing me for the better. The freedom and happiness I found in the mountains on the weekends was beginning to follow me into my frontcountry life, and the chronic dissatisfaction I had with my work as a museum curator evolved into motivation toward a radical life change. I no longer felt trapped in a hopeless situation and used my free time to plan my weekend adventures and to scout a route that would alter the course of my life. Hiking was making me more relaxed and less reactive. I became friendlier and more open to connecting with other people, both strangers and those close to me. The key to all of this was not walking up mountains, per se, but what I found in myself along the way.
My evolution from a casual rambler into a committed long distance walker was more like a calling than a choice. I began to have intense cravings for the internal transformations that accompanied my walks. Searching for challenging terrain and beautiful scenery, I read guidebooks like they were novels, and I daydreamed about the places I could go on my own two feet. I decided to become a backpacker.
For my inaugural outing, I was accompanied by my friends Jennifer and Peter, a married couple who are both lifelong backpackers. We quickly fell into a rhythm, each of us walking at our own paces, meeting up now and then to take a rest. I liked the social dimension of walking with others. Walking in a group necessitates discussion and the achievement of consensus, which I found fulfilling. The company of others provides a degree of comfort, an outlet for voicing one’s thoughts in the moment, and the opportunity to commiserate. On the other side, it’s difficult to access remote internal places with other folks around. I enjoyed myself and was glad to strengthen my friendships with Jennifer and Peter through sharing adventure, but I also missed the solitude I had grown accustomed to on my walks alone.
Once I learned how to do backpacking, I became a seeker. I looked for challenges that would test my physical and mental endurance, strength, and wherewithal. I decided to thruhike the John Muir Trail, a 221-mile footpath running through the Sierra Nevada from Little Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. I wanted to do it alone.
As such a beginner, I knew the undertaking would require masses of logistics and training, and the JMT became my primary focus for six months. I planned my daily meals and sent resupply boxes to myself at strategic points along the route. My equipment spreadsheet outlined the gear and apparel I would take with me, tallying ounces to help me minimize my pack weight. I made an end to end to end traverse of the 13-mile Verdugo range, took overnights to Cucamonga Peak and Mount San Gorgonio, and completed countless day-hike summits of Mount Baldy. I went to the Grand Canyon and completed a Rim to Rim in a day hike from the south to north sides of the canyon and back the next day: a total of about fifty trail miles and combined 20,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in around thirty-six hours.
I did all of these things by myself, but the John Muir Trail tested the boundaries of my tolerance for solitude. Traveling alone, I have the chance to meditate for extended periods of time, but I am also more inclined to engage with strangers. The encounters I have with other hikers show me a dimension of human character that I don’t often get to experience in my everyday life in Los Angeles. I find I have an almost immediate intimate connection with other hikers: We are all experiencing the joys and hardships of carrying our homes on our backs into expansive wilderness. We are all vulnerable to the elements and conditions, so we depend on one another for encouragement, information, and—sometimes—help.
On my first trip to the Grand Canyon, I met a trio of Canadians who shared a secret swimming hole with me and loaned me a much-needed tent peg. Complete strangers to each other, we shared our stories and dreams at the edge of the Colorado River. We toasted the sunrise on the South Rim with tequila and have been friends ever since.
By chance, I wound up camping three nights in a row with another solo hiker on the John Muir Trail. Tracey and I ate supper together and swapped ideas about ultralight gear and backcountry cooking methods. She always woke before dawn and was far ahead of me by the time I started walking for the day. I thought I might never see her again, but we crossed paths on our final day, on the dramatic two-mile traverse out to the summit of Mount Whitney. It was like running into a cherished friend I hadn’t seen in years.
Concerned about a dangerous river crossing I had to make on the Timberline Trail in Oregon, I was happy to meet another hiker coming in the opposite direction. While he was giving me valuable information about the best place to cross the river, I remembered that it was my birthday. He looked at me in disbelief and told me that his birthday had been the day before. We had both come to Mount Hood to spend our birthdays alone and became instant friends. This year, we wished each other a happy birthday via email before heading out for our yearly birthday adventures.
In my experience, the wilderness is filled with compassion, generosity, and kindness. The subculture of long distance hikers is like a model for an ideal society. In addition to treating each other well, hikers generally follow the Leave No Trace code of conduct that brings out the best in people. Now that I am a more experienced backpacker, I look forward to my encounters with other hikers. Being alone in the wilderness allows me to connect with nature, myself, and with other people I encounter there in ways that reveal my true self as both whole and boundless.