Out on the high prairie, where the wind blows and makes an endless sucking sound, I can feel the edges of my being billowing in the wind like my t-shirt. The pronghorn twist their ears to show me they see me, but they have a hundred yard head start and are unworried about the clumsy biped taking pictures of flowers. I am just this side of dust, too solid to be blown into oblivion and gathered at the base of a clump of rabbit brush. I wonder just how long it would take to turn into weightless soil, to be impossible to perceive as an individual among the mass.
In the rocky canyons and thick woods, I feel the different types of despair percolating through my brain stem. There is dehydration, creeping in and slowly altering objective reality. There is heartbreak, which courses in tidal waves, feels so agonizing that it would be easier to succumb to than the dehydration, if only it would cause a true physical ailment. There is the creeping sense that a mountain lion is watching me, reinforced by the bone pit and guttural growl that emanated from a rock pile Hank sniffed.
Mountain lions are silent killers. They watch and wait, and when the moment is right, they club you in the back of the head, so you’re stunned before you fully realize what hit you. Of course, you’re still alive for the disembowelment, but your ears are ringing too badly to do anything about it. Maybe mountain lions are the physical embodiment of heartache. First surprise, then paralyzed agony as your fate tears in beneath your rib cage. I could yell at Hank to run back to the trail head and find a new family. I could join the majestic elk and the meager marmot in the bone pile. Nobody would ever see me. Maybe it would mean something.
Perhaps my greatest strength is my biggest weakness, too. I know how to be alone. What I lack in fitness I make up for in bottomless knowledge of pushing myself to the brink. I can and often do go days without really talking to anyone, communing with the magpies and the columbine flowers and figuring that in the grand scheme of life my isolation is an honest one. At least I’m not alone in a crowded room, at least I’m not posing for the pictures while wincing on the inside. Stubbing your toe on a tree root in the seventh hour of another solo hike is an earnest solitude. The pain is simple, the lack of an audience teaches you not to say “Ow.”
You acknowledge the pain as a feeling, then let it blow away in the breeze like the dust. If only the gnawing pain of heartache were like a broken bone, something to be felt and something to let go. Instead, it never gives you the satisfaction of physicality; it neither kills you nor heals neatly. And so, you adapt to the wound. Become more proficient in lonesomeness.
Being an expert in solitude has its costs. You play the long game, accustomed to the sense that there is nothing rushing you to act. And then a forceful suitor swoops in, a lease runs out, bills come up due. Day turns to night, and so it does until another year has passed. The world waits for no one. It only sees those who put themselves in its line of sight. I walked into the woods under my own power, but I may not walk out of them. It is reassuring to have this choice, more so to pause and watch the moose wallow in the marshy creek, to find bear scat all over the trail, to notice the flowers bloom in accordance with the seasons—not in a cosmic sense, but in a microcosmic one. A southward exposure at 8,000 feet is a totally different season than a north face at 10,800. The flowers know this.
I am only starting to know it, having spent enough long days walking around and crouching down to observe, marveling at how swimmy my head feels when I stand up too fast while over 10,000 feet above sea level. The lack of oxygen reduces the activity in my overactive brain, makes everything move slowly. The pikas scream from their rocky dens, unaware of how much more oxygen there is down in the valley. A bald eagle circles effortlessly overhead. The sun beams down and blesses us with its warmth. This is as good as it gets, and I believe it is good enough. It doesn’t ask anything of anyone else, doesn’t require jumping through hoops to receive a vague treasure at a later date. It simply is. Putting one foot in front of another, watching the cutthroat trout cruise the shallows, feeling the peace of being seen and the freedom of choosing to walk into invisibility.
It is easy to mistake a proficiency in solitude for a preference. To confuse passion with lunacy. To be sure, this is something unnerving about a man standing waist-deep in a frigid river, flinging neon string over his head and hoping a fish bites his feathers and fish hook. Something ominous about the character who leaves their insulated home and walks until they are blistered and in some form of danger, then walks some more. And there is something as old as time, a tale of love that is never quite requited and slowly drives the soul mad. One foot in front of the other, just to see what can be seen. To walk with the beauty and the fear in equal measure, to reach the top and hope to return to the bottom.