How the Outdoors Taught Me it's Okay to be Alone #NPS100

I learned how to quiet down, be still, and listen to my thoughts.

By: Marti Chance
August 25, 2016

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I’ve always had roommates, sometimes as many as seven of them. There are days at work where I am in meetings or on the phone for eight hours straight. A butterfly might envy my social life. For 7 years, constant interaction with others at work and constant companionship from friends and roommates was what I lived in Austin, and I loved it. I was never by myself and didn’t think I wanted or needed to be.

It wasn’t until I was 3 months into a 5 month-long solo backpacking trip, that I really understood what it meant to alone. And not just surrounded by strangers instead of friends, and not just not surrounded by people at all - I mean really alone. As in, unplugged and distanced from everything that creates that constant connection back to those people: no phone calls, no text messages, no Facebook, no Instagram; it was just me, on the side of a mountain in Colombia, and my thoughts.


On that first solo hike I realized how good it was to really relax—to really let go and ignore the endless mental to-do list that ran like a never-ending carousel through my head: “I should text this person and see how that thing went!” or “I should start that new project on the house!” or “Oh no! I forgot to send that email!” For me, it took getting outside, getting away from everyone I knew, and really disconnecting to realize that I didn’t need to be this busy. I stared into the lake, fascinated by how many shades of blues, greens, and yellows one body of water could contain; how a majestic, grey mountain face could rise out of this pallet of colors, and how the small, floppy white plants could create such a stark contrast on an already eclectic canvas.

It was then that I was hooked. I’d enjoyed the outdoors growing up and suddenly realized all that I’d been missing living a connected life surrounded by people all day. I not only craved the impossible scenery that my Colombian and Peruvian trails offered, I craved the serenity of it. Hiking became a focus of my travel, and my preference was a solo hike over one with a group or a guide. Sometimes I contemplated life and its little surprises, or tried to map the intricate set of steps that had gotten me into whatever adventure I was on. Other times, I thought of nothing. It was almost always calming and blissful.

A hike in Arches National Park during a solo road trip to Utah.

When I did return back to the States, I set off on a road-trip to eventually wind up in Utah, eager to explore some of the parks I’d heard so much. Hiking in Canyonlands and Arches, I realized how much I’d taken for granted before. As a little girl, during the family trips to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I’d come to expect well-marked paths, detailed and accurate maps, and helpful, informative rangers. I’d assumed that preserving these landscapes for the next generation was just a matter of erecting some warning signs in key locations. After hiking abroad, I realized that these things didn’t just happen, and that they weren’t easy.

The other thing I learned on that road-trip was that I didn’t need to travel around the world to find natural beauty and solitude - it had always been, patriotically speaking, in my own backyard. I also learned how many of my friends and coworkers shared this common, albeit unspoken, interest in exploring the national parks.

Capital Reef National Park, on that same solo road-trip.

The outdoors brought a much needed dynamic in my own life: I learned how to quiet down, be still, and listen to my thoughts. Writing and talking about it has surfaced a newfound, common interest amongst old friends, and the National Park Service has served as that common thread. I can’t wait to explore the next park with them. 

Cover image: Miranda Leconte

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.