Why do we desperately hold on to the possibility of solitary escape?
by Marie Baleo
From Walden to Wild: the irresistible appeal of “outdoor literature”
Often regarded as the central piece in a genre that has come to be known as outdoor literature, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recounts the two years the author spent in isolation in a cabin by Walden Pond in Massachusetts. As Mother Nature Network writes, “the work is recognized as a personal declaration of independence, a voyage of spiritual discovery and manual for self reliance”. The reason Walden’s appeal has transcended the ages and continues to draw readers of all ages worldwide is because we live by proxy, through Thoreau’s account of his experience, something many of us wish for but never effectively seek out: the “return” to wilderness and what we think of as a simpler life.
Solitude in nature has become intricately linked to the common fantasy of escaping one’s routine domestic life to return to a lifestyle more focused on the essential and less reliant on the material, alone in the wild. This longing to escape everyday tedium, as all other dreams and aspirations, has found many illustrations in literature, from Jack London to Mark Twain.
As early as 1776, Rousseau extolled the virtues of solitary walks in “Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire” (Reveries of a solitary walker), in which he developed his own notion of ataraxia through isolation, a peaceful life and a close relation to nature.
Since then, outdoor literature has continued to enjoy great success, not least in the past two decades, with the publication of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s account of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, an American college graduate who walked away from a promising and privileged life to hike in the wilderness. McCandless seemed to have succeeded in his quest for happiness, as evidenced by the notes he left behind and his bright smile in one of the only photos of this era of his life. Sadly, McCandless, unprepared for the demands of life in the wild, died of starvation and poisoning in an Alaskan bus in 1992. The tragic tale has allowed McCandless to become a well-loved figure for readers who admire his determination, courage but also his rejection of a life deemed too easy. Christopher McCandless’s hike took him from California to South Dakota, onto the PCT, the trail hiked by Cheryl Strayed, and to Alaska where he met his untimely death. In the school bus in which he camped out during the last weeks of his life, the following note was found: “Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road”.
More recently, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild has brought solitary hiking to the forefront again. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts how the death of her mother, the failure of her marriage and her heroin addiction forced her onto the Pacific Crest Trail, a hiking trail which runs from Mexico to British Columbia.
Both books and films have enjoyed tremendous success worldwide and spurred a hiking vocation in many. Why do we love the idea of someone walking off into the wild by themselves?
A deeply-rooted collective dream: the “return” to a simpler life
The appeal of solitude in nature stems from apparent generalized weariness. The notion of a “return” to wilderness for individuals born in the post-Industrial revolution era into mostly comfortable lives, is biased: we never were in the wild, and thus cannot return to it. Instead, the notion of return purports to bring your individual life more in line with those lived in very ancient times, something which, regardless of its philosophical and sentimental appeal, is nothing but an illusion. Being alone in the wild, and, for instance, hiking, are not natural experiences for us, because our nature is the very “unnatural” society we were brought up in and now seek to escape. Nature is violent – and perhaps that is why humans first sought to assemble in groups, in tribes, and later on, in cities -, nature is ruthless, nature is everything but the comfort that has become so “natural” to us.
The nobler search for a “simpler life” appears more sensible than the sentimental desire to “return to nature” (the same kind of feeling that grips me when I re-read Wuthering Heights: wouldn’t I like to be somewhere in the moors running after tall, dark Heathcliff? But then I remember I have Internet, electricity and a microwave, and I calm down). It is a rejection of consumerism and the drearier aspects of our modern lives: office work, routine and boredom, social inequalities which we are privy to everyday, … Thus, the magazine Outside writes, of Into The Wild, that it “speaks to anyone who has ever yearned for something pure, to be free of the affluenza of American life, to be self-reliant”.
Moreover, a certain segment of literature and popular culture has sold us on the idea that “to find oneself” is the be-all and end-all of human life, and that hiking, living in isolation, or otherwise spending time in the wild, is possibly the preferred method for finding oneself. This myth has only grown stronger with the rise of proverbial bullshit jobs, the perception of increasingly meaningless lives, and mostly, the increasing and inexplicable urge to give our organic, animal lives a higher purpose or “meaning”. This is only reinforced by the decline of religion, a previous purveyor of meaning and purpose. It is what forces many unfortunate, inexperienced hikers into the wild, where they inevitably come to the realization that nature does not have a soul (or if it does, it is not a charitable one). Finding oneself is soon eclipsed by prosaic considerations of survival. While the phrase “finding oneself” is devoid of meaning, being alone in nature, by virtue of giving us more time to think freely without interruptions or interactions, can help us think about our lives with more detachment, i.e., to see our lives thus far with a degree of distance, certainly a very valid reason to go explore the world in isolation!
But this thirst for isolation reveals something else about our lives: we have forgotten how to be alone. In fact, this longing reflects the fact that we no longer have enough solitude in our lives. Many, if not most, people today resent being alone: they don’t feel comfortable in their own company and consequently feel best when other people are around. We flock to our friends and family or just strive for interactions with strangers because being alone has come to feel synonymous with being abandoned, perhaps one of our greatest childhood (and adulthood) fears. Because our only view of aloneness is through the negative lens of abandonment, we have forgotten what previous generations might have known, who lived in more secluded rural areas: how to be content with aloneness.
The word itself, “alone”, has become pejorative. If someone is alone, it is assumed it is because they were unable to “find anyone to be with” or don’t have a sufficiently “full” social life; it is never assumed to be by choice. Similarly, it is traditionally looked down upon to engage in certain activities alone, such as dining out or going to the movies. Finally, we are never truly alone anymore: with the majority of the world’s population now living in sprawling cities and the rise of new technologies allowing us to reach anyone at any time, it is becoming harder and harder to simply be alone, yet many are feeling lonelier than ever.
Meanwhile, we are incited to become more and more independent and self-reliant: we should need no one but ourselves, and the idea of needing people (just think of the terrible adjective, “needy”) is stigmatized. This contradiction between the stigmatization of solitude painted as social alienation and the strong incentive to be independent in an increasingly individualistic Western society is at the root of the growing unease many of us may feel in our inner lives.
In her 1997 book “The Call of Solitude”, psychologist Ester Buchholz wrote:
“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. (…) One way alonetime is fueled is by experiences that put us in contact with nature. The “tonic of wilderness,” as Thoreau called it, is a theme that still resounds today. In 1993, Borge Ousland, a Norwegian explorer, made one of the most difficult treks in polar history. Pulling a 300-pound sled, he skied alone to the North Pole over more than 600 miles of drifting ice. Once or twice a week he communicated with his base camp by radio. After his extraordinary solo trek of 52 days, he said, “I had feared I would be lonely; I had never spent so much as a single night alone in a tent before… But being alone proved to be one of the greatest experiences of the entire trek.”
It is in this context that perhaps solitude in nature has a thing or two to teach us about how to be alone and how to enjoy it.
When the fantasy to walk into the wild alone becomes a desire to self-destruct
The difference between Cheryl Strayed and Christopher McCandless is that Strayed hiked the PCT because that was the only thing she could do to save her life, while, hypothetically, McCandless walked into the wild because, on some level, he might have wanted to die. This, at least, is one of the theories which has caused McCandless to be regarded by some as anything but the popular source of inspiration he has become.
McCandless’s own sister Carine has suggested that her brother decided to leave his life behind in 1990 in part because of domestic violence he’d witnessed while growing up. Carine McCandless has written a memoir describing an abusive father and an unresponsive mother, shedding light on why escape was such a powerful prospect for young McCandless. Carine McCandless told Newsweek that:
“I think it’s very important for people to best learn from him, that they have the facts and they understand just how much Chris was hurting when he left. And have a better understanding and appreciation of why he felt like he needed to do it the way he did. Chris was young and male—and I make no excuses for the risks he took and the mistakes he made that put himself in that position. But Chris accepted responsibility for his mistakes when he was dying. He loved life more than anyone I’ve ever known. (…) I believe people identify with Chris because there’s something within him that he did that people want to do.”
In fact, many have remarked that going into the wild with little to no preparation or knowledge of the practical aspects of survival (no map and a mere 5 kilos of rice to survive on) reflects a suicidal intent on McCandless’s part. Several suicidal, depressive or otherwise distressed youths have indeed followed McCandless’s lead (some openly admirative of McCandless) and died alone in the wild. For example, 18 year-old Johnathan Croom, who was said to have “developed an obsession with Into The Wild” was found dead in rural Oregon two days after he was supposed to start college. He was found 1,000 feet from his car and his death was regarded as suicide.
These tragic lives remind us that ultimately, to be human is to be social: we come out of another human being, are products of a lineage of people, are born into families, communities, societies, nations, entangled in webs of identities and social circles and networks; what differentiates us from other animals is the vastness and precision of our language, the only purpose of which is to connect us to others. To want to leave society and social interactions behind is to want to cut oneself from life as we know it. By extension, it inches towards a desire not to live, or an expression of our thanatos, our death drive.
Freud defines the proposed concept of a death drive (Todestrieb) as “a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state”. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud wrote of “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things”. Though Freud’s theory has come under criticism in recent decades, it is hard to disagree with the hypothesis of a self-destructive impulse which drives some of us thrill-seekers to engage in dangerous, potentially lethal activities. Thus, as Outside Magazine explains regarding solitude in nature, “Into the Wild reminds us that the very qualities of being in the wilderness that thrill and restore us or lead us, as Roderick Nash wrote, to “either melancholy or exultation” can swiftly take our lives”.
We certainly need to entertain the occasional fantasy of escaping our lives and walking into the wild, as a pressure valve for when we become too worn out by the troubles of our prosaic daily lives. But like most fantasies, this is one many of us will never carry out.
About this, actor Sean Penn, who directed the film adaptation of Into the Wild starring Emil Hirsch, said of McCandless’s life: “there’s a slice that has to do with the dark issues of his family and his life. But the biggest slice is a wanderlust that everybody can identify with. Whether that wanderlust comes from trauma, family, or from some purely positive place, it ties in with our unified desire to set out along that road“.
When Thoreau retreated to the small cabin by Walden Pond, his aim was to study society from an outside perspective, not to forget or forsake it. By using his time alone to reflect on mankind and on himself, he effectively maintained a link with society, something which reflects his vitality. One can assume Thoreau’s seclusion had no self-destructive purposes; Thoreau returned, with one of the most beautiful literary accounts of solitude in nature. So, walk into the wild if you want to, if you need to, if you are curious, if you feel you can’t do without it, if the thought obsesses you – go ahead with it, but know when to return.
 The Call of Solitude, by Ester Buchholz, Ph.D. Copyright 1997 by Ester Buchholz as quoted in https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199802/the-call-solitude
 National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/news/into-the-wild.html