In The Field: Your brain on soltitude between summer and ski season
August 21, 2017
Ever since kindergarten, I have felt a strange blend of anxiety and excitement in August, when a crisp breeze reminds me that summer is almost over. They were probably the first moments when I understood that time is ephemeral. In that strange anxiety, I learned to pause and attempt to hold onto summer — to enjoy the moments that quickly slid through my fingers like wet sands through my tiny hands.
With that feeling also came excitement for the coming fall and winter. It first had to do with school, then snowboarding, then fishing late-season brown trout and eventually even duck hunting. These breed excitement for the future by making the fleeting last days of August bittersweet, but one cannot fill the days dreaming of the future. I would argue that the last days of summer are often best served being selfish. This is when I head out on my own — my walks, hikes and camping adventures all become solitary affairs, as spending some time in the wilderness alone has great value.
Summit in transition
Though many of the big social events are behind us — the Frisco barbecue, the Breckenridge town party, July Fourth, most of the free concerts at Lake Dillon — there are still many events and much to do. There will be warm days in September, but they bring with them that underlying anxiety. In economics they say that scarcity increases value, and I would argue that it increases desire as well. There are only a finite number of weekends left to disappear into the wilderness before uncertain weather reigns in even the best of plans. The desire to get out is a slow ache, an acknowledgment of the scarcity of days. We can only speculate on how many beautiful weekends we have left.
I argue this is a great time to get out alone, a time to get back to some old-fashioned reflection. Between jobs and families and personal and professional obligations, the mind gets swallowed up by external forces. The individual has a tendency to lose himself or herself in the world outside. After months of this, I sometimes feel like I have lost sight of my true self; bombarded with social media and other people's narratives, my definable identity slips into the background. Then comes the selfish question, "What about me?" and I would argue that it is not an unhealthy or selfish thing to ask.
Value in solitude
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In "Going Out for a Walk," the essayist Max Beerbohm argues that not only do walks "stop the brain," but they also force us to socialize in trivial ways. He argues that walks are a waste of our time. Though his persona is that of a sarcastic curmudgeon, I know what he means. Often, our hikes into the wilderness are filled with distractions that are determined by the wills of others. Like Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, our brains are zapped back to the superficial present by some external force. We are constantly pulled out of our own mind space by something or someone; rarely do we linger in our deep consciousness, where we are most intelligent and reflective.
Companionship has the ability (or the curse) of keeping one's thoughts focused on something shared, something outside the self. We are not left to our own thoughts and this can inhibit true reflection, like how we tend to compulsively check our cell phones every few minutes. It is like a reset button on deep thinking: something pulls us out of our minds and we are back to square one. It is only my time if it is only me.
Sometimes the human mind needs to be alone, and a good walk or hike or even overnight camping trip can be perfect. This includes removing oneself from not only friends, but one's dog as well. I would argue that once and awhile, we should leave the dog with the friend and head out alone to see how differently we interact with the wilderness.
Alone in nature
It is known that nature can be spiritually and cognitively rejuvenating. It cleanses something in us, forces our senses to heighten, our minds to be acute, our bodies to synergize.
This does not happen as intensely as when we are alone. Interacting with another being is an entirely different experience, when he or she is redirecting our thoughts, even if it is just pointing out a beautiful view. In a way, these distract from the flow of an uninhibited mind.
This is Beerbohm's argument: that these interruptions stop the mind from wholly engaging with itself. It may sound curt, but he is arguing for solitude. If your companion is constantly pointing out trail signs or begging you to play fetch, the mind is constantly being engaged by something outside of itself and is never allowed to reach that deeper level of contemplation.
A truly solitary mind interacts differently with its surroundings. It has a sense of the infinite, the eternal; it contemplates the world and its place in it. It acknowledges the triviality of certain stresses, the importance of reconnection, the simplicity of the senses. We are presented with that vast, seemingly empty region of the brain where we rarely get to linger. Being truly alone allows the mind to wander without interruption, like meditation or yoga. It is in these spaces of the mind that our true selves reside.
Prescription for solitude
Whether it is a simple walk or a multi-day excursion, venturing out into the wilderness alone can be more cathartic than we might imagine. As long as appropriate safety precautions are taken, the wilderness can turn a solitary trip into both a physical and spiritual journey.
August is a great month for it because the weather is still temperate and the mountains still welcome us with only minor threats. Even a simple walk of just an hour can refuel us deeply by tapping into something we perhaps did not realize had been depleted.
The end of summer is, poetically, the perfect time for this, when summer memories are fresh and that dull yearning for fall and winter is rising within us. I would argue that it is never selfish to return to the self. After all, how can we be anything for others when we deny something so basic from ourselves? See where the solitary trail takes you, and feel what it can do for you and you alone.
Mark Palz teaches writing and literature at Colorado Mountain College. He is an avid outdoorsman who has also taught fly-casting for over 10 years, starting at the Orvis School of Fly Casting in Manchester, Vermont, briefly at Colorado Mountain College, and presently with Breckenridge Outfitters. He lives in Frisco.
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