“Yes there is isolation
but there does not have to be loneliness”
from the poem “Lockdown” by Br Michael OFM Cap, Capuchin Day centre
The trees are breathing together. The trees are standing together. They’re not going anywhere, no Covid virus affects them and they accept whatever comes their way, even wildfire.
For two hundred miles I’m walking among them, day in, day out, alone, or better said, I’m hiking solo. Solo hiking has a unique ring to it than hiking alone. Solo hiking shows a choice, it has a notion of empowerment and being in charge. When I hike solo I’m in charge of everything I do, every action I take has a consequence - good, or bad -. No-one will reach for my hat when I drop it and walk on. When I notice it gone, I have to walk back since going without is not an option with the constant sun exposure. No-one tells me to look again when I take the wrong turn at the trail sign, and I walk on until something tells me I better look on my GPS to see how far I’ve come. No-one feels sorry for me that I have to backtrack and add 2 miles to a tiring afternoon. No-one says hurray when I make it across the river dry and safe. There’s no reward when I haul my 32 lb pack, filled with water for the night, up a steep slope and camp among the trees a half day further south of the fire that broke out that morning. My reward is I sleep better knowing that I’ve put the fire behind me. My reward is knowing my body can carry me up a steep slope when needed. My reward is that all’s well at the end of day and I can relax and sleep soundly in my hammock, possessions packed away, pack covered with a rain cover, food hanging in a nearby tree, and a rain fly at arms length in case the starry sky with its Perseus showers clouds over and raindrops fall. All’s well at days end and I trust that the next morning I will wake and do it all over again: make my morning tea, break camp, load the pack and start walking in the cool morning air, energized and curious about the day to come.
We as people develop anxiety of the unknown, the wild, by living in houses and walking on streets. This separation from the natural world creates an existential angst and cuts us off from living intuitively, in tune with our natural environment. I let the natural world teach me and connect me with my primordial existence when I go on a longish solo hike. It doesn’t happen in a day; it takes at least a week to become part of the rhythm that rules nature, to hear the silence and read its messages, to know the light in that place as it moves through the day. The silence among the trees breathes with promise, is heavy with knowledge, doesn’t harbor fear. Dappled light falls on baby trees, nurturing them to reach higher. When the light is heavy with smoke it slants sideways, yellow, sucking away the oxygen the trees so readily give. Soon the wind blows the smoke away again. Everything changes, every mile I hike, every step I take. There is an end to an endless stretch of exposed rocky trail and after I accept that the change will come when it does, the pain in my feet lets go and I can just walk balancing from rock to rock until the duff takes me by surprise and the trees reach with their limbs to protect me from the sun.
This solo hike during a Covid pandemic was especially solitary. I met maybe one or two people in a day, going the opposite direction. Some talked a while, others didn’t. After two weeks, everything around me became animate. In the morning I thanked my place of shelter. When I asked the trees questions I got answers. Looking through the hole in the lava rock I let it tell me about pouring across the land aeons ago. I sang with the rustle of dried leaves, announcing that fall was on its way. The abundance of cracked open pine cones told me it was harvest time. The light agreed and as the sun rose a little later each morning affirmed that soon it would be time to go home and tend to my harvest. Home, as in a house, sheltered from the cold weather that will come. Now that I’m home, it’s still 95F degrees during the day. The sun is still strong. Tomatoes and melons are ripening and the green beans are producing a second crop. But I know deep in my bones that the change is here. I have walked day after day digging up the strength I needed for the climbs and descends, for the long-mileage days to take me from one place of shelter to the next, one source of water to another. The water ripples, dances, keeps on giving even when I’m not walking anymore, even when I can just turn on the tap to get a drink, turn the stove knob to heat the water for a cup of tea. No daily packing and unpacking of my belongings, no bath with a cup pouring water over my dusty, sweaty body while balancing on a log at the end of day. When I step into the shower I can let warm water rain over me. I am clean and separate from the dust on the trail. Stacks of clean clothes, piles of clean dishes, an abundance of fresh food lull me into forgetting that I’m most alive when I use all my senses to guide me safely through a day on the trail. On the trail I never felt alone, even though I knew I was hiking alone. My simple belongings didn’t give me the illusion of being invulnerable. I walked with my vulnerability, just like the animals in the wild, alert but not anxious, observant but not worried, letting my strength carry me forward. As one of them, the creatures, rocks, trees and plants, I lived my part.
I’m home to write, to share what it was all about. For 3 weeks I was intimately and rudimentary alive. I hope to carry that knowledge inside me and let it seep into and enhance my daily living. Like the squirrels, I am busy putting up food for winter because the season is changing.