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The Challenge: Stay Silent on a Group Hike

Does the peacefulness of solo hiking translate into a social setting?

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My first long-distance solo hike did not start well. The rain matched my mood as I headed out on a 185-mile trek on Maryland’s Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath last spring. I was lonely already and a lack of cell service meant I couldn’t even call anyone. The few cyclists who came past shouted, “On your left!” and left me staring at their sludge-splattered backsides. Even my dog ignored me. I submitted to silence.

At first, my mind looped TV tunes and ’90s R&B, but after several hours of downpour against my poncho, something changed. My mind went quiet, blank even. I could observe my pace and the glistening greenery around me, taking it in without adding internal commentary. I saw muskrats and beavers swimming in the canal; white-tailed deer foraging trailside; sleeping geese that didn’t stir when I walked past. Released from speech, I became just another forest species. It was a depth of wilderness oneness I’d never known before and I loved it.

After my trip, I couldn’t wait to tell my husband Matt about my experience. And that got me thinking: If I could connect more to nature through silence, could silence connect me more with other people, too? It seemed like a revelation. To test my theory, I recruited Matt for an overnight trip on the C&O near the D.C. border.

Matt’s a fairly quiet man, and I wanted him to feel free to say all he wanted to say while I kept quiet. I wanted to hear him the way I’d heard the birds on my solo hike.

I laid out the plan.“I’m not going to speak the entire time, but feel free to talk all you’d like.”

“You can’t talk,” Matt recapped dubiously, “but I can?”

I nodded, eager to hear all he had to say.

He paused in thought for a second, then looked up. “Awesome.”

We crossed over Swain’s Lock to the towpath, initiating my silence. But I wanted to break immediately. We’d been yakking about our new house—OK, I had—and I wanted to ask Matt if he’d scheduled some construction. I reverted to charades, but kneeling down, picking up stones, and throwing them into the trees wasn’t getting across as “asbestos removers.”

Matt watched my Chaplin act with raised brows. Confused, he asked, “What is it, girl? Is Timmy stuck in the well again?” I snorted.

Hoping for that same sense of peace through surrender I found on my solo trip, I trucked along silently. I still wanted to spark his chattiness so I could soak it in like I had nature’s cacophony—the high squeaks of the night frogs or the bloop of the carp at the water’s surface. But Matt barely gave me heavy breathing to work with. Any attempts I made to give him a simple prompt like, “How’s your day?” only led to more confused miming. I sighed and kicked the pebbles. Maybe it was misguided to expect a quiet person to put forth a monologue.

Eventually, though, he did speak. He told me about a toilet exploding at work, imitated our niece’s singing, and slipped in long-forgotten inside jokes. I laughed, figuring that wasn’t against the spirit of my experiment. Maybe Matt was about to have his own breakthrough?

Well, no. While I loved his sporadic solo comedy acts, that’s all it was. It never scratched my itch for deeper connection. On past hikes, we’d banter to escape work stress, house stress, general life stress, but that wasn’t available now. Nor could I fully appreciate nature the way I’d done on my last trip, because those tiny morsels of conversation kept my mind from blanking out. I felt stuck in my silence.

Four miles went on like this, until we arrived at Great Falls, where whitewater rapids thunder over gray and shadow-blue boulders. It’s a tourist hot spot.

Passersby would say, “Hey, how are ya?” and all I could do was smile and wave. On my previous hike, the animals hadn’t wanted to say hello. Human connections work a little differently. Was I being a jerk?

When that’s your question, your head isn’t such a quiet place anymore—and we still had miles to go.

Mercifully, making camp was easy. We divided tasks the way we always do and there was comfort in the things that didn’t need to be said. But not much. We ate tuna sandwiches, extinguished the campfire, and kissed good night. I went to bed inches from Matt but felt miles away. This experiment couldn’t end soon enough.  

The Verdict: Fail

Maybe silence works for animals, monks, and solitude lovers, but human relationships thrive on communication. My attempt to create the same connection between my husband and me that I felt with nature was suspect at best—and a 12-hour game of charades is an endurance test that no one wants. 

Tips for Silent Hiking

Pick a good reason. Establish a basis for your silence at the outset—and have it be something internally driven, not dependent on others. Then your success doesn’t hinge on another person’s performance.

Leave distractions at home. Letting your brain cycle through its thoughts is part of the emptying-out process; books, music, games—they all keep that from happening.

Start slowly. Not ready for the full immersion? Take a smaller bite by trying an hour of silence in the middle of a group hike, or by sitting in silence at camp for a short period of time.

Aim for solitude. The less populous the location, the fewer strange encounters you’re likely to have with other hikers. If you meet chatty passersby, flash a card that reads, “I’m in silence. Enjoy your walk!” 

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