Often at night while staring up at the familiar wrinkles of tent ceiling there are fleeting longings for someone to talk to, to be a listener for. It is an awareness that can quickly be dismissed. My mind wanders and then re-centers. I return to simultaneously coloring and focusing on the voices of the modern storytellers of favorite podcasts. There will be a lifetime more of such instances.
Sometimes while camping the only conversations I have for days is with myself. It is then when I itch to stretch out into the world and seek a friendly soul to connect with. One time I found myself on Tinder, which I have happily deleted twice since. Through the app I stumbled upon a local near my campground in Acadia National Park. After a few days of texting banter we met up for a couple beers. It was light and fun, as natural as a Tinder meet up in the midst of camping can be. At some point afterward he texted “Thank you for an enjoyable afternoon! It’s refreshing to meet folks of the other gender without there being expectations beyond meeting someone.” You have no idea, Evan.
Several weeks ago I had a cliché moment of being alone in a crowded room. A friend of a friend had recommended an arcade bar in Kansas City. Within minutes of arriving I was electric. The energy of the crowd, extensive beer selection, and the nostalgic symphony of coin-operated games were the adult version of childhood dreams. I wandered around with a beer in one hand and a cup of tokens in the other. It was crowded so I waited for a turn on some of the games, but after awhile I felt incredibly awkward and self conscious. I was the only solo person there among groups of exuberant friends and playful couples. Cliques of all sizes. I smiled a lot but did not approach anyone. There didn’t seem to be any natural opportunity to strike up a conversation with anyone and no one paid me any attention. I gave up after an hour and a half. Having not socialized or played one game, I was deflated. I desperately wanted to be part of the fun, but the longer I stayed the more I felt like the new kid in school. A call to my sister, for reassurance that my being a wallflower in large social settings doesn’t make me any less cool, was needed before I could tuck my tail between my legs and retreat back to my AirBnb for the night.
And then there was the time I marooned myself on an island in Voyageurs National Park with intentions of adventure and an out-of-the-box experience.
After failing with the first attempt of launching a packed sea kayak into the water, barely avoiding an embarrassing full body topple into the green lake, I carefully pushed off from shore with a second attempt. During the forty-five minute journey to the island I felt empowered. I was a woman free to bend the rules and expectations of the norm. Showered by the glow of dusk, I made my way to Moxie Island.
At some dark hour that first night I was awoken by a sound of something slapping the water only yards away from me. After the brief state of drunk-like drowsiness that only takes place between sleep and wakefulness, I bolted upright with eyes wide and heart threatening to suffocate me. The nearby disturbance brought to mind a nature documentary scene of Alaskan grizzlies pawing at a stream for salmon. The sound seemed too pronounced to come from the paws of a raccoon. Without so much as a moment of hesitation I grabbed the flashlight, canister of bear spray, and large knife I keep next to my sleeping bag, and leapt out of my tent. “Hey bear!” I bellowed while shining the flashlight toward the area that was my cause of alarm. The sound stopped. I spent the next half hour talking at the darkness and anxiously looking for a glow of eyes to be reflected at the end of my lights beam. Whatever animal had been responsible for my fright was seemingly gone. I finally retreated to the tent and cautiously fell back to sleep. Dawn couldn’t come soon enough. The night continued with many more awakenings caused by the slightest of noises.
At first light I wearily crawled outside. I much preferred the advantage of sight during daylight, so I forced an early start to the day. I entertained myself by attempting to fish, paddling around with the kayak, reading, and sunbathing. By the end of the day the romantic feelings of adventure that had commenced my island excursion were long gone. I suffered through a second night of uncomfortable, interrupted sleep. By the morning of the third day I decided that I was going to head back to shore. Staying for a third and final night secluded on an island was wholly unappealing. The moment I landed back on shore there was an unmistakable, full-bodied sensation of relief. I had made myself stay on the island for longer than was comfortable or enjoyable, and I had done it in spite of myself. For some reason I felt that I needed to stick it out, prove to myself that I could handle anything. But once I was back on shore I instantly realized that there shouldn’t have been anything to prove. I already know that I am capable of taking care of myself in any number of situations.
This journey across the U.S. is not about being miserable for the sake of being brave, it is about being brave enough to listen to my inner voice and following it toward every opportunity of freedom, joy, awe, and growth-inducing challenge.
It was a lesson in the bad habit of self-suffering and punishment, something we all do to ourselves from time to time.
Experiencing the spectrum of human emotions is something to be anticipated, but it still shocks me when I am overcome by one so intense that it takes control of my body, mind, and spirit. Days of raw freedom and nirvana are just as profound as the black hole of loneliness. With all my years on Earth I have learned that the despair and feeling of abandonment that can accompany being solitary, for whatever circumstance, can be remedied by change. A change of attitude. A change of scenery. A physical removal from the place or people that are toxic to the state of my well-being. I know now to call a friend, go for a run, adjust my plans, take charge of the energies that capture me. Although my timing isn’t always expedient, I release myself from the burden of being alone. Again and again and again and again. And I will remember that love and light and a world of tiny, beautiful things is always within reach. Sometimes the struggle to reach out is harder than before, but it is forever worth it. Life can be the most beautiful game of all if you let it.
[divider] Guest Contributor [/divider]
Lauren Ahlgren is an ever-curious adventurer from America’s left coast. She believes that travel is the key to understanding not only ourselves, but the rest of the world, people and cultures, and nature. Her most current passion is to encourage everyday people to become explorers too. Follow along with her road trip here and on moderndaywalkabout.wordpress.com.