I can’t recall a more anxious sunset. Color seeped out of the skylight in the branches above my campsite, and with it, hope for escape. Each advancing second brought the walls of the forest closer, while the trailhead seemed to creep farther away. Soon it would be too dark to move. And there were bears out there.
There is one moment in every day where the light is low enough to fuzz out perception and blend reality with your nightmares. When, if you could just see, you’d know. And if you knew, you’d feel better. Or at least more hitched to reality, protected from your paranoia. I’d eventually come to learn that more than any feeling of heroism, accomplishment, or peace, this moment of terror is what really defines solo hiking—and on my first solo overnight in the woods of western Massachusetts, I was getting my first big dose.
It was early spring of 2007. The Boston ground teethed with crocuses as I dragged depression around my apartment like a filthy tail. Alcohol and television had replaced my emotional range. My roommates were two close friends, but they talked to each other mostly through video games I didn’t play. And so there I was, sitting on the couch on my sixth or seventh Busch any night of the week, binging Law & Order while rumbling explosions seeped in from the next room’s digital warzone. But along came a few warm days. Tree pollen livened the air. I could feel the sun on my face. I’d gotten away from camping over the last six years, but could tell, somehow, that it was what I needed. I doubt I asked anyone to come camping with me because for the first time, I didn’t care if anyone did.
I headed to Mt. Wilcox, a little hump off the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires. The sun was weaker in the mountains. I built a fire. The flickering light elongated the shadows made by twigs on the ground and cast the trees above into a dome of warm orange, holding the darkness back and yet making it deeper. I stayed busy, gathering sticks out of the gloaming and getting into the pint of Jägermeister I brought. As the fire crackled, I thought about the fresh bear scat I’d seen on the way in, and imagined the bears just waking up from their winter torpor on this early April night. I drank more and the temperature dropped and so I drank more to stay warm and I sang over and over the only verse I knew of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)” by the White Stripes. Soon, my comfort dome was only as big as my arms could reach around to gather up small bits of wood and dried leaves for the fire. And then that was gone and so was the Jäger. In that instant, I was alone. Alone and most of the way drunk. And then very, very cold.
There are no bears in this story. There seldom are. There was only me and my choices on a 25°F night in a 35°F sleeping bag, with goosebumps on my ribs that felt like a rash. I’d given up praying by then, but I can remember entreating the Almighty for the first little light of dawn. I just wanted it to be over. It was the second-worst night I had ever experienced to that point.
The worst night was six years earlier, when I’d decided to never ever camp by myself. It was less than 10 miles north of Springer Mountain, Georgia, and a friend and I were on a long section hike of the Appalachian Trail. I was 19, and it was my second or third night ever sleeping in a tent by myself. Sometime, maybe around 10 p.m., footsteps approached our two-tent cluster and then we heard a very strange bird-like clicking noise that sounded like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Whatever it was circled in on heavy footsteps, making that terrible noise. I laid still, heart in my mouth, heartbeat in my ears, eyes darting all around, connecting with a new sort of fear. This was the menace of the wild. The beast brushed my tent wall and moved on.
To this day, I have no idea what it was, but I bet it’s still out there. Something always is. I knew that heading out into the hills of western Mass. I felt it especially passing the scat piles, wondering if early spring bears are unusually aggressive since they’re so hungry. But when you are not feeling much, there is reassurance in fear. You are at least feeling something, and I was desperate to.
People ask three questions when they hear that you backpack alone: “Aren’t you scared?”, “Isn’t that dangerous?”, and “What if something happens?”
Until about two years ago, I carried a special knife for solo trips. It’s a beauty: a two-inch-long fixed blade with a Micarta handle—confidence cast in carbonized steel and sharpened into a drop point. Its sheath has a lanyard so I could wear it around my neck while I slept, and tugging at it became my last-light ritual.
It felt safer to be armed, as if carrying the tool itself would unlock the skill to use it. I imagined giving bears or cougars the ol’ juke-and-stab instead of lying there like a side of fear-frozen meat.
In his 1949 posthumous classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold argued that hunting is the most clarifying way people can connect to the Earth. To him, the gun was an umbilical to our early ancestors who fought with spears and teamwork to reduce a life into calories. By looking down from the top of the food chain with a gun in hand, the thinking went, a man could understand his place. This concept needs a refresh, and not just to improve its inclusivity.
In our era, unlike Leopold’s, the wilds are practically gone. They cling to the skin of the Earth like a flea the dog’s claws cannot quite reach. It is vulnerable, and so to connect with it, you have to be vulnerable. Yet when it comes to our environment, firearms are instruments of power and control, not connection. The wall between us and the wild is built of weapons and technology, and that barrier grows ever higher.
To really connect with wildness now—to really feel it—you have to give all that up and travel back a few million years when the whole point of bipedalism was to see predators over the tall grass. You have to make yourself prey. You have to open yourself to a primal sort of fear, the kind that obliterates the rest of your little human problems and discomforts with its urgency. And then you hope the fear doesn’t show up, even though you know that it will, eventually.
North-central Texas doesn’t leave a lot for backpackers. Hunters, maybe, but finding good camping within a couple hours’ drive of Dallas is a lot harder than finding a feral hog. The Hagerman Wildlife Reserve on the shore of Lake Texoma seemed like an exception. Having recently moved to Texas in early 2009, going solo was the only option, so I went solo.
By then I’d eased into solo trekking. The jolt of that Berkshires overnight had broken my depression so effectively that I headed out on another summer on the AT, first with a group of friends, then alone as everyone ran out of vacation time and went back to their lives. But you are never really alone on the AT. Then I explored the easy-access Fourteeners of Colorado when I was new to that place, bedding down in the dry sweetness of ponderosa forests.
But hiking alone was still something that happened to me, rather than something I chose, and I was apprehensive as I threaded the network of social trails hugging the shore of the reservoir formed by clogging up the Red River. Detritus cast off from party boats marked the high-water line. In the waning light of that early spring afternoon, I ascended a small flat bluff with a 270-degree view of the lake and a dead tree where I could hang my food. As I unrolled my sleeping bag into my tent I heard the first rumble of thunder. Only then did I realize my food was hanging from the highest point around, perhaps for miles.
Down I went into the leafless forest. The more I descended and the fainter the light got, the heavier my feet felt, until I dragged them in concrete shoes and my head swam with ill-ease. Things seemed to move between the trees, but advanced dusk had rendered the woodland into a sort of liminal grayscale. I stepped forward into a small, flat clearing, relieved that I had found a suitable place to throw down while it was still light enough to see.
And then, on my right cheek, I felt a very soft caress.
I bolted instinctively, all the weight melting off my feet as I tore away from whatever the hell that was. For about three steps.
Then a voice inside my head cut through the panic: Where are you gonna go?
I stood there, three paces from the caress, chest heaving and realized that I was already where I was going. There was no one to help me. My brain struggled to process what had happened and categorize it according to my experience of life up until that moment. Maybe it was a leaf that fluttered down just so? Maybe it hadn’t happened at all? Maybe, but I could still feel goosebumps under my beard. I sat, back against a large tree to protect my blindspot, breath slowing and muscles relaxing. Bits of black flitted among the trees out in my periphery, tiny amounts of contrast where darkness had fallen. The last thing I saw was a bat climbing a tree like a gargoyle, gripping the bark with its little claws. It seemed so gangly and awkward. Why climb when you are a flying creature?
Why run away when you have nowhere to go? Why hike alone when humans are social by nature?
I set up my tent and zipped the vestibule all the way to the ground, fortifying myself with a fraction of a millimeter of polyester, and winced with every little noise from the woods around. If you solo camp, of course you’ll be scared. Of course leaving your house is more dangerous in the short term than if you had stayed at home watching Law & Order. But risk gives the experience its power. Even if it ends up being a sunny-perfect-easy trip where you blissed out on your exact own terms, you still have to muster enough activation desire to overcome the background fear. But accounting for selection bias (that those willing to hike alone probably get out more often than other types of backpackers), I doubt soloing is more dangerous than going with a friend. There are all kinds of bad decisions that happen only in groups.
We are conditioned to think about safety in numbers, but that’s only the physical kind of safety. There are a lot of ways to feel in danger. Many of them we do to each other. Very few of them respond to knives. You can outrun almost none of them. Camping alone teaches you to make peace with the fact that there are some things you can never make sense of and that safety is less reliable than you think. You have to set up camp in the middle of a world you can’t control. The way people always have.
Everyone walks alone eventually. We are social to a point, and beyond that is the great granite unknown. We think of solo journeys as a rite of passage, symbolic proof that we’re fully-formed people ready to forge a path through our own lives. This almost completely misses the point. If you’re out there solo hiking, you aren’t breaking away from the pack; you’ve already fallen off the back of it. Soloing is mostly about making space for something to happen that will get you back on.
This became my rhythm. When you feel that something is wrong with you and have taught yourself that only nature rights it, you get an instinctive sense for the kind of trip you need. This is to say wilderness became my medicine and I became good at titrating the dose. When I sought partners now—if I sought partners—I offered backpacking trips as pre-planned experiences, take it or leave it. But I was glad when they left it; others were a barrier between me and my meds.
I was just off the interstate in New Mexico last year, 10 hours into a 12-hour drive to the Gila Wilderness, when the vet called. I pulled over. My dog had cancer. Two types. She gave him four to six weeks. I don’t want to talk about the shock or numbness I felt. My wife and I knew he was sick but I was still hanging onto hope that it was an abscess, easily drained, plenty of life ahead. It’s a strange thing to hope so hard for a malady as raw as that when there is no alternative. But that’s hope.
And then, just like that, the hope was gone.
I thought about turning back but didn’t. Maybe it was selfish to spend a week traveling 70 miles through America’s oldest wilderness, a designation Aldo Leopold himself was instrumental in securing. But I needed it. I kept driving.
Coop wasn’t a trail dog. He took the couch over the tent any day, though when we camped he was always first in, scratching at the mesh for admittance before we even threw our bags inside and coming out only to eat. I think he knew that fear of dusk too.
The ponderosa forest along the West Fork of the Gila tells the story of wildfire. It’s scarred land. Things live there despite the damage, or because of it. I have been to no natural place where the line between life and death seemed thinner. The canyon started wide but soon narrowed into intimacy. Owls, songbirds, grass flowers dried into circles like promise rings, and those old, scorched ponderosas swaying like Evangelicals on Sunday. Up on the rim, alligator junipers threw their crowns above bark that resembled doused firewood.
I left the marked trail on the third day, following a social path that was like a pen running out of ink. The track faded into a game trail then disappeared below grasses that crunched with the vestiges of last fall’s green-up. Better times past, but now only brittleness collapsing under my weight. I thought of Coop.
I’d tell you how the tears started. How my throat snatched at my jaw and something in my sinuses heated until it liquified. How I tried to hold it in, to walk it off. I learned to be ashamed of crying when I was a boy, which I still felt even though I knew it was outmoded and dumb. But here with no one else around, I didn’t have to feel the grief and its embarrassment. I could focus on the full, pure thing.
Then I’d tell you how I decided not to hold onto it, but to stop and let tumble out of my throat and into the actual world the sound of a wound that we all know. That it always sounds the same, no matter who is making it or for what. I’d tell you that it felt good, even in its terribleness, to let it out. And to have my eyes blur the highland between the two canyons, and to simply be so fucking sad and helpless. I’d tell you, but you already know. We all know grief. Or will soon enough.
Before I got moving again, I pictured myself standing there. A man with a minimalist backpack and a full-brim sun hat, alone in the open, far from any trail, looking as lost and despairing as a person can. But that’s not how it felt. I knew where I was and where I was going but had no idea about the journey that would connect the two. I had to walk that alone. There was room there in the sun for me to do so. I’m not sure I ever felt more free.
Coop died at the vet’s office four weeks after I got back. I wept in the parking lot.
I know that backpacking solo is a privilege. Not everyone can do it; the fear of physical danger varies by circumstance of person and place. For all the things that scare me when I’m out by myself, people rarely make the list. And yet that did not stop me from packing a homemade nightstick when I camped in Central Park in my late 20s in 2007.
Months earlier, I’d listened to an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker boast about how his craving for a real slice of pizza had become so strong that when he reached that clearing in New Jersey from which the Manhattan skyline is visible, he left the AT for the city. He said there were pockets of forest in the park deep enough to conceal a stealthy camp. He said he camped there for two nights. OK.
It was the very beginning of winter when I strolled into an area called Great Hill in the northwestern part of the park and promptly left the walking path. I’d moved to New York for journalism school after I left Boston and the idea of sleeping unseen in such a busy place was too delicious to pass up. Spending so much time on the trail that summer taught me that I could handle myself. I merged with a desire path—bare dirt left by dozens of footsteps through the grass—and followed it to a flat spot between two boughs of a downed log. There was fresh trash, but otherwise it seemed good. The trees were close together, the understory thick enough. I could just make out the road around The Pond to the south. This would do.
I returned 15 minutes before dusk, pitched my tarp, and fell asleep quickly in the heavy-lidded drowse that two warm sleeping bags create in a cold place. If there is one unequivocal good of solo camping, it’s the acquired ability to fall asleep under duress. Anyway, I didn’t want to run a headlamp.
I didn’t know what the footsteps were at first. They came quickly and confidently and under dark—whoever was making them didn’t want to run a light either. The nightstick! The footsteps walked right up to the edge of my tarp and stopped.
I’ve heard that humans think about 6,000 thoughts per day and my mind in that moment was like a crazed kaleidoscope of doom. I gripped the nightstick, but I was zipped-to-blowhole in both sleeping bags and couldn’t really move. Or maybe that was the fear. Because here it was. It. This was it.
Something changed. I could hear it in the ground. The footsteps backpedaled, then turned and booked. All that time I was afraid of what might come in the dark, had armed myself against it, but I ended up being someone else’s thing in the dark. I fell back asleep for a few hours before I woke to four Central Park raccoons the size of small dogs sniffing at my face. I unzipped and brandished the nightstick and they were not impressed. Don’t mess with racoons, I’d read in a book about NYC wildlife, they are valiant fighters. I popped out onto Central Park West in the sparse gray of early dawn and walked on the sidewalk home to Harlem. That was plenty.
If it had gone down differently, people would have said I had a deathwish, just another yahoo idiot. I knew before I arrived at my apartment that I’d gotten off cheap, but privilege can be expensive. It cost Central Park that desire path, that fresh trash, and a small compacted spot where someone laid for the night. It cost Mannahatta everything as one of the world’s great cities grew on top of it, leaving only that little patch of manufactured wildness amid the high-rises.
We think of backpacking alone as going without support, but it’s really going without accountability, which is the most fearsome kind of privilege. There is nothing but your own conscience or ethics to force you to manage your waste and wash water, walk all the way around switchbacks, stop you from camping illegally, and excusing yourself from any of those things because you are just one person so what’s the big deal?
When you are alone, you get to choose. This is how solo backpacking tells you who you are. It’s not about how tough you are, or how you tested yourself, or cast yourself as some sort of conqueror, or any of that other rugged individualist fiction storyline. Camping solo is about how far you slept from the beautiful lakeshore with the long western draw where the sunset reflected just so when no one was watching.
Only you count the paces.