It is eerily empty here in the Capitol Reef red rocks boondocking area. The rest of the gang pulled out early this morning bound for Kodachrome Basin, while I am headed east to cross a couple more national parks off my never-ending task master of a bucket list. But without a list, I lose track of my desires. And without desires, there is no expansion, no growth. Right?
This campground that has been my landing strip for the past week is now empty. It will forever hold the memory in my personal history book as my first boondock following retirement, and the first page in the next chapter of my life. I take some time to walk around the campground after the others have left. It feels like an empty movie set now. Void of energy. The wind is blowing up some ghostly-looking swirls of red dust around me. I want to leave and I don’t want to leave. I seem to be lacking focus, but I guess that is to be expected after leaving a job of 24 years.
I decide on a solo hike in Lower Spring Canyon to clear my head and adjust my mindset toward once again traveling solo. The walls of the canyon are so vivid from the sun’s reflection off the red rocks that it looks like my eyeballs are bleeding.
I wander through these hallowed walls for almost four hours, marveling at the beauty of nature’s impermanent sculpture garden against the stark architectural angles of the canyon walls. I am filled with awe to have such a place all to myself.
I have always enjoyed solo hiking. Since I don’t need to focus on keeping pace with others, I spend more time reflecting, basking, and pondering quotes like Emerson’s “Adapt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” Instead of worrisome thoughts about whether or not I will be able to keep up, always focused on boot heels in front of me, I relax more. I see more of the vegetation along the path, the rock formations, the topography that unfolds in front of me. I hear more of the clicking of insects and melodic birdsong. And I embrace the sound of my own labored breath in the silence, rather than worry that others will perceive it as struggle.
But hiking with the gang has given me new insight into the joy that can come from exploring with people who share my same lust for adventure and the outdoors, particularly those with a higher skill level than mine. I have always wished for a group of friends who would inspire me to “take it up a notch.” While doing things like scrambling over boulders and fording streams, all at once I am a kid again back down on the farm, following in my big brother’s footsteps. Doing crazy stuff like “base jumping” out of the second floor barn door with my Barbie parasol as a parachute. Tunneling through my Dad’s wheat fields like a maze. Flying over terraces on my bicycle. That feeling of elation makes me realize being a kid again is not something I have done much of over the past 30 years.
So as with everything in life, being solo versus caravanning with friends is a tradeoff. Surrendering one’s ego to always be at the back of the pack can offer rewards of greater exploration to places I might not otherwise have the nerve to go alone. Giving up intimate immersion in the solitude of nature is worthy of the sacrifice to share laughs from an adrenalin rush. As I wander the hallowed halls of Lower Spring Canyon, the rhythm of my lone footsteps echoing off the steep sandstone walls, I ponder whether is it possible to have the best of both worlds. I don’t know, but I sure would like to try…