Monday, September 20, 2010

Fears: Loneliness

In preparing for my long-distance hike, I've been reading about what makes for a successful thru hike.  In addition to physical training and gear, I've learned that mental aspects are very important.  I have begun examining my fears, in hopes that I can figure out ways to cope with them and prevent them from getting in the way of achieving my dreams.

There are lots of things to be afraid of on the trail, and I've felt scared at one time or another about pretty much all of them.  Sometimes, it seems like I'm working my way down through this list, as if I will eventually go through each one, checking them off as I go, and maybe after that I will have nothing left to fear.

There are bears habituated to humans (and their food), disease-causing ticks, giardia, and rodents that crawl across you in the night.  There are scary people.  Plus, lightening (this summer I ruined a hike because I saw thunder clouds in the distance and freaked out that I would be caught on the ridge in a storm and it interfered with my ability to marvel at the 2000 year old Bristlecone pine trees).  There is the possibility of falling down and breaking a bone, and getting hypothermia.  But the thing I fear most, the thing that I think puts me most at risk for failure is loneliness.

Feeling afraid, despite the beautiful bristlecone pine tree at Cedar Breaks Nat'l Monument.

What if I don't make friends on the trail?  What if I don't fit in with the other hikers?  What if I loose my connections with my friends and family?  What if I hike alone day after day?  What if I pass by the few people I do happen across but without any meaningful conversations?  What if I become consumed with longing for connections and, without the strength and meaning I derive from interactions with others, I become depressed? 

The reason this scares me so much is that in my past I have experienced depression.  In my early twenties, I didn't have many friends-- it just wasn't my priority.  Then I went through a difficult time where I felt utterly alone and depressed following end of my 10-year relationship and all the changes that went along with that.  It was the most horrible thing that I've ever experienced.  I couldn't eat.  I couldn't work.  I cried every night.  Slowly, with much work, my life has changed.  In the past five years since then, my friendships have become one of the most important thing in my life.  I fear going back to that horrible time when I felt incredibly lonely, unconnected, and afraid.  I also know that I got through it, and that the experience changed my life for the better.

I've read that being alone is totally different from being lonely and I've found this to be an important distinction.  I've been thinking about other times in my life I've been alone, and how I've always enjoyed those.  In college, I did field work for several years where I worked for many hours outdoors by myself, both in the dunes of California studying lupine and in the forests of Maryland working on beech.  I was alone but was perfectly happy working outdoors and thrilled to be involved in fascinating research projects.  But in both cases, I'd return in the evenings to the research stations for lively dinnertime conversations.  Perhaps on the trail, I will camp and have great interactions with other hikers.  Perhaps too, I will be by myself, and enjoy that time, and learn from it, and have it change me again.


  1. Hemlock, you will find your "trail family" that will support you, need you, challenge you, understand you, give you your space, and make you laugh when you need it. Of all the things you mentioned, loneliness is the last thing I would fear for you. You are too kind, funny, and generous for you not to make connections :)

  2. Ohhhh!!! Thank you so much for saying that, SweetPea!!!