Yesterday I was clever.
that is why I wanted to
Change the world. .
Today I am wise.
That is why I am
Changing myself.Sri Chinmay
I started hiking alone when I was in my early twenties for purely practical reasons. I was working as a Registered Nurse in a hospital, which meant days off during the week when the trails were less crowded. Since my friends all had normal jobs with weekends free but no time off during the work week, the choice was simple. I could hike alone or not at all.
I started going on day hikes first, then overnights, and finally five to six days at a time, alone with nothing but my pack on my back and a mountain trail. Of course there were no cell phones in those days and no GPS. I always let my family know of my planned route, which was essentially the only safety precaution I took, though I often diverted from that plan.
I admit that I was afraid on that first night alone in the woods, as I heard a rustling in the brush near my tent. There have been other times when I felt that fear creep up my belly and into my chest in response to a situation that warranted it, a bear in camp or a raging river to cross.
But I had gone camping and hiking with my family since I could walk. Both of my parents had enjoyed camping as children and continued the tradition. I grew up feeling comfortable and safe in the woods. The dangers lurked elsewhere. My advice to hikers who are trying to get up the courage to go it alone is to accept that risk is part of the experience and then ask the only question that really matters: Is it worth it? My answer is always yes.
I know that many of my readers also enjoy the experience of solitude on the trail, and their reasons vary. Mine include all of the usual ones. I see more wildlife when I am hiking alone. I pay closer attention to my surroundings because I am not distracted by conversation. I have no one’s schedule to conform to but my own. There is a delightful simplicity to these hikes. I can rest when I want, stop to camp whenever the perfect campsite presents itself, follow my own desires and wanderings. There is no other time in my life when I feel that degree of freedom.
But there is one reason for me that stands out whenever I think about solo hiking. It is the most important reason of all and informs my life even when I am not on the trail. When I am hiking alone I am utterly dependent on my own resources and no one else. If there is a problem it is up to me to fix it.
I am not a person who is beyond asking for help when the situation demands it. But on the Solitude Trail getting help with a problem is almost never an option. Like many women. . .and I believe men as well. . . I carry with me memories of past traumas. They are more burdensome than my backpack has ever been. I dislike feeling like a victim, even when I am, so I continue hiking . . .alone. I am not suggesting the “snap out of it” treatment that makes trauma survivors feel like they are being dismissed. I am suggesting going for a hike. Try it. Let the world challenge you. Take it on alone. It is better than therapy and cheaper too.
On one of my solitary hikes in the Pasayten Wilderness, I had a “pack casualty” when it suddenly fell off my back and onto the ground. I looked down with relief, glad that it had not fallen down the steep hillside next to the trail, but I had to figure out first of all why it had fallen and secondly how to fix it. It did not take long to find the broken O-ring on the ground next to my pack, the one that was supposed to go through the pin that kept the shoulder straps attached to the frame. Carrying extra O-rings would have been a good idea, but this casualty had never before occurred and was therefore something I had never thought about. I sat there on the trail and tried to think of various ways I could replace the O-ring. I had eaten lunch not long before, and in my pocket was the folded up Baggie that had contained my beef jerky, peanuts, and M and M’s. In another pocket was a Baggie full of the wire twists used to seal these bags.
A few words of explanation are probably necessary here for hikers who do not remember the world before Zip-Loc bags. “Baggies” were small plastic bags that came with wire twists to keep them sealed, the kind that are sometimes still used to seal bread wrappers. I always kept the wire twists in my pocket when I had emptied the contents of a bag thinking, as my mother often said, “They might come in handy someday.”
They most certainly did on this occasion. I removed about six of them from my pocket and twisted them together for greater strength, reasoning that one flimsy wire twist would not be strong enough. Then I tied them into a loop and essentially created my own O-ring from materials on hand. I was then able to reattach the shoulder strap, and I was good to go. I had anticipated that the manufactured O-ring would need to be replaced before I finished my trip, but I had a pocket full of these handy tools if I needed them. My clever little fix lasted for the duration of the trip.
All of this felt like an engineering miracle, a miracle that I had devised, a miracle that had saved the hike, enabling me to get back on the trail with my pack on my back. It was a small thing, hardly worthy of bragging rights, but it mattered to me that I had encountered a problem and solved it. . .on the trail alone.
This may be hard to believe for younger hikers, but there was a time when many hikers, including myself, did not carry stoves. The old stoves were heavy and bulky as well as undependable much of the time, and since campfires were then legal just about everywhere, carrying a stove felt like an unnecessary burden. Growing up in western Washington and learning from my father how to start a fire in almost any circumstance, I became quite adept at building adequate cooking fires that dependably would boil water for breakfast and dinner everyday on the trail, even using wet wood. It often was time consuming and required a fair degree of lung power to fan the faltering flame, but I rarely failed at this task. I hiked alone. I built fires. It was another one of those small accomplishments that felt worthy of celebration.
Many hikers have had the experience of looking across a valley to see the route rising above us. I remember hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail west towards Whatcom Pass, where I counted the switchbacks making their way up the steep face. I cannot remember the number, but climbing to that pass seemed like an impossible task on a hot day in August. “I can’t possibly do this,” I said to myself. And then I did.
It turns out there is a great deal I can do, even now as an older woman, and I remember these hikes when I feel overwhelmed by whatever crisis comes my way. I remember how good it feels to fix a broken pack, the satisfaction from the warmth of a glowing fire on a rainy evening, the exhilaration that comes when I have traversed the last switchback and made it to the pass. I can do this hard thing.
Crises continue to occur in my life. They just come in different shapes and sizes, and I do not take them quite as seriously as I used to. Hiking alone has taught me that I can take them on, do this hard thing, There is just this: my pack, the trail, and my strong legs, one step at a time.