This past weekend, the weekend before Christmas, I went to Moab. I had an extra vacation day to use up before the end of the year, and so I decided to head west, to see Arches National Park and Canyonlands in winter, to camp in the snow for the first time. But most of all, to be alone.
When I pulled into Arches National Park around 3pm on Friday, there were 4 cars in the Visitor Center parking lot. I drove to the Park Avenue lookout, past the Courthouse Towers lookout and to Balanced Rock. I saw less than 10 cars. As I drove towards the Devil’s Garden campground, I kept oscillating between the amazement of how beautiful this place was, and the eeriness of how empty it was. I wasn’t quite sure what I had gotten myself into.
I grabbed spot #19 at the campground, a pull-through spot on the top of a hill. The site faced northwest and opened out onto a giant rock fin. There were about 2 inches of snow on the ground, but I set up my tent anyways. Of the 25 sites that are open at Arches during the winter, 5 or 6 of them were occupied for the night.
When I finally sat down beside the fire, watching the clouds light up as the sun sank below the rocks to the southwest, I took a look around and knew I had made the right decision to come. I didn’t talk to anyone for another 24 hours.
I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.
– Edward Abbey
Feeling lonely in a city, among a group of friends, or in a large social setting can feel melancholy. But when in the woods, at a national park, on a trail or beside a campfire, lonely is beautiful. It doesn’t feel so desolate and isn’t as draining. It’s quiet and calm.
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.
– Cheryl Strayed
Which isn’t to say that I’ve never feel the darker side of loneliness. Nine times out of ten I can be perfectly content to be on my own, to go on solo hiking and camping adventures, to crave traveling alone, to hang in on a Saturday night with Netflix and my cat. But like clockwork, there is that tenth time where my chest hurts, and I feel empty.
But I’ve found that it’s more helpful to embrace loneliness instead of struggling against it. On Saturday morning I woke up in the dark and drove to Canyonlands to watch the sunrise from Mesa Arch. There were 5-6 other people there, who got out of their cars at 7am in the frigid temperatures to photograph the sunrise with their DSLRs and tripods. A few of them chatted. I watched the sky, listened, said nothing.
As I drove out of town Sunday morning, I thought about my weekend. Quiet, lovely, lonely, beautiful, amazing, badass & wild. But don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t lonely in the worst way. It was lonely in the best.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
– Mary Oliver