The Solitary Way
“No one knows where I am, for the simple reason that I don't know exactly where I'm going. Not knowing is a key ingredient in this game.”
I take a bearing before I drop off the mesa, then descend through long stretches of sandy hills and scattered juniper until I reach good ol’ Jurassic slickrock. Immediately I feel at home. In the distance is the main canyon of the Escalante River. It’s early spring, a quiet day beneath mackerel skies, though the forecast calls for snow. I am heading for a side canyon that ends in a steep, smooth slab of sandstone. I’ve climbed up the 30-foot slab before, but never down. I’m carrying a pack with a week’s supplies, and I am alone.
No one knows where I am, for the simple reason that I don’t know exactly where I’m going. Not knowing is a key ingredient in this game. It allows freedom from order and schedules, from what I expect and what I am obliged to do. I’m not worried about animals or getting lost. Mistakes are another matter—my mind possesses a vast archive of them. I have known dozens of people who have died in the wild, and I’ve had my own close calls with the Fates: from an avalanche to an overly enthusiastic bear to a half-dozen bad climbing falls. All of which provide fertile ground for my imagination, which grows wilder the farther I go into the wilderness, and sweet reason never quite conquers its intrigues.
Soon the Aquarius Plateau, the 10,000-foot-plus highland at the head of Utah’s Escalante drainage, fades behind veils of distant snow. I can barely see the main canyon of the Escalante, so I get the map out, place it on the slickrock, weigh down the corners, and try to take bearings on a rock buttress in the distance, all the while wishing I had brought my reading glasses. As I put on my parka, big, wet flakes spatter the map.
I head northeast through falling snow, across swales of wet rock. As I lose altitude the snow turns to slush, then rain. When I hit the buttress head-on, I’m terribly pleased. Then I reach the slab. It’s soaking wet. I don’t like it. I step onto the slab, canting my ankle so that my foot’s weight will be distributed over the whole pad of sticky rubber on my climbing shoe. I force my heel down—Climbing 101. Then I commit my weight. Step down. “Attend to just this one thing,” I always tell my climbing students back in the Tetons. “Let the rest of the universe be dark.”
I shoulder the pack and head downstream. At dusk I reach the Escalante River. It is low. I camp on a hard, rippled sandbar. I heat water on the stove for soup and tea; I put on more clothes. I set up my MegaMid tent, spread the space blanket, unroll the Therm-a-Rest, fluff the bag. These tasks are comforting, necessities that crowd out the junky monologues in my mind. An archaic order begins to reclaim my life, one based on warmth.
I carry a cup of tea to the river and sit in the dark among the coyote willows. I listen to the riffles and ponder with them yet again Zen master Bassui’s great question: “Who hears?” The nematodes, the leaves, and the minnows go about their business quite oblivious to my complicated world. Indifferent. Soon I will be more like them.
MUCH OF WHAT I HAVE LEARNED about myself I learned alone in the wild. The variety of solo adventures is huge, and so are the rewards, but no matter how you go about it there is always something to be learned.
To be solo and first is to win one of life’s great games. No one will ever trump Messner’s solo ascent, without oxygen, of Everest. No matter how many experts run British Columbia’s Alsek River gorge, they will not attain the respect accorded Walt Blackadar for making the terrifying first descent alone.
Me, I’m not in the Escalante to win prizes or acclaim. I’m just passing through. True, I’m a mountain-climbing guide who’s been doing this sort of thing for 40 years, but everyone has to start somewhere, sometime. The more interesting question is this: What compels you to make your first journey?
For many of us, it’s a book. Near the end of a trip down the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories 30 years ago, my former wife and I encountered a lone man in a scow. He was beating his way up the braids of the Nahanni above where it joins the Liard River, a place called The Splits. He waved us over to an eddy and rolled a cigarette. He wanted to talk. After a while I asked him if he had read Dangerous River, R. M. Patterson’s great book about his solo trip to the Nahanni in 1927. He took a long draw and blew it out slowly. Then, with a rueful smile, he said, “That book has been the downfall of every man in this country.”
I read Captain Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World when I was growing up in California. It fired my imagination. Then I discovered John Muir’s account of his travels in the Sierra Nevada. When I began to climb, my first hero was a famous Austrian named Hermann Buhl. His book Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage: The Lonely Challenge culminates not just with his solo ascent but with a cold night he spent beneath the summit, at about 26,000 feet, standing on a ledge. Later I came across Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way. His book gets my vote for the ultimate guide to the solo journey. It chronicles a ten-month sailing voyage one and a half times around the earth, beginning in England and ending in Tahiti. He did not touch land. A participant in the first round-the-world race, the Golden Globe in 1968, he was in the lead heading up the Atlantic when he decided he didn’t want or need to finish. He turned south again for the Cape of Good Hope, and kept on sailing.
Though I have spent at least a year of my life alone in the wild, my extended solo journeys have been few—something I regret. I began in the Wind River Range in Wyoming when I could find no one to accompany me for two weeks of backpacking in September 1973. By the time I headed back to my job teaching philosophy in Chicago, I was addicted. The following summer I explored the White Mountains of western Crete and the island’s long, and then-empty, southwestern coast. In the years that followed I managed trips in northern Pakistan—to Hunza and to the southern valleys of the Hindu Kush. Eventually I moved to a cabin in the Tetons and made solo trips into my new home range and the Gros Ventre Wilderness. For several winters I lived on a remote ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border and wandered the Huachuca and Chiricahua mountains. But most of my solo journeys have been in the Escalante country. For years I have spent my springs there exploring its canyons, one by one.
MY SECOND DAY I PACK UP CAMP and head down the Escalante. The day lacks even a hint of drama. It’s overcast and cold. The options for travel here are limited: wade the river, thrash through willows, climb up and down sandy hills. I decide to thrash in the willows for a while, until I’m flayed, then I start wading in the river. It’s even colder in the water, and I find I’m grumpy, obsessing about an annoying encounter with a friend back home. That’s where my mind is—seething. The great walls around me, somber in their beauty, pass unnoticed.
I camp early, on another rippled sandbar. I’m cold, and fed up with my anger. This is a good sign: The mind is bored with its old machinations. It needs fresh conflict, drama, the torrent of social stimuli that rouses it to activity. I intend to starve it. For the first time, I turn to my journal to record something more than factoids. I begin painting with watercolors and attend to the colors around me. Most of the sandstone can be represented with burnt sienna, but the Navajo caps are buff, and the Wingate walls require Indian red and Venetian red. The interior of a great alcove above me is yellow ocher. The cottonwoods are mostly bare; here and there a few incipient, minty leaves. Soon I am lost in the mixing of colors. The day passes.
The next morning, while wading a long stretch of the river, I begin to sink in sand. On my first trip into this country, in 1963, I sank in quicksand up to my thighs and had to be pulled out by friends. I flail in terror to the nearest bank, where I try to gather my wits. Suddenly my pack seems heavy.
For practical reasons it is now difficult to sustain a solo journey on land. Most of us no longer know how to do it. (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a superb account of how not to do it.) And often we aren’t allowed to. There are NO TRESSPASSING signs. We can’t get a camping permit for more than, say, seven days. We can’t build a fire. We can’t hunt out of season. We can’t keep any fish over 18 inches. And so on.
And there are psychological barriers. The Red Cross tells us not to canoe alone, the Park Service tells us not to go into grizzly country by ourselves, we are not supposed to swim alone, and climbing alone is—ask anybody—crazy. For many, a solo trip is not even an option worth considering. And it’s true that going alone is more dangerous than going with groups. Everything is at stake. But that’s the point: You pay attention. You feel more alive.
Then, too, our social circle doesn’t want us to be alone. Tell your spouse you want to spend a month walking alone in the desert and you face anger and rejection. Live alone in cabins in the mountains, like I did for many years, and you are considered dangerous, untrustworthy, nuts. A potential Unabomber. We have effectively reversed the hermetic practices praised by virtually all religious traditions. We think that instead of bringing wisdom and insight, solitude in the natural world is at best useless, perhaps neurotic, at worst frightening. Even Emerson worried that Thoreau spent too much time alone in the woods.
Don’t get me wrong—I am not a misanthrope. I’ve led many group treks, and I love guiding. But the silence and solitude of going alone deserve a place in every life, and I worry that our facility for solo journeys is vanishing.
THE FOURTH DAY DAWNS COLD and clear. I linger, waiting for the sun to reach my sandbar. I hear my first canyon wren, the canyon country’s hymn. A flock of mountain bluebirds passes through, migrating north. I’m not inclined to move camp, so I don’t.
I lie on my sleeping bag in the sun and muse on what a friend said to me before this trip, during a conversation about solo versus team sports. He said that his son would never succeed in America because he had no interest in playing on an organized team. I took offense. My sole team sport, football, ended just as it was beginning, with a compound-fractured arm.
He pressed his point. Team sports inculcate necessary social values, channel competition, and prepare you for cooperative adult life. “Yeah,” I replied, “a happy life in the hive, like an insect, the drone as hero, or an interminable larval bliss and no metamorphosis to individuality …” He got the message.
I spend my summers working with groups of kids in the mountains. They must give up many things on these ventures—candy, caffeine, music. Music is the most difficult, they say. Silence is hard. They banter going uphill or down. Their counselors urge them to listen to the natural world instead of gossip: “Hear that Clark’s nutcracker?” The kids listen for a moment, then return to talk. Not talking to their friends is boring, they say. “Muir talked to the trees,” I hint. Instantly comes the witty retort: “Muir was probably bipolar.”
For many of them the possibility of being even moderately alone is terrifying. Some will admit they don’t want to be last in a roped party—no one to talk to, no feedback, all that silence, the void below. When I ask a young woman what she associates with the word solitude, she responds, “Solitary confinement.” Poor Thoreau.
I see the ability to be alone in the wild as an achievement, something truly radical that strikes at the root of our increasingly presumptuous levels of socialization. Well, let the drones please their queens; I’m going to have more tea and explore a side canyon. Nothing else to do.
THE FIFTH DAY BRINGS MORE SUN. I pack up and head down-canyon, choosing to climb sand dunes through shadscale and Gambel oak rather than spend more time with the willows. One hill gives me another glimpse of the Aquarius Plateau. Its white mantle seems out of sympathy with the raw, hot colors of these rock walls. I am lower in the canyon now, and after two days of sun there are, I notice, more leaves on the trees. My petty annoyances, worries, and squabbles with friends are gone.
That night I camp above the entrance to Coyote Gulch, the great bow of Stevens Arch glowing in the twilight. I’m struck by how difficult it is to reach this point in space and time and mind—to simply bear witness to the beauty and complexity of the natural world, and to glimpse, however obliquely, a bit of who we might become without an audience. After nearly a week in the Escalante, my world is a mirror that shows what there is when the audience is gone, the performance is over, and I am alone in the way I will be alone when I die. I stroll into Coyote—the friendliest of Escalante canyons—and, for the first time on this trip, see human footprints, though I never see their makers. I camp again. The routines are familiar, no longer tasks. This is my base camp. I’m going to wander up and down the canyon for several more days, look at things and think and write and paint.
Two days later, climbing out of Coyote Gulch above Jacob Hamblin Arch, I wander back onto steep sandstone slabs. The pack is lighter now. So is my mind. Before I step up, I brush the rock with my hand to remove the surface grains of sand, then blow them off, then step up carefully.
I climb on in solitude and silence. Submit to them and you will learn things about yourself that you will not learn in civil society. Would you press on up that lonely wall on Baffin Island or rap back down to base camp? Portage or run the rapids? Sail farther into the high latitudes, seeking wind but risking storm, or hang north, in the doldrums, and read War and Peace again?
You will never know who you truly are until you decide, all by yourself, alone with the world.