It’s a risk they tell you never to take: Disappearing into the White Mts. alone, without telling anyone where I was going. Let me say up front, I do not advocate this. But it’s what I needed to do.
I made the decision to go, packed the night before, and left at 3 am so I could be on the trail at dawn. Still dealing with the debris from an emotional plane crash, my head was a seething knot of snakes. I took my maps and picked the trail after I had gotten into the National Forest and had no cell phone signal. Left the cell phone in the car anyway. I wanted to be alone.
Connections to other people are necessary. I have trouble making them, and must resist my natural curmudgeonly and hermitish inclinations. Being alone is easier. Relating to people is stressful, not always knowing what to say or how to act, risking looking like an idiot, making a mistake, making someone mad at me. But the effort it takes to make and keep relationships is worth it. It does feel good to be able to help people, to feel a connection. To care and know someone cares back. I need the people in my life, especially those I’m closest to, my children, and particularly my husband.
Watching other people makes it seem so easy, this business of having friends, of loving each other, of forming deep, trusting relationships. Socializing and making conversation seems so natural for them. They enjoy it, seek it out. Take it for granted.
So I work at it, like a tone-deaf person studying music. I’ll never be great at it, but I see its value, and I can appreciate it, and I can perform pretty well now. But it still requires work, it’s stressful, and the closer the relationship the more stressful it can be. Alone is much easier.
So here I am, climbing this mountain in the rain. It’s wet and slippery in spots, and I have to be careful not to lose my footing. I’d be in a sorry spot if I fell and injured myself. There’s not another soul on the trail. But that’s the point. That’s why I’m here.
This is a concrete challenge with clear rules and physical reality. It isn’t the nebulous, complex, often baffling and ambiguous world of social interactions and obligations. I need to climb up this slope with 15 lbs. of gear on my back and not fall down. I am present in each moment, focused on the task, no demands on my concentration beyond getting to the next crest where I can rest until I catch my breath and my heart rate goes down. Then I tackle the next stretch.
During the course of the climb the rain stops, the sun comes out, and the woods are filled with rich scents, shades of gold and wet green, the sounds of birdsong and wind through the trees. Moisture steams off the rocks and droplets sparkle like diamonds on spider webs and hemlock needles.
And, oh the glory when I reach the top! Clear goal, clear reward, soaring joy! I have succeeded. There is a passing wistfulness, wishing I could share this moment of accomplishment with someone else, but it’s okay. There will be other hikes, other mountains that I do share in another’s company. This one is mine alone. Wonderfully, blissfully, peacefully, alone.
After this, I can go back down and rejoin humanity. My mind is cleared, the snakes of confusion unknotted. The grueling physical exertion is somehow cathartic, as if the unbearable tension of mental pressure has worked itself out through my muscles. It is therapy and it is good, even if it is a tad risky. But I clearly understand these risks, and they provoke less anxiety than the social ones. What is a twisted ankle in comparison to being thought a fool?
What is the loss of one’s life compared with the loss of the only person one has ever really been able to care for?
One has to decide what risks are worth taking.