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Going Solo


by Unknown

April 16, 2002

Growing up an only child for 10 years on a relatively isolated Ohio ranch may have instilled and nurtured my penchant for solo hiking. Years spent alone with my dog in the woods, building forts, fighting headhunters and searching for the lost treasures of the world…

The second growth forest around my house was my own world, a place where I could be or do anything I wanted. There, I learned woodsmanship, how to hunt, fish, track, build fires and shelters. The woods were a place I felt at home, safe from the corruption of the outside world.

Another possible source for my feelings may be genetic. My dad, nicknamed Grizzly by his friends, was the major influence in my young life. All of my best memories of growing up are set in the woods with my dad. He has always tried to instill a love of nature, beyond mere appreciation, into a spiritual world which we have an ethical responsibility to defend at all costs. As a sidenote, my dad was an original subscriber to Mother Earth News.

He taught me how to move through the outdoors in sync with nature, that we humans are nothing but another critter and should act accordingly. To respect the rights of everything in the woods, from the moles to deer, jagger bushes to trees. No life is insignificant, all things depend on each other, and humans are as much a part of the food chain as anything else, though at the top while alive, postmortem we return to the bottom. That truth is to be found in the realm of the natural world, not in that of civilization.

Most importantly, he taught me to not overwhelm nature. That it should be enjoyed in its purest form with as little human interference as possible. True connection comes through solo hiking and true peace comes through solitude.

The search for this solitude had put me on the mountain today. It was the last weekend before the staff orientation at Camp Takajo, the summer camp where I had lived and worked maintenance for the past month. Two weeks from now, the kids would arrive in buses and alone would be a term reserved for time spent in the bathroom.

After a late start and a two-hour drive, I hit the trailhead around 1:00, checked-in and was on my way up the East Coast’s highest mountain by 1:30. The weather was uncharacteristically warm and humid for New Hampshire in early July, which carried a variety of consequences including a sticky trek up to the tree line and an abundance of black flies.

The black fly is a nasty insect indigenous to the northern states and Canada. Though many detest this fierce biter, bearing scars of a trespass into a land which is not their own, that day on the mountain I developed a certain respect for the toothed gnat of the north.

As I approached the 5000-foot treeline, the humidity faded into the cool, thin air and for the first time I entered a world like no other. Above the treeline, the trail traverses miles of lichen-coated granite chunks ranging in size from a golf ball to a house. Scrub brush and moss are the only vegetation. Without markable trees or footprinted soil, you must forge your own trail between sporadic cairns over the broken rocks.

The cairns, rock piles stacked for navigation in foul weather, took me back to the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, Scotland, where I had hiked during my time abroad. I remembered the wind wrapping around me and the never-ending view over the distant green hills. Though these cairns were stacked possibly 2000 years later, the timelessness of their structure made age irrelevant.

The hills near Edinburgh were the alternative to the pint glass when I needed an escape. Growing up on an Ohio ranch, life in the city, even a small city of a half million, became mind boggling at times. The hills became a place of solitude. Solo hiking, alone for hours on end, has a therapeutic value seldom found.

Alone in the hills, free to think, able to exist in a fantasy world of open skies and unclimbed peaks. There, I forged a love for solitude. Either of want or necessity, I began to value “me time.” Like so many things, you are forced into a situation, fighting and hating every minute. Soon you accept it as reality, finally you become dependant on solitude and before long, it is necessary comfort to your existence.

The sun rises and sets, painting the sky. Flickering flames dance out of fire pits, cooking food, warming bodies, and providing the same unmatchable peace that captivated the first humans a million years ago. The night stars provide the only blanket you ever need.

Bzzohwch, the buzzing of a black fly working his way into my inner ear interrupted my daydream. Typically, the flies remain in the woods below, but due to the recent thaw, they had invaded the higher elevations. The swarms were never more than ten yards apart and even the slightest pause made you a target.

As I crossed the midday New Hampshire skyline, fellow hikers descended with arms and legs dripping with blood, as if they had taken a shotgun blast. I knew it was from the flies, but questioned each anyway, as I stood with my two bites imagining the pain and itching they must have been enduring. Black flies do not sting like a mosquito, they bite like a rat, taking a chunk of meat half the size of their body, and today on the mountain, hikers were an all-you-can eat buffet.

Nearing the summit around 4:30, pride of my accomplishment carried me around the 6288-foot peak, above the entire eastern United States and into the parking lot of a visitors’ center? Leave it to America; the Mount Washington Visitors’ Center and Observatory came complete with a museum, gift shop and cafeteria. For those who were either too lazy or out of shape to climb, the summit was serviced by both a black smoke spewing train and a toll road.

After waiting in line behind a bingo crowd tour group for a photo of the summit marker, I walked around below the visitors’ center and sat on the rocks. Peeling the daypack off my sweat-soaked back, I grumbled indignantly and felt very self-righteous about the whole situation. Over my peanut butter Clif Bar and orange Nalgene bottle of water, I pondered the black fly’s position in the entire matter and concluded they were a necessary evil if the mountain was to retain any sense of purity.

Now, months later as I sit at my desk recalling what I can and trying to extract some sense of meaning from the pages of my journal, I fear the point may have been lost along the way. What started as an account of a hike and a praise of the black fly, led to an appreciation of solitude and a search for a basis. Along the way I recalled many places, the memories and feelings I associate with each.

All of this may indeed be the point of this sprawling, babbling essay: whether a journey through the mind, the memory or the physical world, the destination is seldom as meaningful as the path taken.

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