INTO THE WILD

A 500-mile solo hike cured my loneliness

The journey began at an unassuming trailhead on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. It was early July, and the morning sun was already unpleasantly hot. I hoisted a 40-lb. backpack onto my shoulders, paused for a photo, and started walking.

The plan was to hike the Colorado Trail, a 500-mile path through the Rockies that links Denver with Durango. It crosses eight mountain ranges, travels through remote wilderness areas, and climbs nearly three times the height of Mt. Everest. Most of the trail is above 10,000 ft., so the air is thin, the danger of lightning strikes is severe, and nighttime temperatures often dip below freezing. Of the estimated 400 people who attempt the trail a given year, only about 150 finish.

I wasn’t sure if I could do it: the longest I’d ever been in the wilderness was a two-night trip near my home in Wyoming, and I’d never backpacked solo. I also had a fear of heights.

But I craved an escape from the daily grind of work and life. Since my parents passed away a few years ago, I’d been unable to shake a sense of emotional emptiness. And though I liked my job reporting for Wyoming Public Radio, I wasn’t sure I had chosen the right career.

If Cheryl Strayed could get over her grief and a heroin addiction by going for a long hike, I figured I, too, might find solace in the wilderness.

So I quit my job, scoured countless books for tips on long-distance hiking, and shopped for gear. I bought a tiny orange tent, a down sleeping bag, a new backpack, and a pair of trekking poles. I fashioned a home-made stove out of an empty cat food can, broke in my hiking boots, and mailed boxes filled with power bars and dehydrated backpacker meals to towns along the trail.

Just before I left home I got an email from a former editor of mine: “I think you’re nuts. Traveling alone in the wilderness with wild animals and God knows what else sounds daunting. The countryside should be beautiful, but won’t you get lonely?”

It was a good question—one that many friends had asked as well. Americans are lonelier than ever before despite constant contact through digital connections and social media. Studies indicate that one in four Americans have nobody to confide in; 20% are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness; and more than one-third of adults older than 45 are chronically lonely.

We are becoming increasingly isolated, and I’m no exception. Just before I turned 25, my mother succumbed to cancer, and a year later—as I was mustering the courage to contact my estranged father—he passed away too. I have no siblings, and after I left the East Coast and moved to Wyoming, I rarely saw my extended family.

That’s not to say I was alone: I had plenty of friends, a caring significant other, and wonderful colleagues. I ran into acquaintances almost every time I went to the grocery store, and my work at the radio station had made me a minor celebrity in Wyoming. But making plans around other people’s packed schedules was often a challenge. And as friends got married and had children, the delightful one-on-one conversations I used to share with them—the kinds of conversations where you hash out life’s challenges together and go home feeling loved—became rare.

It seemed reasonable to assume that trekking alone for 500 miles, in areas with no cell phone reception and few other hikers, might leave me lonelier than ever.

But loneliness and being alone are two different things. During the five weeks I spent on the trail, I felt less lonely than I have in years.

CT Hike-7 (1)
Rain, and particularly afternoon thunderstorms, were a near-daily occurrence on the Colorado Trail. Traversing high passes like this one (Black Hawk Pass) required careful timing to avoid lightning. (Willow Belden)

Expectations certainly played a role. At home in Wyoming, I anticipated regular social interaction. So if someone turned down a dinner invitation, or I failed to make plans on a Saturday night, I felt lonely. Smiling selfies that friends posted on Facebook triggered a sense of envy. And when peers chattered about visits with their parents, the emptiness inside me ached. I wished I could show my mother the life I’d built for myself in Wyoming. I missed her stalwart encouragement, and the snail-mail cards she used to send just to say, “I love you.” I longed to go home to her at Christmas.

On the trail, it was different. I knew I was going to be alone; I wanted to be alone—I wanted space to hear myself think. I felt no pressure to make plans, and no self-pity about eating dinner by myself. On the contrary: I treasured the solitude. I woke up when I wanted to, took breaks when my blisters demanded, walked at my own pace, and camped when I was tired. In the mornings I woke between 5am and 6am and savored the silence as I watched the red glow of dawn inch its way over the horizon. And as I walked along alpine ridges, gazing at emerald valleys and elegant peaks, I marveled at having these enchanting places to myself.

One evening toward the end of the trip, I paused by the headwaters of a river. Purple and yellow wildflowers blanketed the meadow where I stood. Red cliffs plunged thousands of feet into a canyon. And in every direction, mountains rose serenely into the evening light.

As I descended a series of switchbacks, I thought of my mother and cried quietly, realizing how much she would have loved this spot. I let the tears flow freely, knowing no one was watching. They were tears of sadness, but also tears of gratitude. It seemed so very right to be there, in that beautiful moment, by myself. I was grateful that no one else was around.

Here I am hiking toward a high mountain pass in the San Juan mountains, on the first of a three-day stretch above tree line. (Willow Belden)

Back in the real world, it had been hard to mourn my mother’s death. With so many people around, I felt compelled to appear strong—collected—capable of accepting my loss and moving on. Now, alone on the Continental Divide, I finally had the space to grieve.

Of course, I did encounter other people, both on the trail and when I went into town for supplies. Scores of thru-hikers complete the Colorado Trail each year, and hundreds more travel short sections. My encounters with these people, though often fleeting, were unexpectedly rich.

My first day on the trail, I came to a clearing at the top of a ridge where a gray-haired man stood, squinting at his guidebook. He told me he was living on social security and only had $200 to his name. He planned to eat mostly peanut butter and candy bars on the trail because they were cheap. As our conversation drew to an end and I started to continue down the trail, he called after me.

“Hey,” he said gently. “Be safe. And if you ever need anything, what’s mine is yours.”

“Likewise,” I replied, overwhelmed at his kindness.

I never saw him again—we must have hiked at different speeds—but that sentiment was pervasive on the trail. If something went wrong, you knew someone would be there to lend a hand or a mental boost.

One morning, after a particularly monsoon-like night, I trudged irritably through the gloom. This was an especially wet summer in Colorado, with days on end of incessant rain. Dense fog obscured whatever views there might have been. If the sun didn’t come out, I’d have to set up a soaking tent that night. My sleeping bag would get wet, and I’d have no way of staying warm. My irritation was mixed with a sense of ineptitude. How would I finish this trail, if I couldn’t figure out how to deal with something as innocuous as a wet tent?

After a rainy night, I attempt to dry out my gear before hitting the trail. (Willow Belden)

Eventually, I came upon a group of fellow thru-hikers. They sat around a smoldering campfire, their wet shoes propped up around the fire ring.

“Isn’t this weather awful?” one young woman said. “Our shoes are wet, our socks are wet, our tent is wet. I don’t know what we’re going to do if it keeps up like this.”

These guys don’t know how to handle wet tents either! I realized. Though I was alone, we were all in it together.

All along the trail, conversation flowed easily as we lamented bad weather and broken gear, and joked about the characters we’d met: a thru-hiker who hated hiking; another who got stoned and stole a bag of chips from a fire house; a stripper who regaled us with stories of her one-night stands.

I laughed harder than I’d laughed in years.

But there was another reason our encounters were so fulfilling: distractions were nonexistent. There were no text messages or emails to interrupt us; no one was worrying about places they had to be, or things they had to do tomorrow. They weren’t preoccupied with people who weren’t there. Some hikers didn’t even bring their cell phones on the trail. We were there together, in the moment, fully engaged. And we listened—really listened—to what others had to say. These were true conversations.

On Aug. 12, a little over five weeks after I’d set out from Denver, I came to a gravel parking lot. This was the end of the trail. I’d made it. I sat on a rock, watching the sun sink behind the trees. A quiet sense of accomplishment tingled through my limbs. I felt calm, tranquil, fulfilled.

The trail had been brutal at times. It had tested and infuriated me, and I’d sometimes wondered with genuine bewilderment why I was putting myself through it. But it had also enveloped me in its vast beauty, erased my anxiety over my future, and—crucially—it had filled me up inside.

For the first time since my mother’s death, I was not lonely.

Follow Willow on Twitter @WillowBelden. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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