I love to hike and backpack and I've done several solo trips across the Sierra Nevada in California (and a few in Sweden).
This is the first part of an ongoing series of my adventures on the trails.
In this sensory, slightly poetic, piece, I try to give you a clue as to why I love to hike alone.
What terrifies many, the solitude, the emptiness, and the lone nights, is something I cherish.
Please comment with any questions! I'm happy to respond :)
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In the void of the endless world.
I stand up on my toes, stretch out my arms, and crane my neck back.
Then it comes; The scream.
From the bottom of my belly, it grows. Up through my stomach. It shakes my ribs. Curls in my lungs. It stings my throat and it rips through the air.
There's nothing but sky above me. Nothing but mountains below me.
I'm in the wilderness. Alone.
Here, no one can hear me scream.
It eventually dwindles to a laugh. I stretch out my arms wider. Ready to embrace the heavens. I can't help to think of the young Leonardo at the front of the Titanic.
"I'm the queen of the world!"
My yell echoes over the vastness.
Such a classic. It's eye-roll worthy, but who's here to roll their eyes?
That's right: No one!
I'm in the wilderness.
I soak in the view one more time. The jagged peaks stretch far into the horizon. This late in summer, there's no snow on the tops. The sky is blue, dotted with cotton clouds, and they mirror on the glassy surface of the lake in the valley below.
I marvel at the beauty. Thousands, millions, of years slow work. Forces of nature beyond my understanding have molted rock, crammed it together, and pushed it up. Slowly, steadily, layer by layer.
Erosion has smoothed it. Sun has bleached it. Earthquakes shaped it. And now I stand here, on the top of the peak, with the wonder of nature right before my eyes. With ancient history beneath my feet.
I'm just an ant in a world of giants.
I breathe deeply. Fill my lungs with crisp, nurturing air.
All day, I've been kicking up dust on the narrow trail that twists through the deep wilderness of the Sierra Nevada.
My feet are tired now. Warm in the thick boots where the toes are crammed together in two layers of socks. My backpack hangs heavy on my shoulders. The skin is raw underneath. At this point, I don't know what's a sunburn and what's pressure marks from the straps. I've got bruises on my hip from the waist belt that's gnawed into my bone. The muscles in my back ache; a dull fatigue from just above my butt where the backpack rests to the top of my shoulders where the thick straps pull.
My body screams at me to rest. A sweet song that proves I'm alive.
But there's no rest for the lonely hiker. I can't sleep on the narrow top of the mountain pass. I have to move on no matter how tired I am.
With a smile fastened on my face and my mind empty but for tranquil silence, I continue down the steep path.
The rocks are uneven and the gravel loose. In my big boots and with a body tired from the day's walk, tripping is not unlikely. Falling, however, could be disastrous. Even just a twisted ankle or bruised knee could mean miles and miles of limping in pain.
I'm at the mercy of my own skill, wit, and luck.
I'm the tall tree, falling in solitude and silence.
The terror of it is liberating!
It's a sigh of relief to take off my backpack, place it on the ground, and know I don't have to wear it for another 12 hours. My joints groan with pleasure when I allow them five minutes of rest while I chew on a Cliffbar and stare out over the still lake. My home for tonight. But before my muscles soak into blissful inactivity, I get back on my feet. There's a camp to set.
My tent is quickly pitched. We've been through much together and I know each peg, pole, and line as well as the zipper of my pants and laces in my shoes. Duct tape lines the outer tarp where branches once ripped it. Battlescars of the wild.
I change into the not-as-smelly-not-as-dusty-slightly-warmer set of clothes and leave the rest to dry in the last light of the sun. I collect water from the small lake. A semi-silent battle between my sanity and the army of mosquitoes swarming.
And finally, with my home taking shape, I sit down and take off my boots.
Heavenly gates of gold open to blissful paradise. Angels sing on the other side, swaying among dreamy mist. They guide me forwards to a euphoric daze.
The cool air embracing my toes are soft kisses of butterfly wings. The faint crack as I wriggle them is a lover's gentle squeeze of my hand. The roll of my ankle sets my spirit free. And though they smell of death and destruction, are swollen and blistered, their endurance gives them beauty and their loyalty earns my eternal love.
The pleasure of freeing your feet from your hiking boots is absolute!
With a sigh that rolls from the depth of my abdomen, I lean back against my backpack, stretch my legs and feet in front, and stare up at the sapphire sky.
I let boredom and silence swirl together. My mind wanders to places I don't remember. Thoughts come to a standstill as the wind whooshes through the low pine trees.
Dinnertime is announced by my growling stomach. I'm a cheap hiker who eats cheap food, so cooking is fast and easy: Ramen instant-noodles with an attempted flavor of chicken, add to it some freeze-dried black beans and a few pieces of beef jerky and you've got yourself a salty, carby hiker feast!
I eat in quiet delegacy as the sun sinks and dusk creeps closer. Darkness already looms around the shrubberies and cold evening wind creeps down from the peaks above me. Hiker-midnight approaches.
Before I climb into my tent and snuggle into my sleeping bag for a night of well-deserved rest, I breathe in the evening; the cool air, the low rustle from an animal close by, the crisp scent of dew on pines.
I let the vast darkness float around me and consume me.
I let the solitude and the silence choke me.
And for a wild moment, I give into my fears.
In the middle of nowhere. In a wilderness that whispers around me. With mountains that block any cell service. Without knowing if there's another human close and at least 15 miles to the nearest gravel road.
I'm alone in absolutely nothing.
If I scream, no one would ever hear me.
If I fall, no one would ever know.
I'm on my own.
Tiny goosebumps erupt from the top of my head and cascade out over my body. They multiply and tickle into my stomach. A sudden clench of fear hits me. What if the inevitable happens now? What if this moment was my very last? What would it even matter? I shiver at my own insignificance.
Endless stars spread above me. They twinkle as they've done for millennia. I wonder if the archaic woman looked up at the stars and felt the same fear I do now. Was she humbled by her mortality? Or did she see the stars and know she was never alone? That always they are there, watching from afar. Touching us with their light. That the darkness they shine in, spread around us too.
In their vacuum, I can breathe.
In their emptiness, I am free.
Among the ancient giants, I am safe.
I'm not sure what it is that I've found, but it's something valuable. It's something of profound meaning.
I sigh deeply. Satisfactory. My heart is calm, my body tired, and my mind at peace.
I climb into my tent and scootch down in my sleeping bag.
The sound of the zipper of the vestibule is as definite as a bolt locking a door.
Sleep takes me fast. Unworried and needed.
I'm in the wilderness.
Where only the stars hear your heartbeat.