Something about the way a river trip starts. Gear gets thrown in, arranged, tied down, and when the current picks you up and carries you downstream, your sense of time and distance immediately changes. Connection to the other 7 billion or so people on the planet loosens, and connection to something even bigger, and in ways smaller, more intimate, takes hold.
Last week I was on the Green River where it flows through the canyonlands of southeast Utah. For five days I paddled a canoe, which I prefer as a craft, a simple vessel, no frame or pump, no cockpit into which you must burrow, the lower half of your body truncated at the hips. When the current picked me up and carried me downstream, I was alone. I came without a group, no one to call for help, no one to call at all.
Alone, every breath and movement becomes conversation. Every spin of the water, every slow step of cliffs has something to say.
Loneliness can be a problem. A meta-analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 participants suggests “a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.” In a 2010 study, how a person scores on a loneliness chart appears to predict higher blood pressure. That is, loneliness might be deadly. But loneliness and alone are two different experiences. Choosing to be alone is not the same as being forced into it. Solitude may be unhealthy in the long run, known to be physically detrimental later in age, but it is medicine and has its place.
I grunt more alone. One tone for satisfaction, another for dismay or frustration. There is a grunt for surprise, one for amazement, and one for small joys like a damselfly landing on my paddle blade or the jaden carapace of a beetle floating by.
An only child who grew up with a single mother who worked days and sometimes nights, I made more than peace with being alone. I hungered for it. After school, I’d hop fences and explore fields, finding places I thought no one had ever found. Sometimes I’d go with friends, but they talked, or they stopped or did not stop or asked me to carry something or wanted to go someplace else when I knew exactly where I wanted to be. Spoiled. Self-absorbed. Introverted. I’m sure there are many names. Does not play well with others. In fact, hardly plays with them at all, skirting around the treacherous games of four-square and tether ball at recess, heading out as far from the schoolyard as I was allowed to go.
My friends who work the rivers out here, driving shuttles, pick ups and drop offs on the water, call people like me “solo geeks.” They are the people who either no one will go with, or they have simply realized their happiest place, which is taking some time when no one else is around.
Little gear, no stove, quick camps, I moved down the river feeling like a shadow. I could go anywhere. I’d pull over my canoe and tie it to shore, heading up side-canyons on foot, exploring the boundaries of my own urges. I found rhythms in breathing and motion, the way the sun moved, shadows shrinking and growing. I thought about rattlesnakes more than if I’d been with people who could care for me. I thought about snapping my leg under a shifting boulder, and how far it was back to the river. In this way, my senses were sharpened.
I found small rock-cairns on these old routes that I’d bee using for decades, and some I’d knock down to try and erase this place. Take it off the map. Let only journeyers, route-sniffers find the way. I know it’s useless. The cairns will be rebuilt. Trails will form. We so much want to be together, to fill a room wall to wall; we want to know we’re not alone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a complete hermit. I like the way ravens preen each other, the thoughtful, intimate touches, the way their beaks sometimes rest against each other. But how striking is the one alone in the sky, cut out of a shadow and suspended above the earth.
When I was tired of walking in the desert heat, I found a piece of shade under a rock overhang. It was just big enough for me to curl up in, where I tucked myself like a small animal and fell asleep.
When I got back to the river later in the afternoon, I stripped naked and slid into the water. I tied the bowline of my canoe around my waist and the two of us drifted downstream, perfectly in love.
Photos by the author.