| 1060 words

Sometimes people ask me if I get lonely living alone. I suppose strictly speaking, maybe I'm technically lonelier than I would be otherwise but it's not really something you notice day to day. Nothing I actually do is impacting by having to do it all by myself.

They say that living alone teaches you to be entirely comfortable with yourself. To be at peace with who you are. After all, without any distractions in and around your environment you're forced to spend 24 hours a day with the one person who you're closest to: yourself. You have to become your own biggest fan, your own chef, your own planner and organizer. Whatever it looks like inside that head of yours, you'd better get comfortable in there because that's the land in which you shall spend most of your time.

I think doing activities alone is a good way to experience this. When you watch a movie by yourself, or eat a nice meal at a restaurant without a conversation partner to keep you entertained, what is it like? What do you think about and amuse yourself with to pass the time? Does the quiet and solitude, the negative space, give room for other things to bloom?

I think one activity which exemplifies this idea is hiking alone. Unlike something in the city, you can't easily escape back home if you start getting really bored. There's often little to no signal which means you're cut off from the typical endless media feeds which normally follows you everywhere you go. Being isolated from civilization, in the middle of nature, means that you are forced to be more in tune with yourself than ever before.

This is a huge contrast from hiking with others because that typically doesn't involve much introspection. Hiking together is a social activity, filled with chatting and exploring and hanging out. Hiking alone is like being cast out of civilization with nothing but your thoughts to keep you company. In my opinion, if you can handle hiking alone then you probably have a good idea of what living alone might be like (although of course for a period of months rather than hours).

I've been lucky enough to do a handful of hikes in the past year. I've been visiting national parks, and my rough goal is to see as many of them as I possibly can. If I'm successful enough then you might see a full post about this someday but for now I'm still finding my bearings. I do have enough experience however to talk about what it's like to go on these adventures.

Firstly, hiking is a lot less boring than I might have expected. It's true that there are some calmer moments but typically there's always lots to think about. The wildnerness surrounding you is often full of the noise of wildlife, plants rustling, wind blowing, and sometimes even road noise if the trail you're on isn't very remote. Then there's the actual act of hiking; placing one foot in front of the other without any mistakes for a few hours straight. This in itself can be a meditative experience. Especially on a difficult trail where you have to constantly pay attention to where you're going, it feels good to zone out and just think about one step at a time.

I think something many people don't realize is how much of a mental component there is to physical activities. Doing something repetitive like running or lifting weights might sound mentally unengaging, but doing it makes you realize how intense of an experience it is. These types of things require a surprising amount of focus to stay in tune with the body and keep the rhythm. It's common in these situations to people to report that their brain just turns off and they can focus on living in the moment. Like I said, it's meditative.

I assumed hiking would be an opportunity for my thoughts to drift off and to come up with new ideas, but really it's the opposite. Listening to the forest, following the trail, feeling your heart beat and your muscles extert themselves is a euphorically physical experience. I think this is one of the greatest feelings when hiking alone - when you enter the zone and suddenly you have no thoughts, no soreness, no fatigue. Just one foot in front of the next. I don't often go for runs but I imagine this is very similar to the euphoria that runner's report experiencing.

If that mental peacefulness loses it's appeal, I have another trick I use to keep hikes fresh and entertaining. Imagine walking through a dense forest trail with sounds all around you. Plants rustling, water flowing, sticks breaking. Suddenly, you hear something else. A bird chirping. You freeze, not wanting to make anymore sound, trying to pinpoint where that chirping is coming from. Tilting your head, moving your ears. Finally, when you think you have a rough idea, you slowly and carefully turn your head and bring your binoculars up to your eyes to try and spot the bird in question.

Yup, it's bird watching. And, once again, it's a lot more mentally stimulating than I would have thought. Constantly keeping your eyes and ears out for the slightest hint of a bird is pretty intense if not exhausting. Often the problem isn't one of finding the lone bird in the forest. Instead you're overstimulated at every turn. It's hard to make out what could be a bird from the thick background trees or pick out their chirp and pinpoint it among hundreds of branches above you. When you do (hopefully) find the culprit, it's often fascinating to watch birds live their unique little birdy lives for as long as they stay still. I don't even go for particularly rare species, birds of all kinds are just really cool.

I have more to say about bird watching later, but for now just appreciate what it adds to a hike. I'm never bored when I'm out there all alone, and as soon as I get back I start making plans for my next adventure.