Science, Solitude And The Sacred On The Appalachian Trail

Solitude can be hard to find in the modern world. Cities are, of course, exactly about mixing it up with our fellow humans. That’s the source of their potent innovation. So, while you can find places in the city to be alone, it is much harder to find true solitude.

The difference between the two — being alone and being in solitude — is the secret many people find the wilderness teaches. Now, for a lot of folks, the idea of being alone can be discomforting — if not downright terrifying. That’s understandable because we are, by nature, social animals. Evolution tuned us to live in groups and be attentive to others.

But being in the wild without others doesn’t mean being alone; in fact, it can be quite the opposite.

Going alone into the wild is an ancient tradition. It makes up a common theme in the class of common myths Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey.” Taking a long journey anywhere alone can be scary. That’s also what makes it exciting.

But going into the wild alone takes us beyond just adventure. The reason, once again, is solitude. In the wild, in solitude, you’re never really alone.

In part, it’s all the life that’s there already. The pillars of individual trees stretch back into the woods and, after a while, you realize it’s the forest that’s really the organism. And then there are the bird calls in the air and frogs crossing the trail. After a few hours on an extended hike, you become just another of the forests’ inhabitants plodding along on your way.

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