Alone With Alice: An Essay on Solitude
Alone With Alice:
An Essay on Solitude
My feet moved swiftly, carrying me through the trees as my shadow warped over the rocky trail in front of me. I stole a glance through the trees above me towards the sky. The waning gibbous shone down, illuminating my path in dappled eerie white light. I had no need for a headlamp. I was moving again. Nothing but silence, save for the sounds of my own breathing and the earth beneath my feet. My pace quickened as I realized just how alone I was. What a feeling – no, a gift – I thought, to be alone.
As I slung my small pack and sleeping bag into the back of my minivan 7 hours earlier, I muttered out loud to myself, “Well Brooks, it’s just you for the next who-knows-how-many hours.” I was going to be alone with myself for a while – a tantalizing thought that both excited and scared me. My plan was to drive the two hours to the trailhead, sleep in the back of my van, and get an early start for a summit attempt on a lesser-known peak named Mt. Alice. Standing proud at 13,315 feet, Mt. Alice lies in the Southern part of Rocky Mountain National Park – Wild Basin. Although the summit is in the shadow of three of the tallest peaks in the park, climbing this peak is no small task at roughly 18 miles round trip. A relatively unknown mountain, but a challenge, nonetheless.
For a little context, the week before had left me in a rough spot. I had found myself feeling isolated from my friends, stressed with my classes and job, and beating myself up for inconsequential things. When things in my life start to go emotionally awry, I end up spiraling deeper and deeper, degrading who I am. I wasn’t in a great place, emotionally or spiritually. I didn’t know why, but I had a creeping feeling that I needed to do this alone. Leaving my friends was the last thing I wanted to do, but I hoped a beautiful place and some peace and quiet would straighten me out.
I found my mind wandering as I drove the winding road up to the trailhead. Often, the hardest part of trips in the mountains for me is leaving the comfort of home. I had bid goodnight/goodbye to my roommates as they headed to a movie night at a friend’s dorm just an hour earlier, and now I was alone. My loneliness surrounded me like the darkness enveloping me and my tiny van. As I passed the occasional pair of headlights, I couldn’t help but imagine the people inside on their way to a family reunion or a gathering of friends, with smiling faces ready to greet them in the warm light of home. In contrast, I had only myself.
As I write this now, it’s easier to look back at myself as a character in a story, about to learn a valuable lesson. A quote that has stuck with me comes to mind, it’s an idea I frequently base my trips around: “Real adventure isn’t easy. That’s what makes it an adventure and not a vacation.” Looking back on hardships, I see that they are integral to forming a better me. But in that moment, I was uncomfortably aware of how alone I was. There was no one in the passenger seat to make conversation with. Not even cell service to call a friend if I wanted to. I turned up my music to drown out the feelings.
I awoke at 4:00 the next morning, ate a few bars, and started up the trail at 4:15, munching on an apple. I hiked hard for about 2 hours, switching between my headlamp and the moon as a light. Thoughts raced through my mind: What am I doing here? All my friends are probably drooling into their pillows right now, and I’m marching headlong into the wilderness in the dark. I’m completely separated from the world I’m used to.
As dawn came, the landscape began to slowly brighten, and I could make out a little more of my environment. The trees thinned, slowly giving away to a soft meadow framed by some trees and large boulders. At one point I spooked a pale white deer, bounding away into the brush in front of me.
All at once, I rounded a corner and was greeted by a sharp angular mass of rock, jutting proudly into the air. Mount Alice. I knew things never look quite the same in person as they do in photos, but I was still caught off guard by the sheer size of the thing. I was going to climb that? By myself? Normally, I would turn to a friend and exclaim about the peak’s beauty, but I took this moment for myself, contemplating its vivid color and shape. It was an intimate moment, one I allowed to linger in the silence of the morning. I scooped a bottle of water from a lake and began to make my way up towards the dramatic ridgeline.
And then, the sun rose. The line of sun slowly crept down the mountain until I met it, stepping from shadow to sunlight, cold to warmth. Worship music blasting in my earbuds, I sang at the top of my lungs as I charged over the rocks. The trail had disappeared, turning into a game of mountain hopscotch over giant rocks, but my speed quickened as my morale rose. At one point I must have gotten off route and found myself clinging to the side of a cliff over a stomach-turning drop. I breathed deep, focused, and found the holds to pull myself up.
The summit came slowly but rather underwhelmingly. I hopped the last few boulders up to the summit cairn and sat in the sun as I consumed a can of pineapple. It was strange to be so “out there” completely alone. No comradery or summit fist-bumps. Just deafening solitude. The low whistle of a light breeze. The occasional marmot chirp. Not another soul around for miles.
I felt a calm satisfaction – this peak had been on my wish list for quite a while now, and I had never ventured this far into Wild Basin. Finally, my perception of this place was more than just online photos. This would have been the point when I felt empowered and accomplished, but I knew I was only halfway done. I didn’t spend long at the top before I began my descent.
In the remote upper reaches of Wild Basin, I saw few people. About two hours into my descent, I passed an older couple who asked me if the lakes below the peak were worth the hike. I passed a younger woman, hiking alone as well. We shared a warm greeting and a knowing smile, as if we both understood something that no one else did. I passed throngs of hikers as I neared the trailhead, but that lady was the first and last person I would see travelling alone that day.
That day I came to terms with myself, in a way. Doing that hike alone meant that I was stuck with me and only me for a longer time than I was comfortable with. But that also meant that I couldn’t distract myself by talking to other people or thinking about what they said. I was forced to spend some much-needed quality time with myself. But beyond that, that day I spent time with God. It was something that hadn’t crossed my mind until I was back in my van driving home. I had spent more time with my heavenly father than I knew.
What struck me most about this trip was that although I was seemingly alone for most of it, deep down I felt closer to God than ever. In Matthew 26, just before he is crucified, Jesus leaves his disciples to spend time with God in prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. Reading this passage now, I find myself relating to Jesus more than I ever have in the past. I had never noticed how Jesus intentionally leaves his disciples to be alone with God. Is there a part of our relationship with our heavenly father that can’t be reached with others? I’m not sure. But there is a part of me that feels closer to God when all the outside noise and distraction is removed.
If this sounds like something you want to experience but you’re not comfortable being alone in the outdoors, don’t worry. For me, I feel God’s presence in nature – but he is in no way limited to that. You can be alone with God in a lot of places – from your bedroom to a library, to a quiet city park, to a long drive.
Wherever the place, I believe that solitude is an essential part of the Christian life. Not all the time, maybe not even most of the time – but sometimes, we are called to walk alone with our creator. God created us to be in community with other believers and to worship him together, but there is also a time to break away from the group and prioritize intimacy with him. I wasn’t looking for God that morning in any way when I started my hike. But he found me. He found me when I was hurting and all alone and literally walked with me to the top of a mountain and back. If that doesn’t say something about God’s character, I don’t know what does.