Over the years and during the course of a number of lengthy solo journeys, I’ve experienced grinding loneliness on more occasions than I care to count. As an adventurer, it’s often assumed I’m most in my element when alone. The image of stoical, bearded types, trudging in isolation across some desolate landscape, is compelling and easily conjured.
Indeed, being alone has long been an important factor in what I do. But, like the vast majority of people, I’ve often struggled with loneliness. Despite the many benefits of solitude when approached with a positive mindset, loneliness can be tortuous once it gets a grip on you. It’s a self-feeding, accumulative state, and like depression, self-doubt or teenage hairstyles, it can spiral if left unchecked.
The most painfully alone I’ve ever felt was in my early 20s
The most painfully alone I’ve ever felt was in my early 20s when crossing the Tibetan plateau by bicycle. For six weeks, I had no real conversations; merely a handful of strained chats during rare encounters with strangers with whom I had no shared language.
I had no permit to enter Tibet but cut my way through the fence of a Chinese military base one night to get in. So, I was largely hiding for the following month. To compound matters, it was mid-winter and I was ill-equipped for the dangerous temperatures which dipped as low as -40ºC.
Once I realised I was lonely, the sensation only worsened
The daylight hours were few and it was dangerous to be out after sunset, so I spent seemingly endless nights in a cramped tent with only one book to pass the time. Unfortunately, that book, The Faber Book of Exploration, turned out to be an anthology of extracts from explorers’ diaries, mostly written while they froze to death in tents in cold places.
Once I realised I was lonely, the sensation only worsened and I spent much of my time miserably wishing I had company. This realisation was a submission to – rather than an acceptance of – loneliness, and only made matters worse. Accordingly, the sublime nature of the vast, bewitchingly beautiful wilderness I was crossing was often lost on me.
I continued undertaking challenging journeys in remote places
After Tibet, I continued undertaking challenging journeys in remote places, but I now sought a balance of being alone and being in company. I’d taken quite a different route in life from my friends and most of them struggled to take enough leave to join me for a decent amount of time on any trip.
When I did have company on the road, it was usually with people I barely knew before setting out, but who subsequently became some of my closest companions. In my experience, the friendships forged when sharing an adventure are among the strongest possible. Shared adventures build the deepest of bonds.
Being alone teaches us about ourselves in a profound way
I paddled a dugout canoe down a crocodile-infested Congolese river with a man I’d met briefly on the road in the Sahara a year earlier. I summited an unclimbed mountain in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan range with a man I’d met through Instagram during lockdown and had only been for a couple of pints with. I coaxed a small, stubborn packhorse across Mongolia’s gaping grasslands with the help of a Spaniard I’d met briefly in a visa queue at the Mongolian embassy.
Being alone teaches us about ourselves in a profound way. Our failings are never more ruthlessly exhibited than when we must rely on ourselves for everything. Our mental resilience is most apparent when tested by solitude. Yet, in a team it’s also possible to see our strengths and weaknesses reflected back at us through those around us.
Solitude is the richness of self
Chris McCandless – the young American man whose wanderings and eventual tragic death in Alaska were detailed in the book (and subsequent film) Into The Wild – wrote in his final days that “happiness is only real when shared”.
On that, I respectfully have to disagree and instead offer the words of the poet and novelist, May Sarton, who once wrote of the distinction between loneliness and solitude that “loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
If we can’t be happy alone, that needs to be confronted
I have gradually come to see the truth of this over many years and many adventures. The struggle to be content alone to some extent stems from unresolved issues within ourselves. If we can’t be happy alone, that needs to be confronted. Especially because greater comfort in solitude will eventually aid greater happiness when in company.
Counterintuitively, many people admit to feeling particularly lonely and isolated in big cities. I believe that learning to be happily alone is easier in places where there isn’t potential company that feels confusingly present but difficult to access. Nowadays, I find the empty places – the deserts, the mountains, the steppes – especially conducive to truly relishing solitude and mentally prospering in my own company.
Loneliness is never a permanent state
Fast-forward a decade on from Tibet, I was alone again in similarly isolated frigid conditions, hiking along the surface of a frozen Arctic river in far east Siberia. The penetrating cold dipped to almost -50ºC. Sometimes, I went as long as a week without seeing a soul.
However, what was different now was that those intervening 10 years had been spent in development. I had regularly felt – and openly talked about – loneliness, to the point I could rationalise it and view it in a different light, knowing that it’s never a permanent state.
I now experienced aloneness as a welcome respite from the stresses and complications of my day-to-day life. I felt comfortable and happy being entirely responsible for, and in control of, every aspect of what I was doing. And I was at last able to daydream about possible future adventures with possible future friends in a way that made me excited, rather than miserable.
It’s never a bad thing to leave the pack behind for a while
We humans are ultimately pack animals. For hundreds of thousands of years, our evolutionary success has depended on our tribe. Our ability to exist and thrive within a group is our greatest strength. We should never be afraid to admit that and seek out company. But it’s also never a bad thing to leave the pack for a while. An occasional stint going solo will likely remind you of the importance of community and of the value that you can offer to those around you.
Man to Man is a new SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices, including adventurer and author of Through Sand & Snow and On Roads That Echo, Charlie Walker.
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Images: courtesy of Charlie Walker & ©Archie Leeming