The Gift of Solitude
When I tell people I’m driving almost 1000 miles to raft Desolation Canyon of the Green River, an extremely remote and roadless 84 miles in eastern Utah, which will take me about a week, they assume, “Wow, what a nice trip I’m doing with Joyce and some rafting company with lots of people!”
Then I mention that it’s a solo trip, just me, perhaps not seeing another soul for days at a time. Most people are appalled. They tell me I’m crazy. They tell me I’m reckless.
Perhaps I am, just a bit, crazy and reckless that is. But for me, I crave solitude in the wilderness, nature’s divine temple. I’m writing this from my first night’s camp, eight miles downstream from the put-in at Sand Wash. I am truly alone. I had lightning, thunder, and rain while rowing in my little 12-foot raft, loaded with everything I need for a week away from civilization, with no cell service, internet, cars – or people.
My first choice, however, is not solitude. My first choice is to be here with my beloved Joyce. When the two of us are in nature, it’s like I’m alone. We are so attuned to one another that it feels like I’m with a special part of myself, rather than with someone else. But alas, Joyce has a limit to the number of river trips she feels comfortable doing. And she doesn’t feel able to go backpacking with me anymore. With Joyce, we take off in our camper, and still get a fine nature experience. But a few times a year, as long as I am able, Joyce gives her blessing for my solo immersions into the wilderness.
You ask, “Why solitude? Why not go with a friend or six?
Here’s my process. Day by day, I let go of time and schedules, instead experiencing nature’s time and timelessness. I eat when I’m hungry, rather than because it’s time to eat. I stop to rest when I get tired, and camp not because it’s time to camp, but because I have found a beautiful spot that calls to my soul. I sing while I’m rowing or while hiking up an inviting side canyon. I notice nature’s loveliness (including the rain today), the wildlife along the river corridor. Today, I stopped rowing to watch a Great Blue Heron skillfully catch minnows in the shallows near the shore. And best of all, day by day I feel the chatter and static of my mind calm down, replaced by a growing peace. Wilderness for me is a non-stop opportunity for meditation and prayer. Even my breathing takes on a more natural rhythm, and I more easily feel each breath than when I’m busy at home. The distractions from the simple act of being are reduced to a few simple camp chores. Most of my time in solitude, it’s just me and divine creation, and the infinite Source of creation. Right now, sitting near my campfire, it is enough just to gaze at the dancing yellows and oranges, and bask in its warmth.
Why don’t we give ourselves the gift of solitude in nature? I can think of two main reasons. There may be more. One is fear. Even more than the fear of physical injury, or getting eaten by a bear, in solitude there is the chance to get to know ourselves better. What if things that have been buried, like old shame or regrets, come up to the surface? Then I say, “Great! Let them come up so we can work them through to deeper healing and possible self-forgiveness.”
On the second day of my river journey, while hiking up a rugged side canyon, I reached ahead of me to break off a branch blocking my path. It’s such an automatic response on the trails around our home, but here in the desert, the vegetation is quite different. As the branch snapped, a huge splinter embedded itself into my finger. I tried to pull it out, but it broke off just under the skin where it couldn’t be reached. That night, my finger swelled up with infection and pain. If I were at home, this potentially serious incident wouldn’t bring up as much fear as it did in my complete solitude in the wilderness. I had moments of true fear, with the possibility of a medical emergency, of even losing my finger – or worse. In between those moments of fear, I needed to trust that I would be okay. I used antibiotic ointment and bandaged my finger, endured the pain for two more days, and finally my finger ejected the largest splinter I have ever seen. Going through the fear and uncertainty was part of the gift of solitude.
The other reason for not giving ourselves the gift of solitude is our feeling of unworthiness. Do we actually deserve to give ourselves this gift of solitude? Isn’t it selfish to spend time alone when we can be “productive” members of society? I’m often reminded of the Native American saying, “Humble yourself to receive, before you can truly give.” Solitude is a chance to recharge your life batteries, so you can really be productive by giving your love and your gifts.
So I challenge you. Do you have enough solitude in nature? Of course, you don’t need to solo raft 84 miles down a wilderness river. Going for a hike on a local trail, perhaps sitting directly on the earth, or on a rock near a creek, can do wonders. Even sitting in your backyard garden, however small, can give you a taste of solitude in nature. But give yourself time alone, quiet time for reflection, time without electronics or screens. Sit next to a plant, breathing in the oxygen that it breathes out just for you. And give the plant your exhaled carbon dioxide as a special gift for its life. Bring balance and harmony to your body, mind, and soul.
Sometime near the middle of my trip, I saw people for the first time. A group of five friends in three canoes, faster craft than my raft, passed me on the river. A man called out, “Don’t you get lonely being here all by yourself?” I smiled and said, “No, not at all.”