The case for hiking alone
Although I was born with a rebellious mind, I also have a history of being an unwitting follower of the group. I blame the Pisces in me. My individuality suffers in the context of “people” whether or not said persons are trying to influence me at all. For better and probably for worse, I absorb other people’s energy. I can’t help it.
Undoubtedly, I reached my group-think bottom in high school when a long-held fascination with synchronized dancing, hip hop, clean uniforms, long hair, heavy makeup and glittering pom poms lead me astray. I tried out for the Dos Pueblos High School Varsity Cheerleading team and made it onto the squad, but my obvious disinterest in the responsibilities that being a cheerleader entailed, like watching football and practicing daily, made me act like a zombie, going through the motions in total boredom. I quit the team after a year, but I think the captain had unofficially fired me by then.
All of us can get swept away by social beliefs about what will bring us joy: go to as many parties as possible, make enough money to buy the right stuff, fit in. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I began asking myself what actually pleases me. One of the few answers I’ve come up with is hiking. And more recently, hiking alone.
When I first started hiking seriously, going alone didn’t cross my mind, and not just for the obvious and justified paranoias of a woman's wilderness safety. I wrongfully believed that the experience of hiking—just like the experience of vacationing, dancing in a club, going shopping—was a shared experience. Friends make those kinds of experiences more fun, don’t they? Isn’t it selfish not to invite a friend? Besides, isn’t hiking alone a bit like eating alone in the school cafeteria? Doesn’t hiking alone appear to others that no one wanted to join me?
To take this one step further, I think there’s a naive part of many of us that worries we need a witness. It’s an irrational anxiety, as if we didn’t climb a mountain unless a friend was there to see it. Even worse, we need to be photographed on mountaintops in order to prove we were there. Bringing friends saves us the trouble of having to put our experiences into words after the fact. How will anyone ever know I saw this glacial lake? Maybe we believe that experiences need a credible witness in order to live on in our imaginations.
My first time backpacking alone was last spring. I had a shitty day and left my house on a whim, telling myself that I didn’t have time to herd friends. There was an urgency to the situation—needing to get a higher perspective on my problems—that prevented me from doing my usual routine of emailing friends, obtaining wilderness permits, and wrestling with other people’s schedules.
Instead, I grabbed some snacks at Trader Joe’s and told my boyfriend I probably wouldn’t go far, and that I might actually end up spending the night in my car. Who knows, I said, it might not happen at all. I ended up hiking far into the wilderness. I climbed over an avalanche. I made a fire. I slept in my tent alone and heard a tree branch snap in the middle of the night. It was one of the best weekends of my life.
On the subject of hiking alone, Cheryl Strayed said in an interview:
“I don't go on and on about shooting heroin in Wild, but it is mentioned. I did it the night before I flew to California to begin hiking the [PCT]. I think I was in far more danger of dying when I did that than when I walked alone in the wilderness."
If you've ever chain-smoked, driven on the freeway in LA, or mixed prescription drugs, you've probably already put your life in more danger than you did the day you entered the wilderness by yourself. She goes on:
"I point this out because a big part of what enabled me to hike alone as I did was to look closely at what it is I was afraid of and why. It's more dangerous to get into a car than it is to walk alone in the woods, but most of us don't perceive it that way...I was okay out there. Yes, it's true I took some risks and I found myself in situations at times that were not entirely what you'd call safe, and yet the profound realization for me is that I was—as I say in the book—’safe in this world.’”
Strayed didn’t feel safe in this world before she hiked the PCT. She felt weak, insecure, and unable to take healthy risks. She didn't know how to look out for herself.
The paradox of hiking alone is that testing our strength as solo hikers in the wilderness, especially for women, is something that is rightfully regarded as frightening, and yet it may be just the thing that makes us feel safer in this world. Taking a risk in the wilderness "allowed me to inhabit the world in ways I'd never previously imagined,” Strayed says. Hiking alone can lessen our fears of being alone, both in the wilderness and in the social world. It is a great exercise in individuation, something I could have used back when I wanted to break with the cheerleading team.
This past weekend, I honored my commitment to hike alone more often and climbed Cucamonga Peak in the Angeles Forest. I hiked past several groups of chatty hikers listening to music and caught myself only once considering what I looked like in their eyes, whether I was the weird kid eating alone in the cafeteria. Those things matter less and less to me these days, and besides, I don’t think anyone ever actually cared—they were always too busy worrying about themselves.
No one was there to photograph me on the mountaintop, so I sat down to revel in the distance I had climbed. I was alone up there. I worried about not making it back to my car before sunset, but I did and I was fine. The end goal of that day—however elusive and challenging to reach—was to allow the solitude to illuminate something to me. I saw that proving myself and keeping others happy leaves no room for spontaneity. If only for the duration of the hike, I experienced freedom from the need to appear any certain way, and to laugh at something beautiful knowing that it was genuine, because no one was there to hear me.