I walked down the hill a few hundred steps ahead of my dad. He waited because at the bottom of the descent we would head in different directions. I think he paused because this was the last time he would watch me as a child. It was a big moment for him. But it was one of the loneliest moments of my life.
We were embarking on an ancient Native American traditional walkabout and heading into the wild expanse of the White Mountains of Eastern California. The right of passage allowed a child to go several days alone in the wilderness to find their spirit guide. At 17 years old, I walked down into a valley and wouldn’t see my dad for three days. I swallowed the lump in my throat, held back my tears at the weight of loneliness, fought the urge to look back (and failed), and tried to be brave.
That sickening feeling of walking into the wilderness alone still tugs at me. I don’t like being alone.
I followed my designated trail and hiked 4 miles or so. Looking at what lay ahead, I knew I had to climb a steep grade over a saddle to the next valley. Not wanting to start that this late in the afternoon, I camped by a peaceful, little brook. There were a number of trees I thought would be good barriers if the wind picked up at night.
I accomplished all the things I needed to do: set up my tent, cooked my dinner, hung my food in a bag high above ground so no varmints would get it. What to do next? I was not in the habit of reading. I was not comfortable being alone. I had brought with me among other things three bean bags with which I wanted to learn to juggle. I didn’t have much else to do so I tried to learn for a while. I failed. Never picked them up again. I don’t like being alone. I don’t know if I can handle this. For. Three. Days.
In the morning, I cooked my breakfast and packed up. I guess it was time to conquer that climb. By lunch I reached the saddle between two peaks and could see for miles to the south. As the afternoon sun beat down on me I walked along a dirt road when something caught my attention—a guy on a horse. I didn’t expect this. Evidently he didn’t expect it either. He trotted over and asked where I was headed. I said that I didn’t quite know where to camp for the evening. He asked if I wanted to join he and his rancher companions at their cabin a couple miles ahead.
I was torn. This was supposed to be my walkabout where in isolation I would find my spirit guide. But I was desperately lonely, even after just 28 hours. I chose people. I don’t like being alone.
During dinner at this ramshackle hut those guys asked me where I camped the previous night. As I described it, they all got wide-eyed and chuckled. “That is where the mountain lions like to hang out. You sure got lucky.” one of them said. I felt like an outsider to all their conversation but I was just glad to not be alone.
When it came time to hit the hay, one of the guys suggested a spot about a quarter mile away for me to set up my gear, and said he would be down there with his gear in a while. We only said but a few words, but I was sure glad not to be alone.
I felt like I betrayed the intent of the walkabout by choosing to engage with people. I felt guilty. I was determined to spend the next day in isolation to face my fears. But crikey! I really don’t like being alone.
My path the next day intersected another trail my dad would pass along. I left a stone marker to let him know I had been there and continued on. My feet hurt from blisters. My soul ached from the loneliness. My back shrieked from the backpack’s weight. At some point that day I determined I’m going all the way to End Camp.
That decision meant I would cover more than 12 miles with full pack. With each painful step it seemed more impossible. The topographic map only reveals so much and at some point the trail seemed to evaporate. I was sure I was going to right way but this way also found me bushwhacking through scrub. My legs became increasingly scraped to bleeding. My legs hurt on the outside, and on the inside, burning from the distance and weight. But I wanted this over. I wanted people.
I finally broke through and found the fire road. It was only a matter of time before I came to End Camp. When I got there only one of the three people I expected were there. But it was people. I was relieved.
It was 2 ½ days of mental tumult. I wrestled with loneliness, and then tussled with betraying isolation, and finally anguished through wanting to lay down in defeat. I wanted to quit whatever I was feeling almost the whole time. But I realized all that trail time alone with my thoughts, anxieties, and shortcomings actually left me with a strong impression. A deep conviction had come into my sub-conscience and suddenly when asked I realized I learned something.
My big thought was this: God created everything and nothing mankind can do could ever destroy that. It was a pretty profound thought for a 17-year-old. For me it was the first time I truly acknowledged God as Creator on my own conviction. All growing up I had been taught what to think. And these three days I learned think and perceive for myself. I had no one to tell me what to do, what to choose, when to return. I had freedom to exert my own choice. It really was the beginning of adulthood for me. I guess being alone really does have some merit.
I didn’t find a spirit guide, but I did find out that God speaks to those who will listen. He spoke to me through the wrestling and anguish. As much as I really didn’t like being alone, He used those experiences to speak truth to me. It was so subtle that I could have missed it. But I’m glad I didn’t. It was a great first step forward in hearing more profound and loving things from Him in months to come.
I loved getting to see my dad again the next day. I loved getting out of the wilderness altogether. But these days, I love the lessons I learned out there in the wilderness by myself. It is OK to feel the weight of loneliness because I am still loved. It is OK to wrestle with intense emotions because it shows there is a depth to life. There is something beautiful about the silence of the wilderness that gains our attention no other way.
It took walking by myself for almost three days to learn that. Now hopefully I won’t be so afraid to face some silence. There are wonderful things to find when you are willing to bear the weight of loneliness. You may have to venture out to the wilderness in order to find out.
Photo by Dominik Lange, courtesy of Unsplash.com