Where do you run to, to find answers? How do you reboot your brain? How do you settle your brain-floaters (those nagging thoughts that won’t go away and won’t solve)? Me, I’m a solitude seeker. That probably comes as no surprise if you’ve read my writing before.
In 2004, at the age of 48, I made my first solo backpacking trip into the Guadalupe Mountains, looking for answers. It was my first planned solitude.
The curious thing is, at the time I didn’t have any haunting questions, or burdens, or emotional struggles. I wasn’t fleeing responsibilities or trying to connect with my mountain-man self. I just wanted to do something radically different to feed my heart and connect with God. Someone recommended a solo backpacking trip, so I went. I borrowed an ancient Boy Scout backpack, used my own broken sleeping bag (I didn’t know the zipper was broken when I left home), took a finicky tent that was too heavy, hiked in the snow, and thought I was going to freeze to death during the night and knew Cyndi would be really mad if I did.
I survived the night. I had a great adventure. God spoke to my heart in comfort and acceptance and companionship. I was hooked. I’ve made many more solo trips into those very same mountains since then, and I hope to have many more.
I recently finished reading Running to the Mountain by Jon Katz, a book he wrote in 1999 to chronicle his escape to solitude, to a dilapidated mountain cabin in upstate New York, where he confronted his own questions about spirituality, mortality, and his own self-worth. He was even less prepared than I was for his solitary mountain adventure.
He wrote, “On the mountain, I found myself truly, literally alone for perhaps the first time in my life – solitude being very different from loneliness – without really being prepared or knowing how to respond. Like (Thomas) Merton, I’d left the real world, though temporarily.”
When I read that, it reminded me of a backpacking trip I took in 2008, when, like Jon Katz, I was literally alone for perhaps the first time in my life. I wrote in the margin of my book: “Like Wilderness Ridge. I was alone. No one could’ve hiked up during the night in the dark. The gate was locked.”
It wasn’t scary. It didn’t make me nervous. I knew I could hike out of there in a couple of hours if I had to. I wasn’t lost. In fact, I could see my car way down in the parking lot. And besides, I went up there to be alone.
I had been by myself in the Guadalupes many times before, but this time was more definite. I could see the trailhead parking lot from where I was sitting on the edge of the cliff, 3,000’ higher and four miles of trail away from the visitor center, and my car was the only vehicle in the lot. I knew the entrance gate was locked, but it was too far away to see. However, that locked gate and empty parking lot was a picture of finality - at least, until the next morning, when the visitor center would reopen.
I was laid off more than once by various employers, but I eventually found work in my same profession, so that wasn’t so final.
In 1980 when our son, Byron, was born, I felt like a gate had closed behind me; it came over me all at once during the first half of a six-mile run down Highway 137 in Brownfield, Texas. Being a father was the most permanent and irreversible change in my life to that point. But that evening, as I ran on those thoughts, I began to see it as gate opening instead. By the time I’d finished my run I was happy and ready to be a daddy, full of joy over that tiny boy with skinny legs. I couldn’t really count that as a locked gate.
I’ve closed and locked the gate myself on several foods that I once enjoyed. Green bean casserole, for one. And kale. I both cases I remember my last serving, when I knew it would be my last bite. But neither of those choices left me feeling alone.
But my sunset experience on Wilderness ridge was a turning point in my life that I still don’t completely understand. The solitude felt warm and comfortable, as if God was reminding me to trust Him a little while longer.
That evening I felt the need to make a statement, so I marked the cliff face in the fashion male mammals have used since the beginning. Whatever happened in my heart up on Wilderness Ridge, whatever the closed gate meant for me, however I was supposed to be alone, I now owned it. It belonged to me. I had marked the moment.
QUESTION: Are you a solitude-seeker or community-dweller? Have you had an experience similar to mine? Or Jon Katz’? I’d love to hear about it.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32