Now that I’ve started telling my friends about my plans to hike the John Muir Trail, those who know me aren’t surprised that I’d voluntarily spend two to three weeks sleeping on mountainsides. But what does consistently raise eyebrows is my choice to tackle the trail alone.
Granted, you’re never really alone on the JMT in peak season . Even after clearing the swarms of tourists in Yosemite and Tuolumne, it’s impossible to go a day without human contact. But at the end of the day, especially for a woman, a solo trip is undeniably a risky endeavor.
“You’re bringing pepper spray, right?” non-hiker types ask me. I tell them I’m armed with a GPS unit, a SPOT messenger, and a Leatherman. I joke that I’m probably safer alone in the wild l than I am in the city. As for bears, I’ve had several close encounters before and spray was never the answer.
Dangers aside, hiking alone also means a heavier pack load, fewer distractions, and, well, zero emotional support.
Still, while I’m not saying it’s the best idea, or even a good one, I’m absolutely set on it.
The first reasons I usually give people—or used to—seem reasonable enough:
- I can hike completely at my own pace minute by minute and day by day. Nobody else’s injuries or bad decisions are going to prevent me from completing the hike. Likewise, I won’t dash anybody else’s Whitney dreams should I decide to bail early.
- Eighteen days is a long time to spend in the constant company of someone else. One one of us would start to hopelessly annoy the other. Alone, instead of lashing out at other people in moments of anxiety, I’ll have to learn to cope with my own inner resources.
But really, these reasons are a bit of a copout. The real reason isn’t about spending less time with others, it’s about spending more time with myself. One feature of people with my particular cluster of psychological symptoms is a lack of a sense of self. And backpacking is one of maybe three or four through-lines I can pinpoint as integral to my identity.
Many of my friends are surprised to hear me say that I don’t have a strong self-concept. On the contrary, they see me as a very distinct personality: outspoken in my views, expressive in my personal style, and unabashed about whatever geeky obsession I happen to be hooked on at the time. However, my relationship with myself has been tenuous since I was a small child. I was always was pretending to be a different character or creature years after it was socially acceptable. This is harmless, even common behavior for kids, but I took it to extremes, always electing to live in fantasy rather than reality.
As a teen, while I’d long given up openly role playing as fictional heroes, I instead immersed myself in subculture. I was the kid who spent a year of high school dressing “goth” and the next year improbably transformed into a hippie . And it wasn’t just because I wanted to stand out from the crowd or market myself as anything other than a nerd. Rather, at some gut level I felt I needed a framework to define myself by and obsess over. Otherwise, I felt kind of lost. I was ripe for indoctrination into a religious cult. Thank goodness nobody got their holy hands on me.
Over the years, everything from my career path to my sexual identification has been in constant flux. Once, an incredibly insightful boyfriend, dumbfounded that I had suddenly decided to resume the PhD program I’d supposedly abandoned, accused me of not knowing who I was. I thought he was being overdramatic, perhaps projecting. In fact, he was right on. Despite having spent a hell of a lot of time thinking about myself, I didn’t really know. Again, it’s common for twenty-somethings to feel directionless. But I made so many 180-degree turns that I eventually lost the ability to trust my own feelings.
Yet the wilderness never came into question. Along with my passion for writing (which I ignored for a time due to fear of failure) and a fairly consistent sociopolitical stance, my love of the outdoors has remained steady through umpteen career reboots and band shirts and chemicals of choice. Reconnecting with nature is integral to recovery for me. When I’m in the woods, I don’t have a “brand” to hide behind. And when I’m hiking alone, I don’t have an audience for whatever identity I feel compelled to project. It’s just me and the closest thing I’ve got to God. It’s a freedom I got a taste of this past September, when I hiked a three-day solo loop through the Cottonwood Lakes area.
“Won’t you be lonely on a longer trip?” my friends ask, but the reality is that my loneliness isn’t a function of the people around me. I can be every bit as lonely at a party as I am alone on the trail. (A quote to this effect appears in the trailer for Wild, which I still haven’t seen. But while I certainly find Cheryl Strayed a kindred spirit of sorts, we differ in that hiking was never central to Strayed’s life before she took on the PCT.)
You could make the argument that, rather than isolating, it would better serve my recovery to practice coexisting with others. And you’d be right—but I have to do that every day. And while I’ve definitely wondered how motivated I am by the desire to say I hiked the JMT, to brag about it on Facebook, to brand myself all over again as That Hiking Girl—well, I really am that hiking girl. I always have been.
The truth is, I do have a self. I’m just so uncomfortable with it (for whatever reason) that I channel and project and distract and morph and pretend to avoid inhabiting it. So it’s not that I’m hiking to find myself, exactly. How anticlimactic would that be? No, I’m hiking alone to accept myself. To practice really living in my own skin, without distractions to help me escape. With nobody to dress up for or make snarky quips to, I’ll have to face the fact that I exist independently of the external trappings so easily confused for identity. I’ll have to get to know what’s under my own mask, to make some measure of peace with what’s there, and what’s not. I’m going out there alone to get real.