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Going Solo Can Open Your Soul

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Photograph by Emily Moeschler

So much of our lives is filled with stimulation and distraction. We rush from one thing to the next, be it work, errands, paying bills, taking care of kids, exercising or spending time with friends. How often do you actually put on the brakes and take time to reflect—on who you are you, what you want, and the meaning of your one precious life? Chances are, not often enough.

The good news is that there’s a cure for this affliction. And yup, you guessed it, it involves going outside. Outdoor adventures feed the soul like nothing else. Exposed to the elements and raw beauty of nature, you escape from everyday life. The only catch is, you can’t escape from yourself—particularly if you’re alone.

The other day, I sat down with my coworker Emily, who is a membership representative here at Outdoor Industry Association, to hear about her recent solo backpacking adventure. This wasn’t her first time alone in the backcountry. During a semester with NOLS, she went out on her first solo overnight. More recently, she did a five-day fasting vision quest that was an amazing spiritual journey.

Emily seeks time alone in the wilds to ground herself. So a couple of weeks ago, in need of a bit of reflection, she headed out for a transformative night.

She set out on Labor Day weekend from a trailhead in central Colorado. Ordinarily you’d expect to share the trail with many others. After all, Coloradans LOVE being outside, so it’s rare to have a mountain basin all to yourself. Emily was shocked that there was no one else around. Right off the bat, she felt very alone.

She hiked in for about three miles, then set up camp on a hillside overlooking the Gore Range. She was in awe of her surroundings and immersed herself in the deep connection that comes from being alone outdoors. She relished the solitude. It was just Emily, her two dogs, and the wind whistling through the trees.

As night fell, things changed. Emily started getting a little afraid. Her head switched, and all of a sudden, every noise, every tree branch breaking, even her dogs barking freaked her out. Emily was terrified. She described it as beyond common sense—her basic human instincts set in, and she was a slave to fearful thoughts. I’m sure we can all relate to this. Who hasn’t spent time alone in the dark, afraid of a boogieman, or a bear ripping through the side of the tent, or ghosts?

At 3:00 a.m., Emily awoke to a clear sky bathed in the light of a full moon. Suddenly she didn’t feel so alone. I’ve often found the moon can be a grounding force, helping you feel connected to the sky, the earth, and other people. After all, it exerts powerful pull on everything from tides to moods. For Emily, the moon freed her and helped her realize that the darkest parts of our minds are the scariest. Surrounded by everyday distractions, it’s easy to avoid these dark recesses. It’s only by cracking open your soul, confronting your fears, and making peace with your dark side that you will ever see the light.

So she faced her fear and realized that it was just in her head. Fear is a manifestation of your thoughts. You can either allow yourself to give into fearful thoughts, or you can redirect your attention to something more positive. As Emily says, you are the only barrier to all of your possibilities.

The beautiful thing is that a solo jaunt in the woods is a cure. It’s like hitting the reset button and reconnecting with the basics. It’s an opportunity to reassess how you can let your mind interfere with what you do, or you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Whoa. Wrap your head around that dichotomy.

Adventures outside can be exciting, exhilarating, scary and challenging. Often it takes mind over matter to power past your fears. You can talk about the peak you bagged, the rapids you ran, or the gnarly descent you nailed on your mountain bike. But you might just discover that the greatest adventure was the journey you took exploring the depths of your own mind.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich