Travel writer Paul Theroux is a major proponent of traveling alone to avoid the distractions of another person. He also believes in not using cameras because it ruins observation. While I believe cameras can actually deepen observation and shape later narrative, I understand his point about travel. I do have better interactions with locals if I’m by myself. People are more apt to approach me and talk with me as an individual than as a pair. Likewise, the infiltration of another’s voice or pace or presence alters the way I interact.
But some people are seemingly not impacted by (or it could be said even aware of) family. Edward Abbey’s famous Desert Solitaire causes debate in nonfiction classrooms because for all his talk of being alone, particularly in a section about Arches National Park, his wife and son were with him.
As a good friend of mine reminds me, when I can’t figure out how to “fix” my melancholy, a person can be profoundly alone even when surrounded by loved ones. So while Abbey’s “truth” may be a mixture of sad pathology or mild neuroses, his truth is that he was alone—in his mind, in his heart, in his connection with the world around him.
Both men have influenced the way I read and write about travel, and both men alternately make me fall in love and piss me off with a narrow focus on what it means to be alone or together, or in the way they present an image or a moment.
For me it comes down to mood. When I want to get away and write or dig into something difficult or painful, I need to be alone. And when I’m experiencing something for the first time, I either want to be alone or with a stranger, a “local.” Even then, I prefer hiking alone first, and a local second, unless my fellow hiker is a quiet type.
Because it all comes down to experiencing something myself, unfiltered by descriptions or commentary. It allows me to create, imagine and describe what I see from the collective of my own experience and understanding.
But other days, like today, when my husband begins his 3-day weekend, I want, desperately, to let him into a place I’ve bonded with both in mind and body.
So this morning, I was irritated. He slept until after 8 and we didn’t begin the hike until the time I was usually coming back off the trail. As I was ready to head out the door, having had my usual handful of raw pecans, he stopped to have a bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal.
When we finally hit the trail, he was a snail to my cheetah. He is typically faster than me, but as this was his first time on the hike, he wanted to explore and walk, not hike, at a speed that allowed him to enjoy everything around him.
I wanted him to show him how fast I have become, how strong and limber and knowledgeable of this trail that I’ve come to claim as my own backyard. I was so urgent to hike and climb to the top of the canyon, to what has become one of my favorite Madison writing spots that I completely forgot that only weeks before, I was the one lingering over rocks and rails, puddles and trees.
But when we reached the fossilized rocks, I knew the shame was on me, again. As I tried hurrying him through on a fact-pointing, sweat-paced charge, I realized, once again, I forgot that the journey is more important than the destination.
Repeatedly he called me to come look at something else, discuss a fossil or the hues of a boulder or the crumbling layers of ancient silt in stone.
He was running his fingers along fossils of shells and coral and everything that made this trail and this hike beautiful.
When we finally reached the top of the canyon, looking down into the canyon we just hiked, I didn’t sit and write a long soliloquy about walking around inside my own head again. I was focused on the appreciation of the trail, the rocks, the hike and the view, an essay for an offline day.
And I was focused on the gratitude that this sometime loneliness, desire for solitude or travel style is too blue collar for the hubris of either Abbey or Theroux. I promise not to be too focused to wait on a rock, or even a simple bowl of Cap’n Crunch…at least every once in awhile.