Sabbatical was still a long way off, but the powers over me in the academic bureaucracy had approved, so I knew it was coming. The formal, way-too-ambitious plan was to work on a film and a book, but there would be other plans too. I would have a whole semester to do things I otherwise could never find the time to do. And so the brain started to buzz. One of the things that found its voice in the noise was the idea of doing a “solo” – going out with my backpack all alone for at least one night. I had camped in campgrounds with my dog, but I had never actually “soloed.” I thought this was something that almost everyone who has the passion for the out of doors that I do and who believes, as I do, in the magical quality of the wild would have had done. So it was time for me to get out there. Why had it taken me so long?
When I was 16 my mother told me I could not backpack alone, could not backpack with a girl and could not backpack with a boy. All too dangerous. Eventually she consented to backpacking with a boy, and later in life, when I was way beyond needing permission, I backpacked with a woman. But I had never defied her order not to backpack alone. I didn’t consciously wait until she was gone, but it turned out that my serious consideration of soloing came just a few months after my mother’s death.
In preparation, I started to ask people if they had soloed. To my surprise I found that not everyone I would have expected to have done this had, and those who had did not necessarily effuse enthusiasm for the idea. I didn’t hear any stories of catharses or altered worlds or new-found visions. Nevertheless, I thought for me it would be something beyond my ordinary experience.
The more I thought about soloing, the scarier it seemed. I decided that although I would have preferred a night close to a high alpine lake, a desert solo would teach me more. After reading Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire more times than I have remembered to count, I was sure that the stark landscape of vulnerability would offer more. The “clarity and simplicity” of the desert, as he writes, seemed the right characteristics for a significant, perhaps spiritual experience. As I began to research possible destinations, immediately I realized that going out into the desert is complicated by water. Water is heavy, and I am in my 60’s. So, I began to rethink.
Then my husband and I hiked in a nearby county park with a delightfully lovely and wild campground just one mile from the parking lot. Immediately, this seemed like a good way to start – solo in the campground just an easy walk back to the car for whatever reason might arise. The Thursday we hiked here, it was mild weather, though the calendar said it was winter. I decided to solo as soon as possible – perhaps on the following Monday when I could be pretty sure the campground would be empty. A call to the permitting office confirmed that I would be alone were I to go out on Monday. But an unexpected weekend snow storm got in the way. I wasn’t ready for snow camping and soloing all at once.
My next plan was to backpack alone after visiting my son and his wife, Tim and Anna, in Durango. I would have one extra day on my way to a service trip in southern Utah that could be allocated to a solo. Tim made a career of soloing in the ‘90s when he was doing wilderness land inventory and could give me some ideas of spectacular places to go. Again, snow intervened. Two feet of snow predicted for Wolf Creek Pass, an unavoidable pass between Denver and Durango, meant a change in plans. But as I was preparing to go to the service trip two days later, an idea I had never considered found its way into my consciousness. Why not solo in Colorado National Monument? I had camped in the Monument campground, but not alone, and disappointingly never had a chance to hike the trails because I had always had my dog with me. That was it. Decision made.
Monday morning I left Denver for Colorado National Monument. I arrived at the visitor center to ask for a back country permit just 15 minutes before the closing time of 4:30. I asked the ranger at the desk for a permit and a recommendation about where to go. She turned me over to another ranger who filled out his first back country permit and suggested I take a five-mile loop trail, doing half to a camp site and the other half to return to my car in the morning. I took his advice.
Disappointingly, when I pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead, it was jammed with cars. But the ranger had told me this was the only back country permit of the day, so I hoped with some confidence that all the people would be gone before sundown. I headed down the 2.5 mile side of the trail that was marked “unimproved.” It was mostly uphill, and I felt the weight of my pack and the heat of the sun. I perspired more that I had in all of the previous six months. And I drank more of my water than I had planned. Still, I felt strong and happy hiking under the clear, dazzlingly blue sky amidst the red rocks. It turned out that this side of the loop trail was not the popular side. I saw only six people hiking out as I hiked in. At the 2.5 mile marker, the valley floor opened and the scenery screamed the explanation for the not-too-creative, but highly descriptive, name for the trail – “Lower Monument Valley.” It was magnificent – huge towers of red sand stone, gigantic walls forming the canyon, sweet, luminous, new spring-green vegetation sprinkled among the rocks, a perfectly clear sky. I decided to hike just a bit farther before looking for a camp site in order to get a little closer to my morning destination – the car.
There were no designated camp sites, and I had to compete with cactus, rock, sage brush, and juniper for a piece of ground. I found a place for my tent, a little closer to the trail that I would have liked, but given my less-than-keen sense of direction, I was nervous about getting too far from the trail. I set up camp, ate my leftovers from dinner at home the night before, and turned to reading. A few runners and hikers came by while I was eating, but as the light dwindled, I was left with the landscape. Sleep came easily.
Then at about 11:45 I was startled awake by noises that my brain translated into footsteps on gravel that seemed to be right next to my tent. My heart raced in a way I cannot remember it ever racing before. I lay on my back completely still, my brain and body wracked with fear, waiting for the footsteps to move on, to go away from my tent. The noise, in reality was not footsteps, but the wind rustling my tent fly. I realized this after a few minutes of terror, but I had long enough to think about the consequences of backpacking alone so close to a trail head, long enough to think about why my mother had told me not to backpack alone. I thought about the notion that my greatest concern for my safety is from fear of what my own species might do to me despite there being no real competition for resources and/or mates. I also realized that I had no defense. I remembered how people say there are no atheists in fox holes and thought about praying to a God I’m not sure I believe in anymore, the God who’s supposed to be there just for me. But it seemed hypocritical, so I called on the towering sand stone walls to protect me. Just as they stand exposed, so did I. Whatever would happen, would happen. I gave into the situation. Then rationality prevailed, what was real became real to me. It was the wind. But in the stranglehold of fear, in the dark, in a place where I had never been before, the power of my emotion was almost nauseating.
After reality took hold, I retrieved my binoculars, wriggled out of my sleeping bag and broke from the confines of my tent to look at the stars. I lust after starry night skies. This sky was a treat relative to the light polluted sky of Denver, but the light from Fruita and Grand Junction were enough to mask the wonder of the Milky Way. I went back to my tent and sleeping bag, and I slept, surprisingly well until that first suggestion of morning started to tunr the blackened night to gray.
It was a perfect desert morning – cool, alive, the vibrant green and red landscape just beginning to glow from the rising sun. I made hot coffee, sat on a rock eating my hard-boiled eggs, finished what water I had knowing I was only two miles from the car, and wondered just what significance this one night on the trail might have for me. In the blinding morning desert sun, it seemed I had overplayed, in my head, not just the rustling wind, but the impact of a single night alone. I was the same person. I had done something I was mildly afraid to do and gotten through a few moments of panic. But in the big scheme of things it was just another day. I wondered whether I might need a long string of days in the desert to come to any sort of awakening. Jesus was out 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites, 40 years.
Now reflecting back, I think about how Abbey groped for the knowledge of the juniper near his outpost in Arches, but just never got it. He wrote, “I consider the tree, the lonely cloud, the bedrock of this part of the world and pray – in my fashion – for a vision of truth. I listen for signals from the sun – but that distant music is too high and pure for the human ear. I gaze at the tree and receive no response.” And so I don’t feel so lame. I didn’t have any vision of truth either, and I am no Ed Abbey. What I did have was an incredibly good time in a place that creates wonder in the bigness of the natural world. Life, it seems, is about one minute then another, most of them almost identical to the ones before it. Even in remarkable places that awaken humility and awe, it’s about living consciously, finding grace one day at a time.