Self-Reliance and Interdependence in the Woods

I’m 700 miles into the Appalachian Trail (you can catch up on the journey herehere and here), and this year I’ve found some truly wonderful friends that have helped me get through rain and pain. I came out here last year and this year solo, looking to discover my “self” at the outer limits of my abilities, and prove to myself that I could do it despite being utterly terrified of nearly everything. But after two weeks of pouring rain hiking alone last year I started to get pretty lonely. I wondered how Thoreau could have loved so much solitude, why I was having so much trouble when I had loved hiking alone as a kid, and I started thinking I was too social or too fragile to go it alone for so long.

Emerson writes in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” On the surface, it seems simple enough but we never live in isolation, we live in relation to each other and an environment; we can always find differing opinions and perspectives so what’s true for me isn’t going to be true for you; and we are never truly, completely independent. So what does Emerson mean by self-reliance, really? 

In his biography of Emerson, Robert Richardson argues that Emerson’s first wife taught him that in order to be truly independent we must acknowledge our interdependence. That’s something that the trail taught me in the last two weeks. I came out here alone, found good people along the way, started hiking with them, and found myself laughing and enjoying myself on days that would have been excruciating without companionship. I still hike alone for several miles at a time, but I prefer to share beautiful views with friendly companions, and to share the brutal moments with people who make me laugh at pain to lessen it. I enjoy seeing smiling faces, helping one another with chores at camp, and offering words of support (sometimes singing them), which really make a huge difference when out in the woods for so long. I am stronger and more self-reliant when I embrace interdependence; true friends keep me honest, hold me accountable, and guide me to do whatever is best and true for me.

Thoreau had Alcott, Emerson, and Channing as his companions and made frequent visits to friends houses, enjoying conversations throughout his time at Walden Pond. And even when he glorifies solitude in Walden, it sounds more like he is trying to convince himself of his love for it. He writes, “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud,” comparing himself to one of the looniest-sounding birds at Walden Pond. There are other moments when his loneliness seeps into his writing. After the train cars go by, “and all the restless world with them,” he is “more alone than ever” and although he does not express feeling lonely, his meditations have been interrupted by the sudden noise and quiet that follows. He also feels a “slight insanity in mood” in the quiet before the sound of pattering rain embraces him. So he wasn’t exactly comfortable with being alone all of the time, either. I can sympathize. 

In my heart I believe that life is relational, and that that is not only true for all humans but for all living things. I found my “self” as soon as I started being my own best friend, climbing the steep trek up Mt. Madison three years ago. As Thoreau says, we should try to be beside ourselves in a sane sense. On Madison, I made myself laugh, encouraged myself to push on when it hurt, and was far more generous and understanding about my slow progress than I would normally be. I often push myself to my physical limits–testing my body and willing it to go farther. But I also judge myself constantly, not just on the trail but also in life. I’m hard on myself when I make mistakes, compete with myself to do better, and I rarely celebrate an accomplishment because I’m already looking at the next goal. That’s not what I did on Madison, the mountain that taught me what I’m really made of.

If I can be generous and kind to others, love their passion and ambition, their inventiveness and thoughtfulness, then I would do well to love myself and be kinder, gentler — especially in the moments when I’m pushing myself to the sharp edge of what I’m capable of. So what if I get lonely? Is that so wrong? Does that make me weak? I’m not desperate for company, I wouldn’t compromise to spend time with people who aren’t good for me, so what’s the shame in wanting to enjoy beauty and pain with others? I don’t feel that shame anymore thanks to the wonderful people I’ve met in the last 200 miles, who say “I’m having the time of my life” while hiking up a steep hill in pouring down rain with giant packs full of their recent resupply. It’s not always about the miles out here — it’s about the generosity of strangers, the kindness of other hikers, putting in time together to sort out problems we face off-trail, and to see and experience America.

I’m on my way to Harper’s Ferry and will have to say goodbyes to some really good people in a couple hundred miles. I’ll be celebrating their walk to Maine for the rest of the summer, following their progress, and looking forward to meeting more good people next year. As I said to another long section hiker, it’s nice to have a little bit of trail to come home to next year. 

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