As a practice, the opportunity for enjoying complete and utter solitude is rapidly in danger of becoming a lost art. Possibly, it comes as a result of the difficulties involved in obtaining its primary ingredient, the opportunity to be alone. It is certainly understandable, as wild areas are getting more uncommon amidst an ever encroaching world.
A recent report from the National Park Service reveals the sounds of civilization can now be heard in more than 30 percent of our nation's wilderness areas. Despite our best efforts to escape, we can no longer hide from the jets overhead, nor the entrails they leave behind on the blank sky.
Even after darkness engulfs the planet, the mysterious voids of the evening sky are not longer immune, as satellites or space stations intrude to leave a paw print on the blank, black blanket that once was the "Great Beyond."
Climbers atop Mt. Everest regularly use hand-held satellite phones to proclaim they've made it; as do astronauts. It has become impossible to escape the din of civilization. As a society, we are heading toward a time when, according to the New York Times, "portable phones, pagers, and data transmission devices of every sort will keep us terminally in touch."
However, in a more important aspect, society has become almost terminally out of touch. Our innate need for genuine and constructive aloneness has been lost and forgotten and, in the process, so has a part of all of us.
Over the years, I've learned there are times when I don't need to be in touch or I just don't want to be. Although humans are surely social animals, we also have a great need to spend time alone.
The scent of solitude provides us with the opportunity to enjoy the companionship of the only individual we will ever share our lives with from the beginning to end - oneself.
With practice, solitude teaches us how to deal with this single companion, how to put up with them and to get the best out of them. However, without regular opportunities to spend time alone, we've become out of practice.
For all of time, man has sought and found such opportunities primarily in natural settings. Nature is where the earth whispers, yet in silence; it makes the loudest noise. Solitude allows for sounds we can hear in our souls. It comes with a voice that visits during quiet periods of personal conversation. It happens outdoors because natural surroundings provide our best opportunities to be still, alone and quiet.
However, there is a great difference between being alone and loneliness. Solitude is quiet time we make for ourselves, while loneliness describes the pain of being alone. In nature, as we all know, we're never alone.
Thoreau explained, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
It is interesting to note in many societies that emphasize close-knit family patterns, there are also built-in loopholes to offer an individual an acceptable opportunity to escape, or a way to dissociate from society. Listed among these loopholes are such activities as marathon running, trance dancing, vision quests and hunting.
In fact, it was while spending time alone in hunting camp I began writing this article. Although my camp is not located beyond the clatter of civilization, the roar of a nearby stream and the wind whistling in the pines make it seem as if it is.
There is a major difference between being alone and being lonely. Loneliness occurs when you are all alone and you come to realize you don't really know your only companion very well.
I recall the story of the Adirondacks' most famous hermit, Noah John Rondeau. Beginning in 1914, he lived for more than 30 years in the wilds of the Cold River Valley, huddled in a small cabin located nearly 25 miles from the nearest gathering of civilization. He was the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Cold River City" - population of one.
Rondeau was an unusual hermit. He actually enjoyed people, but claimed he enjoyed the woods even more. He earned a nickname as the "Tin Can Hermit" for his habit of hitting up hikers traveling along the Northville-Placid Trail for a few cans of grub, which he stored in the nearby Cold River. He came to town to trade furs for staples and often stayed over with a handful of local families.
Between 1946 and 1947, Rondeau spent the entire year in the woods. He maintained a very detailed journal, since he spent most of the time alone. One of his finest journal entries was in respect to solitude. As an avid, practitioner of the art, I've always enjoyed his entry for March 13.
"3/13/47: I have been at Cold River City for over a full year, much of the time alone with myself. I find that I am very good company!"
I hope you, too, can take a lone walk in the autumn woods, and enjoy the company.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org