Climbing out of the car, I had a distant yet familiar feeling wash over me. As Brady encouraged, ‘go make friends, don’t be shy!’ I was brought back to a time of first days at school and summer camps. A bundle of hikers sat lounging in the sun, but I didn’t recognize a single face; I had just spent 3 weeks off the trail, and anyone I knew was miles ahead. At home, friends and family were concerned that I didn’t know anyone, but I wasn’t too concerned. Hadn’t I made friends before? Weren’t there people everywhere on the trail? Besides, I didn’t mind being alone for a little while. It would be good for me.
After five days, I wasn’t feeling so optimistic. The hikers I did meet, I either couldn’t keep up with (my trail legs had dwindled after so many days off), or they were headed the opposite way (southbound hikers had started to cross paths with northbound hikers). The first couple of days, I embraced the solitude. I’ve been an inexhaustible social butterfly my entire life, always around people, calling friends, organizing get togethers. It felt good to be in my own company. But I underestimated that I could ever feel lonely, that the ‘bubble’ was now beyond me. Day three back on the trail, I didn’t see a single soul until around 3 o’clock. At one point, I paused somewhere in the dense Connecticut woods, and actually took in my surroundings. I had hiked alone many times before. In fact, most of my hiking was done alone. But this time it felt different. A breeze came through, and it was eerily quiet. Ominous, almost.
I was beyond excited to see any face, but even better, a familiar face, when I ran into a girl I hadn’t seen in months. She introduced me to her friend, told me that she had been hiking with an awesome trail family for a while now, and where they were all meeting up later that night. The campsite was further than I had planned to go, but surely this was a sign that I was supposed to link up with this group. I continued on while the two girls finished up their snack, as I didn’t want to slow them down.
When I arrived at the campsite, the rest of her group was already there, set up amicably on the pavilion. They chanted what sounded like ‘River! River!’ in deep voices. I smiled triumphantly, basking in the welcome. They liked me already! As I reached them, one of the guys explained ‘sorry, we thought you were one of the girls. We bark like that when we greet each other, it’s just kind of a funny thing we do.’ They had been imitating a hound dog bark, not chanting my trail name. My cheeks burned at my arrogance. Of course they weren’t saying my name, they didn’t even know it.
There were about 6 people there, drinking beer and laughing heartily at shared inside jokes. They didn’t offer me a beer, but then again, I didn’t ask. I didn’t say much at all, actually. I didn’t join them, didn’t ask questions. Their conversations were respectably exclusive and unique. I set up my tent, collecting my items with averted eyes, deeming myself unapproachable. I could see myself closing up, exuding a shy and awkward air. Why was I acting so weird about this? Didn’t I love schmoozing, making small talk? Wasn’t I good at it?
When the other two girls arrived, the group erupted in the bark greeting. They both responded with the same call. This time, I knew they weren’t chanting my name. But they did seem happy to see me. One of the girls even ate dinner with me, my picnic table removed from everyone else sitting under the pavilion. She was kind and polite, but our exchange felt formal. I knew she was trying to be nice, trying not to leave me out, but the completion of the group was already there. It hung heavily in the air.
Later, after exchanging polite good nights, I turned to my phone to reach out to someone, anyone. It’s battery was on 4 percent. Conveniently, my battery pack was also dead. I almost laughed. When it rains, it pours.
And it did pour. I woke up the next morning to a light drizzle that deepened steadily throughout the day. I watched the girl that had been next to me emerge from her tent with a small red ball. She studied the surrounding tents before attaching the ball to a Big Agnes 20 feet away. When I asked out of curiosity, she smiled warmly and explained that it was just a ‘thing they did,’ passing around the small talisman daily between one another, in places like backpacks and boots. My stomach dropped involuntarily. I wanted desperately to wake up to a small red ball slid under my tent fly that I could pass along. I almost barfed at how pathetic I sounded in my head.
I planned to stop in a town that night and tent behind a cafe, but first I had 14 miles in the rain to converse with myself. I assessed the situation. The notion of skipping ahead to my friends flashed in my mind again, but I knew that I needed to stay where I was. ‘You did not come out here to make more friends,’ I told myself. But did I ever decide that meeting people wasn’t a priority on this journey? Did I ever plan on actually being alone? Didn’t people make lifelong companions and powerful connections on the trail? Hadn’t I already done that, on the first half? Couldn’t I be content with just my own company? Was I weak for wanting people around? Was I comfortable enough with myself? Didn’t people do this alone all the time? Didn’t some people actually like to be alone?
When I got to town, I did the only logical thing to do. I marched myself and my pack to the local Inn, and got comfortable at the bar. Over dinner, I chatted freely with the bartender, a gentleman visiting from out of town, and two kind ladies. The conversation made me feel better than I had in days, but also, simply sitting by myself, enjoying a nice meal, felt nice. I made a pact to myself that everything was happening as it should be, and that I would no longer try to interfere or force anything. I would take this temporary time of aloneness and embrace it fully. I would explore my own company, go places I hadn’t been before, be brave, work through the discomfort, and only rely on myself.
I walked back up the street in the gray drizzle, knowing that I was committed to my aloneness. Feeling excited about it, actually. Challenge accepted. When I returned to the cafe, however, there were two section hikers there, setting up their tents. A stab of slight annoyance hit me. Didn’t these guys know I was on a spiritual journey to self discovery through silence and solitude? But to be honest, I mostly felt relieved. My isolation could be postponed until tomorrow.
I lay in my tent that night, thinking about all the things I had been in my life. I was loud, a Chatty Cathy. My parents once joked after picking me up in New Hampshire that they had heard more talking in 4 hours in the car with me than they had in the 4 months of me being gone at school. I was confident, the hog of the center of attention, always interrupting others to insert my own stories and opinions. I was a party girl, an affectionate and involved friend, outgoing, a go-getter. And now, I was a hiker. And I was alone. And reserved, quiet. I fiercely missed my old trail friends. I missed Leap Frog and Extra Mile, I missed Hybrid. I missed my best friend, Lost. I missed my friend Chris that I hadn’t seen in hundreds of miles, even. Those relationships had happened organically, though, without me having to try. More would develop in such a way, if that’s what was supposed to happen. So I lay there thinking that whether I was solo or with a group, I was going to be okay. I lay there knowing that I already was.