“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” – John Muir
Alone in the Darkness
I pulled into Campbell River at dusk, which translated into eerie backroads akin to those in horror movies where there’s nowhere else to go but deeper into unfamiliarity and unease. My high beams seemed to leave me too exposed in the forest, so my low beams did the best they could to reveal each gravel pothole amid the low fog, not always before my SUV dipped into one with a thud.
I knew I was scared because I turned the music down, stopped singing, and lacked the wherewithal to read my map properly. That should explain the 10-point turns on narrow gravel pathways at a 5-way stop where the names on the picket signs didn’t even match those on Google Maps, and why I became increasingly resigned to the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the campsite. Thankfully, I did find it. And when I did, I jumped right into my sleeping bag laid out in the back of the vehicle, tightening it around me like a shell of protection from the outside world, falling asleep immediately from the exhaustion of fear.
Like Night and Day
When I peeked out in the morning, the world had changed. I was still alone with no sign of a single living being nearby, but daylight had unveiled a picturesque bayside nook just for me. The moss-covered branches were a little less looming and a little more embracing; the conifers became Christmassy; the bare trees sympathized with my vulnerability.
“In winter we lead a more inward life.” – Henry David Thoreau, A Winter Walk
My paths crossed with a group of jolly, middle-aged hunters who had just killed a deer. They welcomed me to Campbell River, and gave me the low-down on all the lakes. “You’re brave,” one of the hunters told me when they learned I was camping on my own, so I clung to that version of myself who faced my fears instead of the one who was solely afraid. But what made me brave? Was I brave to be a solo female camping outdoors in the winter? Or could it be that I was simply brave to be alone?
Ellen’s “Daughter,” the Lone Wolf
Campbell River has a special place in my heart because my aunt spent much of her working life here. I used to beam with pride when people called me “Ellen’s daughter” because I resembled her, and I looked up to her in the way she lived so differently from anyone else I knew. Before passing away young from a brain aneurysm, she had sailed from Steveston Harbour to Australia, lived in Norway, and retired in the Philippines where she was learning to play violin for the first time. To me, she epitomized all the positive qualities of aloneness – courage, contentment, and confidence. So this trip was an homage to her and particularly, to the part of her that spoke to the lone wolf in me.
Ours, like many, was an aloneness among the crowd, surrounded by people whom we were open and vulnerable with daily, but who would never fully understand our metaphorical solitude. It is the kind of solitude beyond intimacy and meaningful interpersonal connection that we may all face when we peel back the layers, one that is naturally tied to uniqueness, individualism, independence, separation from the norm, and resisting conformity. It can even be speckled with moments of existential loneliness as a fundamentally human experience, knowing that there is no one else who will fully share or understand every single thought, feeling, or any other subjective experience we have.
“If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.” – Aldous Huxley in A Brave New World
The Many Faces of Avoidance
The intention of my trip to Campbell River was to become intimate with all possible incarnations of being solitary from the unease of isolation and loneliness to the peacefulness of solitude and aloneness, along with their intertwined connotations. It was my response to recognizing my habitual reactions to being alone, which seem to be common human patterns when faced with an underlying fear of the unknown:
- I’ve been restless, a wanderer seeking the thrill of adventures in the world outside my comfort zone, escaping to live in different places where I’m easily distracted by the novelty of my environment, making new friends everywhere I go.
- I’ve played the victim as early as my preschool days when I came home sobbing that no one wanted to be my friend, even though the teacher later explained to my mother that I was one of the most popular kids there. I had yet to learn to dissociate the feeling of loneliness from the presence or absence of people.
- I’ve displaced it with other feelings like guilt as if I’m not allowed to feel alone when I am privileged to have so many people in my life who surround me with warmth, allow me to be me, and make me feel special. “I am richer than I have ever been,” relates Virginia Woolf describing her enviable life in A Writer’s Diary, “…and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine.”
- I’ve turned away from it and successfully ignored it by filling my time with activities and people, sometimes to the point of taxing my system with overstimulation. There’s only so much an extroverted introvert can handle on a daily basis.
- I’ve covered it up with positivity and jokes not only to comfort myself, but also to fix what our society often deems a “problem” to be resolved or an “illness” to be remedied, whether that was aloneness, the “loneliness epidemic,” or the fears beneath the surface.