Learning to Love Hiking Solo
For every reason I had for learning to hike alone, someone offered a cautionary tale to discourage me. But, as my hiking partners aged out, moved away or lost interest in being out where I am most content, I decided I had no choice. If I’m going to continue to hike into my advantaged age, I’m going to have to go it alone.
I’ve hike all my life. When I was a young girl, a meander along the winding Sonoma Creek was my favorite summer afternoon escape. My companion, a tall, lanky, neighbor boy, who was more interested in heaving heavy rocks into the gentle stream than joining me in quietly observing the wild things that dwell below and high above the water’s surface. We’d leave home at first light - lunch packed, excited to spend a day on our own, aimlessly setting out with no particular destination.
He and I discovered much about life perched on the clay banks of that nearly dry water way, alive with newly hatched toads and gooey green algae. Some of the lessons were practical, like how to cross over the water on a fallen log and which plants, insects and animals were best avoided, but also there were many profound insights into life and true friendship brought to light the summer after fourth grade when his father died. We did our best to hold onto each other, and our innocence, shouldering his grief and gleaning comfort from the natural world and the freedom to explore it together.
Those days, I realize, were in many ways preparation for this life stage fraught with shape-shifting circumstances that require me to venture out on my own, both on my hikes and in my life.
Now, just like back then, being out among the trees, I focus on what matters, uninterrupted and available to the random thoughts that often introduce me to a new way of looking at the world around me. Hiking, for me, is more than exercise. It is a ritual; a spiritual experience, a chance to exhale what is pent up as I expand my lungs and my potential.
I’ve come to understand one must be flexible at this stage of life, both physically and emotionally. Life changes rapidly and constantly, contrary to my initial expectation. I honestly thought once I had arrived here, I’d finally have a chance to pause and simply enjoy what I had worked so hard to put in place. Unexpectedly, and rather unceremoniously, things fell apart soon after I retired. Body parts failed and had to be patched back together, relationships changed, and a few friendships were left behind as I went about constructing a new life for myself. What I expected and what I was served up were completely different and I had no choice but to reinvent myself and my life to adapt to this future, rather than the one I envisioned. And hiking was always a part of my process.
I was once accompanied by a few women friends, who like me, enjoyed the early morning rituals of a “walk and talk”. A routine that wasn’t as much about the work out, as it was about working out the knots in our stomachs and the troubles of the times. It was a chance to burn off some pent up angst as precious friendships emerged. But not all things in life are meant to go on as long as we do, and now I only have company upon occasion, still with the same depth of trust and affection, just less often. So, in my need to venture out frequently, I venture out solo.
Finding my way up a steep trail, breathing in fresh morning air, opens my eyes and my heart, offering possibilities and perspectives that elude me at lower elevations. I have a sense of liberty and self-reliance that overflows into every aspect of my life. I feel confident and strong when I’m on the trail and it bolsters me to face uncertainty wherever I encounter it. And hiking alone offers me the uninterrupted quiet to consider what I need and want in my future. As I observe the natural environment, I find an undeniable correlation that reaches into the so called civilized world and offers me a better understanding of human behavior, including my own.
So, as I look forward to my birthday next month, I’ve set a new goal, 65 solo hikes in my 65th year, a chance to hatch a collection of essays about meandering, once again, without any particular destination through the hills and through my life.