Why hike alone? There are degrees of passion or depth of commitment in every hobby, sport, endeavor, whatever. From the casual to the crazy, there’s always someone who is a little less into it than you are or someone who has surpassed you. Hikers have tons of gear, long lists of peaks to bag, injuries and war stories… we have lots of ways to rack up bragging rights. Heading out there alone might look like just another way of being extreme but I think for most solo hikers, there’s a lot more to it.
Plenty of people hike alone, and although I would bet there are more men than women out in the woods by themselves, I can rattle off a list of women that have completed the Catskill Thirty-Five alone. Most of us hikers do plenty of Not Solo hiking; I hike with my husband or with him plus a group of hikerbuddies for most of my adventures. But solohiking is kind of where I came from and when my husband is unavailable my first preference is to get out there alone.
Alone should be clarified: I am always with my dogs. Ok, Mom? The whole safety nut will be cracked in Part II of this post – the gender politics of being a solo girl. But when I first started hiking, at age 8 or so, no one I knew wanted to come with me. I brought my dog, a big male German Shepherd named Vinnie, with me and if we hustled, we could head out after school, get up to the top of Hook Mountain, and home again before my mother got home from work. My household chore was to walk the dog but mom never specified where I had to walk him. My girlfriends didn’t want to be in the woods; I didn’t want to be in the woods with my guy friends. I knew I was a little weird for wanting to be out there, alone and quiet, in any weather, checking out wildflowers and wildlife, instead of at home making prank phone calls, watching TV, or annoying someone’s siblings.
I think the internal connection I made between “nature” and “solace” began then. My dad was dead, my mom was sad, and my sister was angry. In therapy-speak, home wasn’t really a place for me to get my needs met. I went to “the mountain” for that. The mountain was my mother’s shorthand for the stretch of wild land from the Hudson River to Route 9W, including the privately owned parts we trespassed across to reach the Long Path, and Nyack Beach State Park, which we just called The Hook. Down at The Hook, or up on the mountain I felt safe. Safe to be the Sologirl hikernerd I was born to be, tearful at the discovery of a clump of Dutchman’s breeches near the summit, or equally choked up by the peach-colored December twilight filtering through dead bluestem poking through the snow. I wallowed through waist deep drifts, breathless and delighted at Vinnie’s ease leaping into and out of the deep loose powder, and lost sneakers, swallowed by the sucking black muck down by the pond. And pretty much, I did all of it alone.
After a few mishaps as an adult, attempting to go hiking with a female friend with a wholly different vision of what hiking entails, I stayed away from hiking with others. Then I met a man who could keep up with me on the trail, and for a while was intoxicated by the prospect of having a real hiking partner. But he couldn’t keep up with me in the being faithful department and back to solo hiking I went.
I enjoy hiking alone for a few reasons. I am at peace with being in control with every aspect of the day. That suits me just fine. And I don’t mind not having an audience for all the spastic things I do out there (falling, walking into trees, stuff like that). I really like the sense of accomplishment and pure butch bravado that comes from bagging a couple of peaks alone. I know I don’t need to prove anything to anyone, but I suffer from a certain driven-ness of spirit that eggs me on, murmuring “You will not make it to the top” or some other crap. But even more than being a competitive control freak, I’m still that little kid who wants my relationship with nature to be intimate and monogamous. Maybe it’s a little like it’s my church and my therapy, and I don’t want anyone in the room with me, whether it’s a couch or a confessional. It’s my time to come back to me in my own personal way.
I don’t need to be alone all the time, but sometimes I need my fix. I love hiking with my husband, and I love hiking with a group, but I think my next sweep of the thirty-five will be solo. After I finish the winters, that is.