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.
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.
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.
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
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
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.