I followed the dirt trail through the fog. A deep and quiet river appeared through openings in the densely packed spruce. My breath would linger in the air for a moment before becoming part of the cloud I was walking through. Was I disappearing? Finally I arrived to the lean-to I had set out to find. This was the last night of a six-day solo backpacking trip I was on. I sat for a moment on the edge of the primitive shelter and listened. I heard the mist settle on a golden sugar maple leaf at my feet.
I did not bring a watch on the trip but I did have a camera that would reveal the time after a photo was taken. I snapped a photograph of the ground – it was around four in the afternoon. It would be dark in a few hours. I inflated my sleeping pad, set up my gas stove, and went into the woods looking for any wood to start a fire. A few yards behind the lean-to I came upon what was unmistakably bear scat.
As soon as I had the fire started and it got dark I felt how alone I was. I spent a sleepless night in the lean-to. At times I panicked and I kept my head light pointed out towards the river. I heard all kinds of sounds coming from the woods. I would periodically shout into the darkness to scare off anything near by. My voice sounded strange in the darkness, like it wasn’t coming from me. Why was I doing this? What was I trying to prove to myself? Why was I so afraid? Why didn’t I realize how frightening it would be?
For a long time I had wanted to take a backpacking trip into the wilderness alone. When I would go with friends we would inevitably talk and laugh. Our words, our footsteps, our rummaging and rustling disturbed the reality in the forest. Without us the environment would have functioned differently. This time I wanted to be as invisible as possible. I wanted to find patience and courage in the forest. I wanted to loose myself and see how things really were. I wanted to find some sort of truth and I knew I could only do it alone.
Observing the forest is observing the history of life on earth. Human history is equivalent to a minute on clock of earth’s history. To spend time in the forest is to witness the past before we existed. The same concept is applied to the stars whose light we are seeing is billions of years old. It seems nature provides an opportunity to travel through time. I always feel this desire to reflect, to slow down, to think, and so it made sense to walk fifty miles through the forest alone.
I was hiking 60 miles alone the Northville Lake Placid trail in the Adirondack wilderness in upstate New York. During the day I rarely thought deeply into things. Sometimes I would follow old logging roads, other times steep trails, and every now and again I would arrive at a lake. It rained most of the time and the temperature hovered in the mid forties. The trees were shedding bright red, orange, and gold leaves. I kept moving and I would come out to trail markers letting me know how far I’d gone. Several times I heard my phone ring, or the sound of a car horn. I was so used to these sounds it took me a few days before I stopped hearing them. During the day I would pass a hiker or two and we would exchange a few words. Afterwards I would wonder if those hikers were ghosts.
Because of the distance I was covering I decided not to bring a tent along and sleep in a lean-tos along the way. It turned out I was not the only one with this idea and every night I would share a lean-to with other backpackers. It was a relief to speak after a day of silence, like two boats meeting in the middle of the ocean. Sharing the lean-tos at night calmed me down. As soon as it was dark I would fall asleep and wake up early in the morning and keep hiking.
It was on the last night that no one ended up arriving to the lean-to and I was alone for the night.
Everything that had compelled me to go on a solo trip into the forest suddenly became the reason for my fear. I had romanticized the notion of loosing myself in order to understand what the world was like before me -before people. Yet I found myself shouting into the darkness to reaffirm my existence. I was horrified at disappearing.
That night I heard a large animal fall into the river. A coyote let out a howl far from behind my lean to. And a barred Owl sat in a tree nearby and hooted. I didn’t get to sleep that night. The reality I had wanted to preserve by being alone was clear.
I was a visitor to this world. Fires and flashlights were rude. In the end what scares me is the thought of loosing myself forever. But why do I keep wanting to go back. I plan on doing more and more solo trips until I can calmly stare into the darkness in silence without worrying whether or not the world is still turning.