At first, it never crossed my mind as something that would eventually become routine. As a matter of fact, I'm not even sure it was something I ever truly recognized as having started. However, by the end of my Year Alone in the Wilderness, I could not refute the irreplaceable importance of developing a stronger relationship with...myself. This relationship was not bred in silence. On the contrary, after spending months on end without verbally, physically, or emotionally engaging with another human being, my inner psyche forced itself to connect with the only person around...me. Have you jumped to negative conclusions about my mental state yet? Maybe on the fence still? Well hear me out.
For starters, allow me to help provide a bit of context in broad stroke fashion. From the summer of 2013 to the following summer, I spent a year traveling, backpacking, and meandering through the US National Parks - having hit each in the Lower 48 and three up in Alaska. In previous Journal entries, I have discussed the impacts that others had had on me while I was living in the National Parks - The Fellowship of the Trail. Now while those relationship were strong, quickly-developed, and unbreakable, the fact of the matter was, my interactions with others made up for such a remarkably small fraction of time which was otherwise spent unmistakably alone.
Now before you go start thinking that I'm off my rocker, I'm not about to tell you how being alone for so long caused me to hear voices in my head. They were there before I started. No, just kidding (not funny!). In fact the truth of the matter is, I can think of at least four major ways that the wilderness taught me to "talk" to myself.
1. Safety First
Perhaps the most important added benefit to talking to oneself - out loud in this case - is that it exponentially decreases the likelihood that you will have an unwanted chance encounter with a Grizzly Bear or Mountain Lion. I mean the alternative is you can wear those silly "bear bells" which some refer to as "dinner bells." The idea is that if you give the impression that you are in a bigger group, then the food chain will less likely knock you down a few pegs. In fact, it was this reason alone that kind of jump started my habits of " outward introspection" - copyright! The Ranger's at Denali National Park first encouraged me not to go out into the backcountry alone, though after they reluctantly conceded to my unrelenting resolve, they encouraged me to either talk or sing out loud to cast away the Grizzlies. I was happy to oblige with their advice. After all, being a native to Maryland, I was not ignorant enough to consider myself well enough versed in the handling of Grizzlies. So without further adieu, I set out into the untamed Alaska wilderness and quickly dusted off the old pipes and started singing the first song that came to my mind - "Hey Jude" by the Beatles. Trust me...I made myself plenty unappetizing by butchering that classic.
As it would turn out, this lesson in safety became a sort of habitual mantra that prevailed throughout the rest of the year. Whether I was in Glacier, Sequoia, Yosemite, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, etc, you may have heard some loon singing "Hey Jude" to himself around every blind turn in the trail. Over time, the singing turned into just talking out loud...sometimes very loud.
2. Combating Loneliness
Perhaps it boils down to the dichotomy of introvert vs extrovert because for some, being alone can either be a way to refuel their batteries while for others it feels more like a prison sentence. For me, I often find myself skirting the line...sometimes falling on one side of the fence more than the other. However, while hiking through the United States' most spectacular landscapes, it was easy to feel a sense of rejuvenation simply from walking alone by myself without the company of conversation. That being said, even the most hardened recluse can sometimes feel the cold clutches of loneliness start to squeeze a little harder. For me, inadvertently joining into conversations with myself often helped me think more clearly about the environment I was walking through. Just like singing out loud, at first it felt weird, but eventually I started to enjoy the company of my own thoughts. All of a sudden I had someone with whom I could share the experiences. Whether it was that I was getting to know myself better (which I will discuss next) or there just being comfort in hearing a human voice - giving voice to my thoughts proved to be an effective way of eliminating loneliness.
3. Acquainting Myself with...Myself
As I was saying about how articulating my thoughts helped me get to know myself better...its true. Speaking out loud helped to bring my subconscious up to the surface. In fact it gave more depth to my thoughts and helped me learn more about myself - for better or for worse. My otherwise silent thoughts, feelings, and emotions had a greater chance of being recognized by my consciousness when I spoke them out loud. It wasn't all about hippie emotional feelings neither. Sometimes it was becoming aware of some bad ass instinctual human capabilities and the human resolve to...not die. A lot of what I discovered about myself was by accident. I mean thats the way its supposed to happen. Its not like you wake up in the morning and decide, "Today I'm going to find out more about myself." No, of course not. Though having developed a comfort with talking out loud made it easier for me to recognize when those breakthrough "aha" moments were present. Furthermore, much of what I uncovered still remains very private and doesn't need to be shared with anyone but myself...and especially not over the interwebs. And there in lies another great aspect of talking/thinking to yourself while you're out alone...those thoughts and conversations can stay between you and....you! No judgement zone, folks! And don't think that I was always walking through enchanted forests as glimpses of personal enlightenment were being released through my mind. No. Often times these revelations were so minuscule and unimportant - like how it turns out I don't like the healthier kind of peanut butter and would still much rather eat JIF. While other times, there were the occasional moments where I felt I had actually unlocked the secrets to the universe; such as... (Ha! Not so fast. You don't think I'm just gonna spill the beans like that, do ya?. Nope. You gotta go out and figure those secrets out on your own.)
No, living outside for a year is not for everyone. There were times I even thought that maybe it wasn't for me. In fact, it was pretty much within the first week where I had to have the most consecutive series of internal pep-talks to help me over the multitude of, "What have I gotten myself into" mental hurdles. Over the course of the year, a few mantras were developed such as "happiness through hardship," which helped to keep spirits high during their lowest points. Instead of the defeatists thoughts that plagued the early days of the journey, the pep-talks became increasingly important as my burgeoning - albeit foolish - sense of invincibility began to take form. As fearlessness began to develop, I found myself in increasingly dangerous situations which would require the help of some mental and verbal encouragement as my sense of invincibility washed away to reveal the gravity the situations. For example, when my vision began to fade, as the snowblindness at Yosemite set in, a mixture of prayer and mental butt-slapping helped me to emotionally survive what could be considered a very close brush with fate.
Time alone in the wilderness is one of the most important activities a person can do for themselves. While the beauty of silence ought not be ignored, don't also ignore the importance of thinking out loud even if no one else but you is there to hear it. You may ward off a hungry Grizzly, help yourself overcome loneliness, discover something new about yourself, or give yourself the needed nudge over the next ridge.
Nowadays, and perhaps for most of human existence, the concept of "being along" has had a negative taboo stuck to it. Now I am not trying to make a plea to campaign for the positive aspects of loneliness (which may be a struggle to find), however the occasional opportunity to be alone should not be overlooked. Hell, in this day an age of cell phones, texting, and general impersonality (not a word apparently), our society appears to be jettisoning towards a state of self-inflicted loneliness on its own. So why not do yourself a favor and discover a bit about yourself by disconnecting for a little while. I'm not saying you have to abandon society for a year but maybe go for a short hike by yourself without any distractions and just see what side of you comes along for the walk.