Goin’ It Alone
The liberation of isolation
By David Abend
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written as part of a Travel Theme being sponsored by Road Scholar. But with the Covid-19 situation, we tabled the theme for now. However, given the self-quarantine and stay-at-home orders that have been given, we decided that an article about the benefits of solitude might be the right thing at the right time. We hope you enjoy it.
“That will be a big mistake.” The concern in my wife’s voice over the Bluetooth in my car was palpable. I had just informed her that I planned to take the scenic route home from Maine. You see, Sally is a self-proclaimed traffic expert. I say self-proclaimed, but the truth is, she is good at it. People do call her for advice on when to leave Cape Cod on Labor Day weekend. Or to know when the traffic will be at its worst on the Mass Pike on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. So when I told her that my plan was to drive home from my solo kayaking weekend through a gauntlet of notorious coastal Maine bottlenecks, it was as if I had just told my dentist that I was going to eat a box of saltwater taffy.
Normally, I would follow her advice as I did back in July on our trip home from Southwest Harbor in Acadia. Back then, we headed west toward the sad, viewless Maine Turnpike corridor because that was the fastest route home. But today was different. I was alone and all I had to care about was what I wanted. And what I wanted was to keep the Atlantic in my driver’s side window for as long as I possibly could.
Doing exactly what you want seems like a pretty easy thing to do. But after a weekend of being alone in the waters off the coast of Maine, I was surprised at how often I caught myself waiting for someone else to weigh in on every decision I had to make. What route would I paddle? Should I avoid that shoal or go right over it? What island would I camp on? Is it too early to open a beer?
Try it. Go through a weekend and take note of how many decisions you make that are influenced by the person or people you’re with. What did you eat? Where did you go? What did you do? When did you do it?
I am not suggesting collaborative decision making is a bad thing. It is part of the dance we do every day of our lives when other people are in it. And I am definitely not dissing my paddling partners that usually accompany me on this annual adventure. I actually enjoy the joint decision-making that takes place on these excursions. There’s a lot to be said for pushing yourself out to the jagged edges of nature just far enough that every decision has a remote chance of determining whether you live or die. And making those decisions together is part of the fun.
No, what I’m talking about is the rare opportunity to make decisions entirely on your own with no one else’s feelings, schedule or preferences to sway you one way or another. At first, it was a little weird. There was a little voice in my head telling me I didn’t have time to go see if that ripple over to my right was actually a harbor seal. Or that it was too late to change my mind about which island I had planned to paddle to. But with each unchallenged decision came a new level of freedom. A lightness that added a layer of enjoyment to the trip.
Thirty-something years ago, I spent a weekend on my parent’s boat sailing off the coast of Maine. One morning, anchored in a nice cove off an undeveloped island, we decided to fire up the Zodiak and go ashore to explore the island. As we approached the beach we caught some movement a hundred yards away and realized we weren’t alone. We watched as a single human placed something on a rock and then ran off into the woods. Curious, we landed the Zodiac and walked down the beach to see what he had left. Under a small rock we found a folded piece of paper. Scrawled on it was a note saying: “I am doing my Outward Bound Solo. Please do not talk with me unless it is an emergency.”
The Solo is a trademark of the Outward Bound (OB) program. Kurt Hahn, the founder of this preeminent outdoor survival organization believed strongly in the benefits of solitary reflection. And that regular intervals of solitary silence were key for growth in learning. So he incorporated a solo element into all OB courses and found that students returned with what he described as “profound insights into themselves, on how they participated not only on the course but in life in general.” But that was literally a hundred years ago. I wondered if, in the context of today’s technology and culture if the Solo was still beneficial. To find out, I reached out to Eric Denny, Executive Director of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. It turns out that the solo is still a key part of the OB experience, but, Denny tells me, its purpose has changed.
“Originally,” he says, “the OB solo was all about practicing survival skills. How to make a shelter. How to forage. How to make a fire and cook periwinkle stew over a hibachi made out of a number 10 can that used to carry baked beans. But about 20 years ago, in the U.S., we transitioned Solo from being about survival to being one of purposeful solitude and reflection.”
“In this day and age,” says Denny, “rarely are we asked to be by ourselves without a task to do and without all the trappings of modern society. Being by yourself creates a cognitive dissonance which really enhances one’s ability to better understand your strengths and weaknesses…the power of vulnerability.”
I couldn’t help but think of how this contradicted a lot of what I have read about the dangers of being alone as we age. So I asked Denny whether he thought that solitude was as good for older people as it is for younger people. “Even with older people, who are probably less connected than younger people these days to technology,” he says, “a period of active, conscious solitude and reflection can be hugely powerful, even in short doses.”
Back on my island, I was busy feeling the power of my own solo. Selecting the best spot for my tent. Deciding where to set up my ‘kitchen’. And then spending a half hour rigging a treeless tarp utilizing the rock formations on the beach with a piece of driftwood to create a cooking nook in case it rained (it always rains). I made one decision after another. And it got me thinking about all the other decisions I had made the day before, on the drive up, that might have been different if I hadn’t been alone.
Efficiency is one of my biggest obsessions in day-to-day life. I strive to do errands in the most efficient driving route possible. I never get gas unless my gauge is flirting with empty so that, over the course of my life, I will spend less time at the gas station than you will.
But as I get older, I am realizing that efficiency can sometimes be a false god — a force of habit that can turn what should be a relaxing experience into a stressful one. Being alone gave me the clarity to see that not being efficient could actually be a positive experience. That’s when I reached for my phone, which had been playing the role of R2D2 to my Toyota FJ Cruiser, and I did the unthinkable. I turned off WAZE. I was flying blind and it felt…amazing. So what if I hit a detour (I did), and so what if I didn’t know exactly what time I would arrive in Jonesport, the put-in location for my kayak trip.
When I did arrive in Jonesport, this inefficiency continued. Instead of going right to the put-in location I had planned on, I drove around exploring other potential put-in sites I had seen on the map — but might not have explored — if I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to ask. I didn’t have to explain. I didn’t have to worry about being teased for a wrong decision. I was alone. And the solitude was liberating.
I pulled a few ice cubes out of my cooler and dropped them into my well-dented camping cup. The rum and tonic quickly followed and soon I was making my way to the western side of the island to find a perch on the rocks to watch the sun go down. This was usually the time the whole group would gather on the rocks drinking cocktails and beers and giving each other shit. Usually, there were four or five of us. But conflicting schedules had whittled us down to two. And then a week prior to departure, my remaining paddling partner had to cancel because someone in his family had become critically ill. I considered canceling. Especially because the weather report was iffy – the potential for 30-knot winds and 6-foot seas. But I had put the time aside and I was committed to at least get to the put-in. If the conditions were bad, I wouldn’t risk it. After all, I was alone. But it was the very reason I was alone that drove me to go on. Life is short. I am 61. How many more times would I get to do this? 10 times? 15 tops? I wasn’t going to let this one getaway. So I would go it alone.
I watched the sun hit the western horizon and explode into a fiery blaze. With my drink done, I slung the ice cubes towards the seaweed beds below and turned back towards camp. As I did, the already darkened eastern sky revealed a breathtaking scene — the rising of the full moon which created a path of light across the water that looked solid enough to walk on. I clicked off one picture after another, eager to send to Sally so we could virtually experience it together. Again, I caught myself pondering that thorny contradiction between the value of solitude but the importance of being with others.
The evidence is impressive. There’s tons of research that warns of the dangers of being alone — especially as you get older. How isolation can literally kill you. I realize there are many people for whom isolation is legitimately harmful. But, I also wondered if in that tide of research that shows the importance of connecting with others, that maybe the benefits of being alone are being washed over. One expert who agrees is Dr. Linda Weinberger, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, California, and co-author of the Psychology Today article, The Benefits of Spending Time Alone.
“Being by yourself is often looked at as negative, almost selfish,” she explains, “but solitude can be a positive thing. It’s rejuvenating. Having positive experiences when you are alone will bolster you and give you strength to deal with all the other things in your life.”
Even as you get older? I asked. “One is never too old to spend time with yourself to enjoy who you are,” she answers. “Being by yourself gives you the opportunity to take a chance, try something new, without worrying about what others will say or think. And it can have long-term effects. You come back and you’re reenergized. You see what you missed. What you didn’t miss. It helps you evaluate what is important to you.”
This viewpoint is reinforced by Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of the book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. In an email conversation, Amy says, “spending time alone will help you get to know yourself better and it can give you an opportunity to reflect more deeply on what you want to get out of life. It can also be key to healing after a divorce or dealing with an empty nest. It can help people find more meaning and purpose.”
“’Lo thair’. The heavy Mainer accent came from the other side of my car as I was tying down the bow of my kayak to the front bumper. I looked up from the knot I was tieing to see the weathered face of a quintessential Down Easter. “So you were the one, huh? I saw the car the other night and wondered if you’d be OK out there.” While the statement seemed harmless, the tone was clear. I had done something wrong. Or, at least, unusual. “Isaac Beal,” he said, extending his hand. Given his surname was the same as the island I was on, I assumed he had some authority which he quickly confirmed. “I’m the harbormaster.” We talked for a few minutes about the islands I had camped on, the routes I had taken and the severe conditions that preceded my arrival. He conceded that by the time I launched my kayak, the wind and seas had pretty much calmed down. “But,” he said in a caring, yet cautionary voice, “let me give you my number. Next time, call me and let me know where you’re going in case you get into any trouble out there.”
He was right, of course. The safest thing for me to have done was to seek out an authority to let them know of my float plan. But the safest thing is not always the most exhilarating. The most enlightening. Or the most liberating. Do you have to drive 300 miles to a remote town in Maine and then paddle another seven miles to an island to experience this freedom? Of course not. But for me, it’s the best way to overcome the gravitational pull of society — that constant pressure that discourages us from being alone, by ourselves, only having to answer to the wind, the rain and the tides.
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About the Writer
David Abend is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Bucket. His Bucket Age is 24. https://thebucket.com/team/david-abend/
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