When I tell people I’m going on a solo wilderness trip, things could go either way. Either they get it or they don’t. And the ones that don’t – they really don’t. They’ll be asking me about wild animals and looking even more concerned that there won’t be any hotels and that I’ll get lonely.
Am I mad? This seems to be the $64,000 question that they don’t ask
Its easy for me to assume they don’t understand. They’re idiots. But that’s probably not true. We all still harbour deep seated fears of being alone and of animal attacks. And I guess heading off into the woods alone isn’t ‘normal’. Am I mad? Or just different.
What they don’t see is that the risks that pop into their minds when they think about it are actually the small ones.
THE BIGGEST RISK IS ME
If I were to do some sort of proper risk assessment, which I haven’t – this madness thing is starting to bug me now – things like drowning and hypothermia would be the biggies, the ones that were most likely to finish me off. Environmental risks but ones that ultimately I’m responsible for avoiding.
I don’t want to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp (or having a red hot fork poked up my arse by wailing, tormented demons, but really, I prefer the cloud scenario). Either way I’d rather not be there with harp/hurty arse thinking “Shit. I knew I shouldn’t have run the old Widowmaker with a loaded canoe”. Plus I’d hate for the first time most people hear of me to be on the TV. “Crazy guy dies alone in woods. Was he insane?”. You know the sort of thing.
Really, I’m not mad
That in itself starts to establish my sanity. This is a clear choice and it’s a choice drenched in logic. This isn’t something new. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, everything I’ve done in the past ten or so years has led me to this point. I’m not making some snap decision to go off and do something I have no knowledge or experience of.
I train myself. Much of it’s mental (anyone who knows me might think that it’s all mental but, hey, beneath the comfortable-if-a-little-too-well-upholstered exterior I’m like a coiled spring). Training and experience can reprogram much of what I was born with. It also allows me to get to know myself. I need to be able to step back from a situation and make decisions with a level head based on risks and an honest appraisal of my own strengths and weaknesses.
Absolute honesty is required and that takes some time to find. At my age I have a pretty fair view of my character. Gone is the hormone driven teenage posturing, followed by the trying to look professional twenties, along with the what the hell am I doing thirties. Now these layers have been peeled away to leave what is essentially just me. Your mileage may vary – this is just my story – hopefully it’ll take you less than forty years to realise what’s important.
There’s no room for my ego to come along for the ride
It’ll only get in the way and it might even kill me if I let it. But how can I ever know what I’ll do without trying it? Good question.
Sometimes all that’s left is to get out and do it. No theorising, no bullshit.
Just get out there.
Maybe you’re worried about sleeping out alone. Maybe you’re worried about travelling alone. If you feel like you have weaknesses then address them. Take some baby steps and see where they lead. I can promise you they’ll be some of the best steps you’ve ever taken.
I occasionally find myself reading a climbing book. Most talented climbers seem almost crazy but are regularly at a point where very few things matter, which interests me. The legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti wrote the following passage about his solo adventures:
“Confronting harsh conditions alone, without support waiting in the wings, taught me to make my own decisions using my own standards and, appropriately, to pay for them with my own hide. Although distressing at times, solitude was an invaluable and often essential finishing school. I learned to know myself better as I made these internal voyages of discovery. But more than that, I came to understand others and the world around me. During these solo adventures, the very silence sometimes stunned me: but by “silence” I also imply reflection – listening to my own inner voice.”
He hits the nail right on the head. This really speaks to me.
In my everyday life everything is sort of just there. In the supermarket I can get almost anything I desire even though I already have enough stuff to start my own supermarket. I drive a car. I have a few insights into how it works but rely on fuel and someone else to mend it. I use computers but have no idea how they really work and couldn’t imagine how I’d begin to make one. I carry a device around with me that’s like a drug. It encourages me to ignore the humans around me and interact with other humans I don’t really know on the other side of the world. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s all fucking nuts.
When I go into the woods I take relatively few things with me. Simple, trusted things that I know are important. I carry with me the knowledge to mend most of these things or improvise if I don’t have the specific knowledge. A couple of ‘modern’ things, such as cameras, come along too but if they stopped working I really don’t think it would matter much. In fact I think it might even make everything more enjoyable. I travel by simple means. Very little can go wrong if I’m careful.
In every day life I find it way too easy to fall into bad habits. I don’t exercise enough, I eat crap, I buy crap, I get distracted by useless stuff. But strip away the ‘every day’ and step into a world that just leaves ‘life’ and it’s a whole different story. My environment is simple, my needs are simple and my aims are simple. Honest is a word that describes it well. It feels good. It feels natural. It feels like I’m close to my roots.
I relish the solitude of travelling alone. Even with the finest companion I’ll never experience nature in the way I’ve experienced it on my own. After a little while I naturally slow down to match the speed of my surroundings. There’s not really anywhere to get to. I often stop to sit, just observing and enjoying what’s going on around me. As I slow down, I start to see things I’ve never noticed before. This is when I feel the transition between our manufactured world and the real world, the natural one we seem to have abandoned.
Solitude in this simple world is the perfect antidote to ‘normal’. With no useless distractions my mind works on what it should be working on. Profound thoughts pop into my head (well, a bit profound anyway). If there’s not too much work to do around camp I find myself resting more. Maybe even taking a well earned nap under that big old tamarack after lunch. Living life to my own schedule. Times like these are what the phrase “living like a king” was invented for.
But it’s not all relaxation. When I’m alone, the buck stops with me. If I’m cold it’s my problem, if I’m wet it’s my problem, if I’m hungry it’s my problem. The list is endless but done right or wrong, my journey continues towards self reliance. And self reliance is a very sweet thing to have.
So if you ever found yourself asking me why, this is what I’d probably liked to have said but didn’t. Who’s the mad one?