Susan Conrad answers the question: why solo?
I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself…
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Since Inside was released in mid-May, I’ve given 38 slideshow presentations throughout the country. My book tour has taken me up and down both the left and right coasts, up to Alaska, into a couple of landlocked states, and a lovely mini-tour through Canada’s Gulf Islands. I enjoy how some of the more introspective information is revealed organically in the Q&A at the end of each talk.
One question I am often asked is “why solo?” A Sierra Club member in Corvallis, Oregon recently posed my all-time favorite version of this question. “How would your trip have been different if you hadn’t gone solo?” she asked. In hindsight, I’m disappointed at my answer. Now that I’ve had the time and space to truly think about that astute question, this is what I wished I had said that evening.
Solitude was at the heart of my journey. At many points on the Inside Passage I was indeed alone, but rarely lonely. It was a palpable feeling—being out there in the thick of everything—as nature unfolded, leaving me wide open to fully experience the awe of it all. On a solo adventure I’m alone in my world, free to explore at my own pace; my experience is mine and no one else. I’m simply a part of it all, and intricately a part of something much bigger. To paddle for days on end, with no form of human contact is empowering, ever deepening, at times surreal. Rather than equate solitude with loneliness or isolation, I pair it with introspection and self-harmony. I believe I was drawn to the sport of sea kayaking because I immediately recognized its potential for solitude. That sublime feeling that would wash over me within a few strokes, that feeling of magic, discovery, and adventure is almost indescribable.
My intention to paddle solo did not stem from a desire to be bold or courageous. Nor did it feel foolhardy. I chose to go solo because I believe there is a clarity that comes with silence, a peaceful understanding and heightened awareness with solitude. The following excerpt from Inside speaks to that awareness so deeply embedded in solitude.
Fatigued, I allowed the tranquility of Zimovia Strait to lull me into complacency, and floated deeper into its potent silence and luminous solitude. But I wasn’t alone. A pair of loons drifted beside me, aware of my presence, yet atypically unafraid. I stopped paddling, simply listened to the quiet, and studied their beauty. A droplet of saltwater clung to the bottom of one’s broad black beak, which led skullward to a tear-shaped eye turned sideways, a blood-red ruby, inset hauntingly into its coal-black face. A triangular band of black and white vertical lines adorned its neck and joined an emerald green choker that encircled the thickest part. Self-assured, the birds floated low in the water, like I did, the top of their checkerboard backs barely above the surface. They called briefly to each other, keeping in touch. I waited patiently to hear their distinctive cry, often a quintessential wail or tremolo that eerily pierced the silence. Now less than ten yards away, both loons simultaneously dipped their necks and knifed their bills underwater. Their broad bodies followed and they slipped out of my sight. I was alone again, breathing in the wholesome, sweet wildness of the Inside Passage.
I was the sole receiver of this experience. Had I been paddling with a group of people, or even one other paddler, this beautiful scenario would not have played out as it did. The loons may have still blessed us with their presence, but I don’t believe I would have had the depth of this experience.
Spending time alone in the wild can be one of life’s greatest teachers. As I prepared for this journey, I believed it would present me with some valuable lessons. And I believed those lessons, and the ability to ponder deeper truths, would best be acquired in solitude. I wanted those lessons to unfold spontaneously; I wanted the experience to be unequivocally mine.
I realized my choice to go solo was risky, but I felt the potential rewards outweighed the possible dangers and accepted the fact that my adventure had an unknown outcome. For that is the ultimate draw of a long journey: the unknown, and all the possibilities of adventure wrapped up in that uncertainty. Solo adventures had always pulled me into a realm of solace and healing, an emotional comfort that I hoped the Inside Passage could also impart.
So, how would my journey have been different if I hadn’t gone solo? Knowing what I know now, I think I would grieve over that lost dimension. There is a heady sense of freedom that comes with being fully accountable for your own actions and making your own decisions; something deeply empowering about relying on your own abilities, strength, and courage. Because of the solitude I experienced on the Inside Passage, I continue to feel a deep gift of gratitude and satisfaction that permeates far beyond the physical beauty I experienced. An aliveness, a sense of being truly present, a heightened awareness that goes beyond a sensory awareness and taps into an emotional awareness, a conscious awareness. By having the opportunity to experience life on this deeper level, it became clear to me that we are all intrinsically connected. It’s this interconnectedness, combined with periods of solitude and introspection, that helps us become better versions of ourselves.
Just as quality companionship is a gift, so too is delicious alone time. Can you describe a special time in your life where you discovered how precious alone time could be?
Susan Conrad loves to paddle long distances, both solo and with small groups. In 2010 she paddled the Inside Passage solo from Anacortes, WA to Juneau, AK, a distance of 1,148 miles. For more information on her journey see Susan’s book “Inside: One Woman’s Journey Through the Inside Passage.