Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

I’ve always struggled to understand the solo hiker. Walking alone in the wilderness suggested a journey suffused with equal parts boredom and fear: no one to point to a sight seen along the way, no one to seek refuge with in case of danger. (These considerations apply to travel in general in my case: I’ve traveled alone, but have always preferred to do so in company.) But those who walk along wilderness trails with no one to keep them company have clearly overcome these challenges that seemed insuperable to me; they’ve clearly figured out something I haven’t. They’d figured out how to find solitude, not loneliness, on the trail. On my recent Colorado trip, once my original plans for hiking the Collegiate West section of the Colorado Trail had been derailed, I had resolved to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road, supposedly the most beautiful section of the trail segment, as a partial consolation. I tried to arrange company for the hike–a sixteen mile day-hike which would require a very early start to avoid any of the Rockies’ usual afternoon thunderstorms–but those plans fell through. I would have to hike this segment alone if I wanted to do it.

Let’s face it: I’m a pretty anxious, easily panicked person; I am terrified of being lost; momentary losses of orientation easily trigger ominous internal losses of self-control. I’m not your ideal solo hiker. But I was desperate to hike this section–one that had little camping cover and which would require scurrying down and away from its exposed ridgelines in case thunder and lightning threatened. The mind of the anxious is not easily tamed though, and I effortlessly conjured up one desperate situation after another: what if I sprained an ankle and was unable to walk? Eh? What then? I arranged for a ride, even as it seemed to me that the rendezvous I was arranging at night for a pick-up seemed a little tentative and might easily, on failing, cause me considerable inconvenience and perhaps even place me in some danger.

As you can tell, I was one reluctant adventurer. But I was a disappointed one, still smarting over the derailment of my original plans to hike the Collegiate West. So I gulped and resolved to wake early and set off alone. It was the most minor of decisions in one sense: all I was planning to do was wake up early and go for a longish walk–in the mountains. But knowing what I knew about myself, it wasn’t.

I set off at six in the morning, shivering just a little from the cold wind that raked Cottonwood Pass. The sun greeted my presence on the trail quickly, warming me up, and firming my resolve further. At Sanford Saddle on the Continental Divide, a black bear, sprinting downhill, induced some momentary apprehension but that emotion quickly gave way to gratitude for being lucky enough to witness such a spectacular sight. A little later, I met a thru-hiker who turned out to be great company; we hiked together for the rest of the segment, bidding each other farewell as he continued on from Tincup Pass Road. I wasn’t hiking solo anymore but the challenge had been met: I had set off solo. The hike was as beautiful as promised; I would have been a fool to have missed out on it.

More importantly, of course, I had partially mastered an old fear. And I had done it in the oldest ‘proving ground’ of all: the wilderness.

9 comments on “Colorado Notes – III: Solo Hiking As Novelty

  1. Andrej says:

    I’m really enjoying these notes from the trail. We could all do with a little more wilderness.

  2. keithnoback says:

    I think I’ve logged most of my back-country miles solo.
    I still remember the initial apprehension.
    That was before the voices came to keep me company…

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Haha – that’s epic! Do those voices still speak to you? Any interesting ones?🙂

      • keithnoback says:

        Nah, they just went on and on quoting The Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, so I had to ask them to leave.
        I didn’t get fully acclimated to it until I spent five days on the Grandstand, stormed out, waiting to climb the North ridge. Eventually, you run out of thoughts. It is all OK after that.

      • Samir Chopra says:

        Excellent. Mind you, it’s a good thing they didn’t get into the Critiques! I found your comment about running out of thoughts intriguing; are you suggesting that with enough solitude, anxiety departs?

      • keithnoback says:

        You have a point:).
        I think that it can, though it depends on the situation.
        Fears are temporary and ego syntonic, until those fears are reflected upon.
        That is easy to say, of course, and I think that the experience of persistent and ego dystonic fear ceasing with the cessation of reflection provides a mental state to associate with the dry theory.
        Whether and how one employs that association are different questions.

  3. bearly says:

    Solo hiking is way more intense than hiking in company.

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