This weekend I did my first Solo Summit. Mt. Ascutney in Vermont is rather local, less than an hour from the house. I hadn’t planned on doing it alone, but I preferred to leave my reluctant teenagers asleep in their nice warm beds and head out on my own. I had a purpose.
Mt. Ascutney is 3,144 ft and according to my phone app, I ascended 2270 feet from the trail head. It’s a good hike, but not a horrendous one. It is easily done in 4-5 hours; a perfect choice for my first solo hike. Now, let’s understand the difference between solo hiking and solo wandering. I wander all the time. Like Thoreau once did, I strike out my back door and wander for hours through the woods and along forgotten roads. Wandering solo is something I’ve not only done for years, it’s something I enjoy. I take the dogs, we head out and return stronger, more focused. It feeds my meandering spirit, a relaxed ramble through the familiar landscape of my life.
Hiking is different. It’s to challenge myself. My hikes are well planned and always with a partner (for safety sake). Needless to say, there usually isn’t the same familiarity of the trail. But it’s also very intimate. As you generally spend 5+ hours with your hiking partner, you have a tendency to share a lot of things you may not have the inclination to do otherwise. You’re both hot and sweaty and struggling over boulders and up steep inclines. After a few minutes you don’t care how you look. Shyness is left at the trail head. You become raw, vulnerable and real. You become yourself. So I can’t hike with just anyone. It’s draining to make small talk or go through your life history with people you don’t know. Well, it is for me anyway. I prefer to be with people I know, who know me, and our conversation can help the relationship become richer. It’s just who I am and how I prefer to hike; everyone is different. There are hiking clubs you can join or partners you can find on the web to get together and summit. It’s a great idea and a wonderful way to meet people. It’s just not where I am right now. As in many areas of my life, I just don’t have the energy to spare. So I struck out on my own. Not just because I had written it down in my day planner and wanted to keep to schedule, but because I wanted to know I could. I wanted to know I could make it on my own.
It was hot. It was humid. My breathing sucked and I wanted to turn around more times than I’d like to admit. But I kept going. I stopped and rested when I needed to. That was the nice thing about being alone; I wasn’t holding anyone up. I could go at my own pace and didn’t have to feel ashamed for continually needing to stop and catch my breath. Continually explain how I tend to breathe very shallow when it’s humid; that I thought I had asthma for the longest time and even went through a rash of tests. How it only really bothers me in the humidity. And how I’m really in good shape, honest. I didn’t have to explain to anyone. But I didn’t have anyone to prod me along, either. I had to rely on myself. It’s tougher than I thought. Somewhere along the line I began to understand the need to reach the summit alone. I began to understand that there would be a lot more mountains to climb alone, a lot more times I would have to rely on myself to push through. That was the point. I may never need to hike alone after this, but I could.
It took me a little over 2 and a half hours to reach the summit. I was tired and hungry and because of the haze I didn’t have a beautiful view for all my troubles. But that’s okay. I did it. I sat and ate my pb & j and took a few pictures before heading back down, carrying a new outlook on life. I’d made it on my own. It was a simple thing. A simple mountain. It wasn’t life threatening or extremely difficult. It was your average hike on your average day. I ran into very few people, no wildlife (except a snake) and no obstacles. It was uneventful. But it let me know I’m more determined and stronger than I thought. There was a time I wouldn’t have even attempted it. I, too, would have stayed at home. There was a time when I would have turned around and said “yeah, riiiight”. And no one would have thought worse of me. But I didn’t. I kept going. And I did it.
I have no doubt I’ll continue to hike on my own, because the alternative is not hiking at all. I’ll be careful and take my time. I’ll drink in the beauty of life and see views I will never forget. While I found out how strong and determined I am, I also found out how lonely the trail can be without someone to share it with. Not someone to keep me going or keep me safe. That, I now know, I can do on my own. But someone I can be raw, vulnerable and real with. Until then, I’ll go it alone. I’ll continue alone until I come to love the solitude as much as I do when I wander the woods behind my home. I’ll continue alone because I can.