One reason to live in a remote place is the potential ease with which we can seek out solitude. Some of us can hit the woods trails right outside our back doors and soon be hiking, biking, skiing or running in the vast wild, away from other human contact. One of my most memorable experiences in solitude was walking in Fort Yukon on a -55 degree day. The sun, for the few hours it was up, glinted off the snow. The road was empty. Walking in a village, I was not in a solitary place but I was enveloped in a cocoon of solitude, hearing only the sound of the snow crunching under foot as I walked.   I was alone, the landscape speaking to me as loudly as the thoughts in my head. I remember that early afternoon as being meditative. Serene. Full. Pure. I slowed my pace; I wanted to savor the moment for more than its time.

 

Sometimes solitude comes to me amid the bustle of a city. I’ve created a space of solitude in the atrium of an 18 story building, giving myself time and space in which to write while the cogs of the world around me continue to move and spin. Solitude can be created on a crowded subway by meditating while traveling to and from work.

 

These solitudes are full. Expansive. They remind us of our connectedness. Our hearts can overflow. Solitudes are the opposite of lack, of want, of desire, of loneliness. Loneliness begs a deficit perspective whereas solitude brings us to an embrace with divinity, with the fullness of our existence.

 

Emily Dickinson sat alone in her room in Amherst, Massachusetts, accompanied only by words. She wrote poetry. What else could come of such solitude, one foot in front of the other, each striving?

 

There is a solitude of space,

A solitude of sea,

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be,

Compared with that profounder site,

That polar privacy,

A Soul admitted to Itself:

Finite Infinity.

Dickinson kept to herself; she lived in a house with others but could separate herself from the bustle of village life and conjure solitude without going out to the wild. This is a practice that develops over time. Location does not control the opportunity of solitude.  

 

Solo trekkers run the risk of bumping into loneliness instead of solitude. I was thinking about this as I read David Graan’s small book, The White Darkness a few Sundays ago. Graan narrates the story of Henry Worsley’s solo trek across Antarctica in 2015-16. Worsley had chased Ernest Shackleton for most of his life, either by collecting memorabilia, reading everything he could about the explorer, or mounting expeditions himself. Shackleton was no stranger to solitude, drawn as he was to Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Henry Worsley, a distant relative of Frank Worsley, one of the men on Shackleton’s doomed trans-Antarctic adventure, felt an instinctive pull of the solo trek. Throughout several months without human contact, it could be easy to pass between solitude and loneliness, especially given the grueling nature of the journey itself and the nature of the environment. A solo trekker must be focused, present, and aware of the surroundings. Pulling his gear and food, facing nearly 1,000 miles on foot and skis—from ice shelf to ice shelf, Worsley overcame the physical and mental burdens of the adventure as he embraced solitude.    

 

This is December 17th. It is summer in Antarctica and two men are making their way across the continent—each alone, each pulling a pulk with food and gear for the journey. Unaided in the summer sun, blinded by whiteouts and slowed by sastrugi, they forge ahead, Luis Rudd, a comrade of Worsley’s on earlier group expeditions, and Colin O’Brady, an extreme adventurer from Washington State. O’Brady has prepared for the vast alone by attending weeklong silent meditation retreats for nearly a decade. He has summited numerous mountains. Neither man has attempted a trek as extreme as this one. They are traversing the continent about 8 miles apart, traveling in the same direction. Each one is learning about solitude in the wide vast white of snow and ice. I expect there are times of loneliness and despair but they are well trained, and they are both positive and hopeful men. In a wildly solitary place, they each embrace solitude in their own way when they can. This is day 45. Whiteouts, snow, and wind. Focus on the compass. Reflect. Establish rhythm. One step. One step. One step. O’Brady and Rudd have both reached the South Pole and moved beyond it. They are headed toward the Transantarctic Mountains.

 

You can follow them at www.lourudd.com and www.colinobrady.com