I take walks by myself on a nearly daily basis. Sometimes it’s just up the street to Mt. Tabor Park. Sometimes it’s an urban stroll through a new neighborhood or a trek downtown. But I’ve never headed out of town for a hike on my own. On some level it’s because I have a handful of friends who are always interested in getting out for a walk in the woods and not asking one of them along makes me feel like a bit of a jerk. There’s also the overly-cautious nag in the back of my brain that says what if you fall and no one’s around to help, what if you get lost and no one’s around to help, what if that creaky old car of yours breaks down and no one’s around to help? Beneath the nag there’s also another voice whispering what if you see something so beautiful and there’s no one there to share it with?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy my own company. For the most part, I’m an introvert and fully appreciate the freedom that comes with my solitude. Still, there’s some part of me that has never quite grown out of the girl I once was, the one that wrapped her solitude around herself so tightly it turned into a miserable kind of loneliness. Way back when, I was convinced that what I needed to feel happy was another set of eyes, another body, another heart beside mine to act as witness. The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard/dies young. There were years when I carried that closing line from Anne Sexton’s poem “Welcome Morning” around with me like a mantra. Each beautiful thing I experienced while I was alone came with a measure of pain. I thought the pain would go away if someone else was with me.
What I learned over the years was that, more often than not, sharing did indeed remove pain from the experience, but it also made the beauty a bit more shallow. Maybe because it’s too easy for two or more people to cover a moment with conversation so that half our attention is on the words and not on the thing before/around us. Maybe because it can be a bit embarrassing to be overwhelmed that way and so, in the company of others, our awe simmers down into a smile, a pointed finger, a quickly snapped photo.
I still took photos while on my hike to the Lyle Cherry Orchard. But the pictures weren’t the point. The point was the long silence of the drive out, without music or chatter. The point was the tart new leaves against the steady dark of the evergreens. The point was the warming air. The click of loose rocks beneath my heels. Lupines and balsamroot and the wonderfully named death camas. The point was my breath breaking through my body as I climbed and climbed and the way it calmed as I sat on the edge of the cliff and looked out at the river and felt like the luckiest person in the world to be sitting inside this paradise. The point was the rhythm of my gate and the stillness in my pauses.
If I’d gone with a friend, all of this would have been there. I would have gained the joy of a shared experience but, chances are, the experience would have had a slightly duller shade. I don’t think it’s inevitable that sharing this kind of beauty automatically weakens it, but I do think that it’s a rare thing when the beauty of a moment is so perfectly matched inside the minds and hearts of two separate people. In my life, there have been only a handful of those moments and they have been bright and odd and elusive.
So does this mean I’m only hiking by myself from now on? No. There’s too much value in the shared joy, the shared friendship. But it does mean I’ll probably take more hikes on my own from now on so that I can wallow in the beauty all by myself with no one around to see.