A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Alone But Not Lonely


Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild - as wild as wild could be - and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him. RUDYARD KIPLING The Cat That Walked By Himself  (Just So Stories)

I prefer walking alone when taking long walks or making long pilgrimages. Why is this? I've been considering the reasons. I'm not anti-social, nor some weird 'loner' (well, perhaps a tiny bit!) I like people. I enjoy conversation. Why would I wish to embark on a long, sometimes scary and hazardous journey, alone? 

Well, first of all, there are some nakedly selfish reasons. The fact is, no matter how entertaining and sympathetic, lovely and beloved your companion, walking with another person over a long stretch of time and distance can become wearisome. I'm being brutally honest here. Alone you have total freedom: to go where you want, when you want, how fast or how slow you want. With a companion - delightful as he or she may be - you have to compromise. Yes - compromise is, of course, essential and right in so many parts of our lives, in our relationships, in our marriages, in our dealings with society. Compromise, give and take, the Middle Way are the oils which lubricate the smooth workings of a successful community, a successful relationship. But isn't it nice just to be totally free for a while, not to compromise, to do exactly as one likes?

Then there's the question of loneliness. People ask me: don't you ever get lonely on your solo trips? The truthful answer is: sometimes, yes! On my last pilgrimage along the Via de la Plata I met hardly any other walkers (no doubt they were all far more sensible than I, and hadn't even dreamt of tackling this route during the wettest Spanish winter in living memory). However I find that serious pangs of loneliness are short-lived. Normally there are other walkers to chat with and accompany for short distances. There are friendly shops and bars and albergues. Usually I feel 'alone' rather than 'lonely'. And that's no bad thing. Facing up to, accepting, enjoying our natural, existential solitude is actually, I think, an important, even necessary thing to do, and prepares us for bleak periods in our life (like times of illness, depression or bereavement) when a state of aloneness is forced upon us rather than deliberately chosen.    

How many of us are completely at ease with our own thoughts, comfortably at home in own own minds and bodies? I know I'm not always in this ideal state. Far from it. So solitary walking gives me the chance to explore a little the murky depths of my own mind, to clear some weeds from the muddy pool of my unconscious, to sort out my ideas and beliefs, to shine a little light into my soul, to reflect on God and the nature of life, death and the universe. And, with luck, to meet up with some interesting people, and enjoy a few beers with them along the Way ...   

26 comments:

ksam said...

A lovely post...that's just got my mental wheels churning! Who was/is that singer...I loved the music!

The Solitary Walker said...

That's Eliza Gilkyson, Karin. An incredible singer/songwriter. Do check her out!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I prefer to walk alone Robert - although it is not so easy for a woman I don't think - other people chattering I find really irritating when I am trying to concentrate on the scenery, the plant life, the birds and the general ambience.

The Solitary Walker said...

Agree with you, Pat. On the French & Spanish Chemins & Caminos, incidentally, there are many solo women walkers and pilgrims - and it's just the same for them as for the male walkers. I've hardly ever heard of any difficulties.

Winter Pilgrim said...

Hi Solitary Walker
You've hit on a question I'm constantly asked, too. I agree with your appreciation of being a lone pilgrim. I've just finished my 4th great solo pilgrimage, this time from Denver, Colorado USA to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City, a distance of well over 2,000 miles.

In the desert and barren mountains I still prefer the solitude of walking alone at my own pace with my own thoughts and then cherishing the times, mostly in the evenings, when I talk with villagers or monks or nuns or whomever I encounter. Talking with diverse people in non-touristic settings is a wonderful part of the pilgrim experience to me.

I've never had any troubles with people - nothing bad has ever happened to me and I've never felt even slightly apprehensive for my personal safety. I think that generally people will find a single person very approachable compared to a couple or a group.

Additionally, in the three weeks that I walked with a peregrino on the Camino Frances two years ago, after two months of solo walking, I felt subordinated to the point of invisible, with people talking directly with him and assuming he, as the big strong man, was taking care of me, the tiny woman.

Finally, because I tend to walk in very remote areas that lack hostels or pilgrim houses, I rely on people to take me into their homes at night for a meal and safe place to sleep. The logistical benefits of providing shelter to a single person rather than a couple or larger group are clear, and the advantage of being a small and unthreatening woman makes a shorter path to accommodation than a big strong man surely would experience.

I checked into your blog often on my pilgrimage...always inspiring, thanks!
Ann

am said...

You created something extraordinarily beautiful and moving. Thanks so much!

It's uncanny how much that landscape looks like what John Muir would have seen walking alone but not lonely through parts of Northern California. It's the landscape of some of my earliest memories of being.

Grace said...

I like how you handled the subject of compromise:)

If I make it to France later (much later, most likely) this year, you'll have to tell me about some good solitary walking spots.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

A wonderful explanation of walking alone, that I am sure many of us can identify with. (Have pinched a quite for Camino-spirations by the way!)

George said...

A wonderful post, Robert, and what you have to say about walking could also be said of the journey of life itself. How do we balance the need for solitude with the need for community? That is the question. I tend to spend more time in solitude, both on walks and in life. There have been occasions, however — my recent coast to coast, for example — when I truly enjoyed the companionship of those walking with me. I suppose it all depends on the time and circumstances.

Alive said...

Walking alone gives me a greater sense of freedom too, that of mind, body and spirit.

Dominic Rivron said...

There have been times in my life when I've gone in for solitary expeditions, but I think I'm a gregarious walker.

Looking back on my last solitary expedition (a while ago, now: a walk over An Teallach and the Fannichs) I think I went alone simply because I could find no-one to go with. Had one or two like-minded companions been available I'd have recruited them like a shot.

fireweed said...

Well, I am a weird loner, or at least I hope I am, and I don't like people (not much and not most of the time) but for some reason I much prefer taking long walks with a quality companion than heading out on my own. Go figure. Walking is an experience I love to share with another.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your long and interesting comment, Ann (Winter Pilgrim). As you know, I've been been following your own treks with pleasure and amazement over the past year or two. Your journal of these pilgrimages is one of the best written blogs on the Internet, and I love to read it. To think of you checking into my own blog from some remote village or monastery in Ukraine, Greece or Mexico is an astonishing and humbling thought!

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks am ... and Grace - I think I'm right in saying that France is double the area of the UK, and has half the population density, so there are plenty of getting-away-from-it-all walking opportunities. The 'Chemins de Grandes Randonnees' are networks of paths criss-crossing nthe whole of France, marked with a red and white blaze. Just off the top of my head, I believe central and SW France are some of the least populated - and remotely beautiful - areas.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for quoting me in your Camino-spirations blog, Kiwi, and George - yes, I think that balance between solitude and community is different for us all.

Alive, Dominic and Fireweed - thanks also for your comments. On relection, I think I would sometimes like to walk with a sympathetic companion from time to time - but it's difficult to find the right person.

Friko said...

I am amazed by he number of people I have met here in cyberspace who are, like me, happy to be alone and rarely, if ever, feel lonely.

To have to compromise for long is almost impossible for me as I get older.

Ruth said...

I've been waiting to get in here and read and listen to your post for a few days now. Phew. It's Sunday, I'm alone (but not lonely), and here I am.

The video you created is wonderful. I love how the music is a fine companion to the images, a quiet background companion. I LOVE the quote from Kipling. Wild, we need more wild. We have to find the wild in ourselves, and that's what we keep getting back to, especially outdoors.

A few years ago I was turning 50, and my husband and sisters thought it would be a great idea for me to go to Paris, knowing how I love it. It turned out that no one could go along! So I spent a week there by myself. I relished the idea ahead of time, for just the reasons you give here: getting to go and do just where and what I wanted without any compromise. By about the fourth day I was feeling lonely though. I wanted someone at the end of the day to converse with and share the beauties with. Thankfully I had my laptop with me, and I could g-chat with family and friends when I had insomnia. I think it's great to meet new people in new places. I also think it's nice to do as my sister and I do in Paris: go off on our own during the day, and meet up at supper time and eat and tell each other what we did.

I haven't done a trek solo as you've done, but I imagine that the soul-filling contemplation of walking alone in nature for so many days must be tremendous.

Beautiful post.

More Than Meets the I said...

The distinction between being 'alone' and 'lonely' is so beautifully and profoundly put. I also loved your videos. They reminded me of that remote untouched landscape in rural Northern Greece, where my grandparents used to live, when they were able to take care of themselves. My grandfather lies there. Wandering around those forgotten paths from time time is like a pilgrimage to me...

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, to be happily alone with one's own thoughts and one's own 'companionship' - for even quite long periods - then to reemerge into society for a while, and enjoy that too ... I'm convinced this is the secret of a fulfilling life.

Some people can not bear their own company, and have to have others milling about the whole time - or at least the radio, TV or CD player on. Other people, by contrast, feel so disllusioned by their fellow man that they can't take part in any communal activity at all.

I suppose I'm somewhere between the two extremes - but veering more towards the solitudinous.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Friko, Ruth and More Than Meets the I for your great comments.

Ruth - yes, I know what you mean about someone to 'share the beauties with'. I miss that sometimes - on a long, solitary trek. However, you can't have everything, I suppose.

Tramp said...

Meaningful videos of the world at walking pace in these last two posts. That one foot in front of the other and personal experience of the world around us taken in at slow tempo.
...Tramp

Luiza said...

This post touched my pilgrim heart. Your video takes me back to VDLP, I am there once again. Thank you Robert.

I walk alone as my pace is slower than most folks. However, I enjoy company at the end of the day. I have walked solitary Camino's and others with companions - I have enjoyed all my walks.

We are not all solitary my Solitary Walker friend. Some share the womb and enter this life with another by their side. Then find a need to separate. I walked my first pilgrimage trying to understand my twin. Lo and behold I met an Inuit midwife from Canada and walked with her for the last two weeks. She helped bring me to acceptance and understanding of a negative twin relationship. Simple case of the Camino giving me what I needed.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Tramp, for stopping by. Hope everything is OK in your neck of the woods?

And, Luiza, you've inspired me to post another of my Youtube Via de la Plata videos on this blog! Hope you enjoy. (And, despite the bleakness, there are actually some people in this one! And some wonderful people. I remember them so well.)

A great story about the 'negative twin relationship'.

Phoenix C. said...

Love the music - will look up Eliza Gilkyson.

Really enjoyed this post, SW, which I'm visiting again after a previous read of it. Walking in solitude and in company are two completely different experiences for me, both of which I love. I'm lucky to have people who don't detract from the walking experience, but add their cherished personalities and enhance the interaction with nature.

And one of the best things is reliving the walk again afterwards, together with them, and alone.

The Cranky Crone, she lives alone! said...

Yes I feel the same about walking alone, I have my favourite plants I keep and I eye on and tree's views, ground, bark to my horror one day I had company, who actually trod on a clump of sprouting snowdrops, and no matter how much passion or joy I have about something I can see that the person I am with does not quite get it.
I feel like I have been on a meditation after a walk, if I dont have it once a day, I feel out of kilter.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Phoenix ... and Cranky Crone (what a brilliant name!) - yes, walking can be a supremely meditative experience, I find.