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What we see on our own

With the casualty rate mounting from local residents setting out alone into the wilds of Southern California, it's clear that something must be done. It's time to ban solo driving and institute mandatory carpools to protect solitary motorists from the hazardous roads and freeways of the urban jungle.

There are about 60 fatalities in motor vehicle collisions in the Southland each month, compared with eight wilderness-related deaths last month. Though the high-profile hiking and mountain lion cases had many causes — from slick ice to overconfidence, bad timing and weather — the blame has largely been laid at the foot of an easy character to kick around, the soloist.

In a culture in which intensive buddy marketing equates any semblance of a good time with a standing-room-only crowd at your side, solitary behavior is automatically suspect — of friendlessness, alienation and irresponsibility.

But going alone into the woods isn't a sign of a death wish, or the silent scream of an antisocial misfit; it's actually about the opposite: connection, to inspiration, renewal, insight, resourcefulness, vitality, participation and the natural world that we forget we're all a part of. Maybe that's why until the recent calls for hiking and biking in flocks, exploring wilderness has been one of the few areas acceptable to show up by yourself without a note from a social worker.

It's fun to share, but on our own we have the chance to absorb the journey on a deeper level and experience a magical realm that has been devalued and buried in the stampede to throng-consciousness: solitude. "The capacity to be alone," psychologist Anthony Storr has written, is "linked with self-discovery and self-realization: with becoming aware of one's deepest needs, feelings, and impulses." Solo immersion outdoors stimulates that process by, paradoxically, removing us from ourselves.

The minutia of the daily fray shrinks beside the vastness of canyons and ridges or pales next to kaleidoscopically colored reefs. The scale of natural miles restores perspective — our true, ant-like vantage on it all — and in the process, shifts us from the to-do list to the to-be list. The layers of distraction peel away in stillness. Undivided from the earth we're standing on, we can experience what's in front of us in lingering detail, and see through to what the Japanese poet Basho called the "hidden glimmering" behind all things.

That glimmering, as registered in the imagination of solo seekers through the ages, is responsible for inspiring some of the planet's finest art, literature and philosophical musings. From the dream-like visions of Chinese landscape artists to the rhapsodies of English lake poets to the musings of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, the one-on-one with nature has left a lofty record for the virtues of a solo course. "Whoso walketh in solitude/And inhabiteth the wood/Choosing light, wave, rock, and bird/Before the money-loving herd/Into that forester shall pass/From these companions, power and grace," Emerson wrote.

If Thoreau had a "Friends"-style mob tagging along, he never would have sighted the glimmering that led to this reverie:

"I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there … The pines furnished them with gables as they grew … They seemed to reside on the sunbeams …"

If John Muir had to wait until he could find somebody to walk a few thousand miles with him across the Appalachians and the Southeast, he never would have made it to the Sierra Nevada and a life that made it possible for us to have wilderness to chew about. Sleeping under the stars in the Sierra without a sleeping bag, surrounded by grizzlies, with no rangers, no food stands, no Jiffy Pop, Muir didn't consider his solitary backcountry forays irresponsible or dangerous. "Going to the mountain is going home," he wrote.

That thought is precisely at the heart of what draws so many soloists into the wild. The feeling of integration with the organic order, enhanced by the reflective state of solitude, goes beyond home; sanctuary is more like it. That tends to be a very personal experience, which is why soloists recoil at any messing with their DIY routine.

Like a wide-eyed meditation, there is a salutary relief, a release, an offing of extraneous tensions that seems to happen easier when the mind can become quiet, wordless and unaccompanied before natural spectacle.

Given all the upside for solo wilds, it would seem that the French philosopher Pascal has been widely misinterpreted in his comment that the human's greatest fear is being in a room alone. It's not the lack of company; it's the four walls and the ceiling.


Joe Robinson is the author of "Work to Live."

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