Forest of solitude

Wyatt stands in an aspen grove along the Burning Bear Trail.
Wyatt stands in an aspen grove along the Burning Bear Trail.

I am an antisocial hiker. The relative absence of human beings is a big part of nature’s allure. Maybe that just makes me an antisocial person. When you have dogs, solitude has practical appeal as well; solitude allows independence (in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the character Harry Haller asserts “solitude is independence”).

Anyone with a vague recollection of eighth-grade English class might also remember William Wordsworth’s radiant I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, in which the poet describes “that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” A solitary walk in nature is a great place to refocus that inward eye, which dogs, alas, lack. Like the comical/terrifying field of GOP presidential candidates, they also lack self-restraint. Every encounter with fellow solitude-seekers is met with frenzied pulling for a desired initiation mauling into the dogs’ pack; it is about the only occasion in which they demonstrate cooperative effort, and they dig in with sled-team vigor. Meanwhile, I struggle to restrain what probably looks to many like a charging Cerberus while offering an apologetic spin as if the dogs just said something with the inevitable ignorance of a Republican about homosexuality or ISIS or evolution or climate change: “It may appear as if they want to eat your face, but their intent is friendly… They’re not as scary as they look… etc.”

Wyatt and Reese: Firm believers that 'no' does not always mean 'no.'
Wyatt and Reese: Firm believers that ‘no’ does not always mean ‘no.’

While such episodes in which the dogs have been off-leash or a passer-by dared to initiate physical interaction have been rare, the results have been disastrous. One soggy spring day in Montana, while we were stopped beneath a trailside tree for shelter and snacks, Reese and Miles escaped and assailed a female hiker—who was definitely not the outdoors type—and left her fashionable khakis and yellow pullover patterned in muddy paw prints. On another outing, we chanced upon a pack of Cub Scouts, and a bold boy asked to pet the dogs; he was pinned to the ground and licked to near-asphyxiation.

Reese knows that solitude equals the freedom to jump in the nearby creek.
Reese knows that solitude equals the freedom to jump in the nearby creek.

Rainer Maria Rilke described a good marriage as one in which “each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.” Honoré de Balzac earlier observed, “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine.” I am fortunate to (mostly*) have this kind of relationship; unlike Thoreau, I was lucky enough to find a companion even more companionable than solitude.

When we’re seeking a little collective seclusion—peopleless peace for the humans and victimless freedom for the dogs—one of our go-to Fortresses of Solitude is the Burning Bear Trail, an end-to-end jaunt that follows the lively Burning Bear Creek as it tumbles down 1,100 sloping feet over about 5 ½ miles (11 roundtrip) in Pike National Forest west of Denver. Though we have hiked the area numerous times, we rarely venture past the halfway point on the trail itself, preferring instead to explore the nearby hillsides or linger in the lush creekside clearings. We’ve happened upon others only twice in a dozen or more visits.

Fascinated by such evocative place names, I made an effort to research the history of Burning Bear; in addition to the namesake creek and trail, there is also a Burning Bear Campground. The details, it seems, exist in solitude.

Clouds drift over Pike National Forest along the Burning Bear Trail.
Clouds drift over Pike National Forest along the Burning Bear Trail.

I was, however, surprised to learn of the trail’s apparent popularity. Myriad blogs and hiking websites sing the praises of the Burning Bear Trail’s rich forest, rambling creek and sprawling meadow. Where were all these people on our outings?

Then I noted how many people curiously described the trail as “easy.” From our usual starting point at the trail’s lower, western end, which lies down a lonely county road, the path rises in a series of calf-burning switchbacks before reaching a steep, rocky grade about midway through; the Forest Service pronounces the ascending switchbacks to the summit as “difficult.” Most people, I learned, were starting from the more accessible eastern trailhead, which carries hikers and horseback riders over a few miles of gentle terrain, and turning back where the trail narrowed and plunged. This simple, natural obstacle, along with good old-fashioned American laziness (we’d hate to get too much fresh air), provides solitude and independence for those willing to take the road less traveled.

We need solitude; we need to unplug and look through that blissful inward eye. In one of his characteristically funny and informative “If Our Bodies Could Talk” video segments, The Atlantic’s Dr. James Hamblin explores the benefits of time alone in nature. Most Americans spend upward of 85 percent of their time indoors, and many suffer from what has been nicknamed “nature deficit disorder,” an unhealthy disconnection from the natural world.

A wealth of research over the past decade-plus has demonstrated that minimal, but regular, outdoor outings can decrease anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem and attentiveness, enhance social connections, and reduce the risk of hypertension. As Hamblin learns, you don’t have to be an outdoorsy person to enjoy the perks of some solitary time outside; you don’t need to hike or bike or climb a mountain. The therapists Hamblin interviews recommend simply taking a 10 minute walk somewhere scenic and serene, or finding a quiet spot in a park and sitting for 20 to 30 minutes; while you’re out, lay in the grass, touch a tree, smell a wildflower, dip your hands in a stream, pet a moose. OK, the last one’s not advised; the point is to establish a sensory link to the natural world.

Reese savors a solitary dip in the chilly waters of Burning Bear Creek.
Reese savors a solitary dip in the chilly waters of Burning Bear Creek.

The significance to self of solitude and the natural world was recognized long before science proved it and humans surrendered to technology (people, if you don’t put your phones down once in a while, the generations to come are going to have necks fused at downward angles; your kids are going to look like they’ve devolved to Australopithecus). The importance of solitude to the individual has been eloquently expressed by the likes of Plato, Arthur Schopenhauer (whose 19th century philosophy is not so pessimistic as its reputation and who believed that if a person “does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free”), and the Transcendentalists.

But this human need for solitude, I sometimes have to remind myself, should not be a pretext for being antisocial. In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson describes striking a balance between solitude/independence and our lives within society while saying something greater about looking inward and being true to ourselves: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

* I am never so in demand from people and pets as when I am writing (or at least trying to) behind a closed door intended to signal a desire for solitude.

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3 thoughts on “Forest of solitude

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  1. Great points, and the line about everything belonging to someone was powerful. That theme comes up a lot in George Monbiot’s “Feral,” and I hadn’t realized the depths of some of the issues with access, overgrazing (also a problem here with sheep and cattle), and the loopholes provided landowners and energy companies. We’re lucky to have the public lands we do, but we don’t do a very good job protecting these resources; the agriculture and energy industries are given wide berths.

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  2. Fabulous photos of the pack. Selective hearing in any creature is a wonderful skill.
    Time alone, both in nature and the built environment, to experience a sense of wonder and one’s place in the world is invaluable. Too many people rush about confusing the idea that just because they are the centre of their world they are also the centre of the world.
    For others, they know they are the centre of no one’s world. Poverty comes with disconnection. Here in the UK if you are disconnected you have no access to freedoms. There are no water pumps in villages, homes are built without chimneys so you cannot heat your home, cook your food. Everything *belongs* to someone. Here in the UK we have insufficient wild and too many regulations for people to opt out. It will always be someone else’s land. The eco warriotrs do it, but it is to live an outlaw’s life.

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