“Don’t you ever get lonely?”
When I am on the road, I get asked this question more than any other. For every envious onlooker who sees Hank and I as an expression of something pure and good, there are dozens who hear what we’re doing and immediately jump to the fearsome shadows that lurk in the woods and in our minds as the silence envelops us. For much of the past three months and even more of my previous sojourns, I could earnestly answer them, “Never.” It is hard to be lonely when you are moving, when your eyes and mind are overwhelmed with newness and beauty, when your body is exhausted and your heart is full of renewed faith. Even then, they wonder. But that is so much driving, so much time alone.
Indeed, it is. And this is sacred time, time to listen to the whirr of tires until my ears ring, to experience the coming and going of thoughts unsolicited, to process issues and opinions I never knew I needed to think about. Following that long white line to roads that aren’t even striped is as natural a thing as catching a fish or drinking a hot cup of coffee on a cold and misty morning. There is no loneliness there.
But, as time passes and cities become more scarce and unfamiliar, as the mind grows comfortable with peace and quiet only to be jarred by the suddenness of stoplights and connectivity, this is when solitude yields to loneliness. When one wakes up in the reach of cell towers and wifi and rolls over in a crinkly sleeping bag or a crunchy unfamiliar motel bed, hits snooze on the alarm, and begins groggily scrolling through the postured world of social media. Loneliness is sitting in a Thai restaurant in Fairbanks at closing time, when nobody is interested in kismet socializing, they are simply dining with familiar faces on a Wednesday night. Oftentimes, these situations are smirk inducing in their strangeness, but eventually one is pushed over the precipice and it becomes impossible to objectively appreciate the surreal nature of present circumstances. The smartphone comes out again, and a cursory scroll reveals more of the same. The attention-hungry, the breakups, the machinations, the births, the deaths. It is all happening, always. Always somewhere else. It is then that the shadows slink under the door, passing through the dim hallway light of the cheap motel in the middle of nowhere, when the only thing more unsettling than a sleepless night is wondering at a stranger’s awakeness.
I spent so long trying to live and believe my answer to that refrain. Don’t you ever get lonely? Never.
I chanted it like a mantra, fought like hell to make it so by making myself as alone as possible and proving it was good. Many of us feel the temptation to go away and sit with our thoughts, to beat the hell out of the bad ones and the skeptics, to reclaim solitude as a virtue instead of the frightful thorn in our sides it strives to be.
Recently, I rode my bicycle along a portion of the sole road through Denali National Park. It was the most staggering display of scale and geological indifference I have ever experienced. The earth stood as still as it has for billions of years, even though all around me things were moving. The only discernible sound was the gale force wind as it caught the loose edges of my jacket, rushing down from the peak of Mount Denali into the valleys below. The glaciers were melting all around me. Grizzly bears aggressively foraged for berries, egged on by the changing foliage and bitter cold of the afternoon wind. Snowshoe hares twitched their noses as they chomped on overripe salmonberries. Ptarmigans cooed and clucked every time I disturbed them by singing Jimmy Buffet aloud as I pedaled around blind turns. The absurdity of placing sunbleached pirate songs in a place they were so unfamiliar was grin-inducing. Whether it did anything to alert bears of my presence or not, the reality of the situation was a type of hysterical that pleased me a great deal. My heart pounded from climbing the steep gravel road, from singing while doing so, from noticing how easily bears blend into their surroundings in the autumnal gloom. Here, one is but a speck on the landscape, a blip on the geological timeline, a link in the food chain. I felt small and exhilarated. Every time I stopped to photograph a bear or simply to stand in the dead middle of the road and survey my surroundings in 360 degrees of awe, I grew stronger. I was fighting a tenacious cold, but I was also fighting the outside world’s expectations, the fingerprints and admonitions laid on me over a lifetime. Watch out for bears. Do you have enough food? Never travel alone. Don’t let strangers get in your car. Don’t accept food from people you don’t know. Don’t pull an into the wild. I stood and let conditioned fear course through my veins and simply observed it from a few feet above my body. For all of these misguided warnings, there I was, completely, utterly alone and more alive than ever. Not even the smallest bone in my body felt lonely in that moment. In fact, all I could think about was how good it felt to be there instead of anywhere else, to be still and humbled, to face that fear with the same shrugging indifference of those I admire most. Courage is really nothing more than a masterful charade, until acting becomes action and action becomes knowledge. And it is far easier to face tangible fears than shadowy philosophical ones.
I thought this every time the tourists pinned their faces and cameras to the windows as the official National Park busses hummed past me and threw clouds of dust in my direction. They marveled and gawked as if I were a bear or a moose they’d flown so many thousands of miles to see, they pointed and took pictures and waved and undoubtedly thought me brave or crazy. And I laughed a little, because my heart rate was astronomical with primal fear and thin air, yet I answered their questions with the coolness of someone who ate grizzly bears for breakfast and rode up mountains in the snow, both ways, to get to work every day. This dichotomy made me feel calm. Eventually, appearance and reality converge.
I descended a fast and loose grade that abruptly bent ninety degrees and crossed a bridge, and as I brought my eyes back towards the horizon, I spied a lone figure standing sentinel at the far side of the bridge. As I approached, I saw a massive, camouflaged camera aimed towards the riverbed beneath the bridge. The person was wrapped in many layers and hooded, so that they were little more than a well-insulated silhouette. As I crossed the bridge, I decided to stop and yield to the bus coming down the hill I was about to climb, and to inquire after the shadowy photographer’s intentions.
“Shot anything good?” I asked.
She turned to face me. “Oh, I just watched a grizzly come down the river bed here, then he spied something running and took off up that hill over there to chase it. Must have been a rabbit the way he was zig-zagging back and forth.” She looked up, a small, elderly woman with a weary toughness radiating from the windburned wrinkles at the corners of her blue-grey eyes. “What about you?”
“Well, I saw a sow and two cubs a couple of miles back but I only have my 18-70 lens since I’m mostly here to ride… not sure if I got any good shots, but I also spied a nice family of ptarmigan crossing the road.”
“Oh, and I also saw a lovely sharp-shinned hawk, but of course nobody cares about the birds.”
“Oh, I do! I actually saw one out on Denali Highway yesterday. He let me get pretty close, too.”
She smiled a wizened, knowing smile.
“How long have you been out here?” I asked.
“Not that long, just around three hours I reckon.”
“Wow. And that grizzly has been working prey most of the time?”
“Yeah, I decided to post up here because he was down in the river bed. He also drummed a few hikers up out of there. I watched them turn a 180 and climb right out and get on the next bus. Ha!” I laughed.
“As for me, I have my bear spray in here and I thought about what I’d do if he got sick of chasing rabbits. What would you do?”
I gestured to the bear spray on my waist, chuckled about the pathetic four inch knife in my pocket, and indicated that Jimmy Buffet and my big ol’ bicycle were my main lines of defense.
“I’ve never felt so small,” I finished.
“Well, I suppose we all enjoy that kick of adrenaline now and again, don’t we?”
I nodded and the bus made its way past us in a cloud of dust and a series of faces smooshed against the glass at us.
“Well, I can’t stand still too long, I’m not as prepared as you are.”
She nodded, and I rode on up the hill, marveling a bit at that silent bond we shared as solitary wanderers in the crown jewel of the Final Frontier. Alaska makes no bones about its unyielding nature. Meanwhile, the people you once knew replace and forget you quickly once it falls out of vogue to remember, but they are hardly as honest as Denali, who spits snow and wind on all without discrimination or feeling.
Eventually, those fleeting, invincible moments come crashing down like dishes balanced on a table that Hank is tied to after he sees a squirrel run by. Strength and tranquility recede tantalizingly like something from Greek mythology as soon as a common cold and a few days of stagnation creep in. Without mountains to climb and bears to serenade, we are given time to contemplate misgivings and envy others, to research cars and houses we can’t afford. Without fish to catch or faraway towns to reach, we watch the people we used to (get to) love be pursued by others, we check our banking apps, and we conjure up nightmares. We cease to sit agreeably with these truths and instead we stare at blinding LCD displays before our eyes have registered sunshine. Robbed of a moment to live in, we resort to living in the past or in envy of others. Nobody is immune to this, no matter how hard they try to make it (seem) so.
With Hank by my side, I am never wanting for good company. And with a good book and a cheap beer, I am never wanting for entertainment. When everyone is exploring, there’s a shared appreciation for the beautiful moment that we will all take home to the places we came from. There’s a lingua franca amongst those who have studied the visitor guides and area maps. But when one trades a National Park for a corner table in a coffee shop, a dive bar along a popular road trip route for an average restaurant in an economically downtrodden town, that bond of fleetingness is broken. There is no “Oh, we’re hiking there tomorrow! How was it?” nor can you say “See you next week!” and instead of feeling free, one feels hollow and unable to grow any roots in the permafrost of travel. Like a leaning black spruce tree in a “drunken forest,” there simply isn’t enough substrate for us to put down roots and grow towards the light Here, one is surrounded yet lonely. As surely as a cactus would wither in Alaska, a birch tree wouldn’t stand a chance in south Texas. In the acridly clean motel rooms where the fluorescent lamp bulbs buzz and car doors slam in the parking lot every hour on the hour, one carries their belongings inside for the seventieth time and has a twinge of implacable déjà vu. Loneliness is not riding bikes alone or fishing solo, nor having stories and witnessing moments that nobody will ever hear. It is something far less severe, something insidious that slinks through the fog of the mind and suggests that your humanity is comparatively misunderstood or lesser than. When the spotlight turns away and the sidewalks roll up and man and dog lie together in another unfamiliar place, all is well. And then a memory creeps in or an uninvited thought slips under the door and ignores the DO NOT DISTURB sign. It taunts and reminds that no matter how many dozens of people you can meet at bars and coffee shops and bike trails and historical landmarks, there are things you do not have. That no matter what you can accomplish through will and determination, there are goals you shall never achieve.
Much like that unrecognizable brave figure in the green rain jacket with the big red beard and the bear spray strapped desperately to his waist, there is merit in continuing to answer the onlookers that loneliness is the least of my concerns. In a way, it is. Loneliness is an uninvited guest at a bountiful table. Compared to rainy weather and overheating transmissions, it is a benign hurdle. Though it is one that can drive a man mad, that can haunt our dreams far more than bears or sea plane crashes or motel guests banging on the wrong door at three thirty in the morning. The reality is stark and simple: I do get lonely, but it is not a product of being on the road, alone, with no mailing address and no familiar faces to get a lazy dinner with. It is a product of being alive, of succeeding and failing and wrestling with self-awareness and time spent on earth. I am the least alone standing knee-deep in frigid water, wrapped in waders and draped in vests and hats and accoutrements. I do not notice my struggle to be understood while ripping down unfamiliar single track in the woods of the Yukon. Here, I am singular. I notice the flash of scales as they bob and weave in the water. I slowly melt into the environment until a hummingbird decides my hat brim might make a nice spot for a moment’s rest.
Don’t you ever get lonely? They ask.
Sure I do, but no more often than anywhere else. I’m getting a tiny bit better at admitting it, though.