One of the most famous quotations from Thoreau goes: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” In this way, I went to Montaña de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo because I wanted to escape Los Angeles deliberately, to carry to my hike-in environmental site the nonperishable basics, and to break from/break up the inertia* at my work and relationships back home. And so I was fortunate enough to reserve a spot away from the other campsites, even during Labor Day weekend. I supposed that no one really wanted to have to hike to their campsite. To me, the thought of doing this alone, and away from others, yet close to the beach, sounded perfect.
And while it’s easy for an introvert like me to romanticize “alone time” to a degree that merely stirs the cauldron of isolation, I know myself well enough that alone time in nature means confronting countless irrational fears, followed by a deep appreciation for life by morning. The woods are terrifyingly useful to my soul. The critters of those hills would make my heart pound. And so I brought earplugs. Blessed, blessed earplugs.
Settling to the Site
To back up a bit: Driving through Los Osos into the park was a lovely, peaceful journey. I found that I couldn’t type this place as I might a wealthier hippie coastal town like Encinitas, CA. It felt “just as it is,” unshowy, real, eucalyptus-laden. Something about the roads were wavy-soft like the bluffs I’d soon enjoy at sunset near Spooners Cove.** (If you do nothing else out here, try to make it to this cove in the early morning. And if you’ve the upper body strength, hoist yourself onto the main rock slab and enjoy the private beach on top, complete with a cozy cave.)
Once I parked at Camp Keep (Kern Environmental Education Program), I backpacked in my tent and goods up a route that passes Keep’s lovely geodesic tent dome, a garden, several bungalows, and a shiny yellow school bus. One veers left from there and up a wash, eventually arriving at one of the two campsites on the left off Bloody Nose Trail, which couldn’t have been more than 1/4 mile from the designated parking. My site was the further one.
Once settled, out of a perhaps inordinate fear of mountain lions, I then pissed at the boundary of my site near the trail to mark the area. (This was something I saw Bear Grylls do on his show Man Versus Wild, but he had good cause in his case. I was just relieving my fears and hopefully some useful testosterone.) I then walked down to the car to explore Spooners Cove and walk the bluffs for a couple miles.
I enjoy nature in part because nature doesn’t give one flying squirrel fuck about me. It delivers a robust indifference and clean air. The only real danger out here would be a dusk or dawn hike alone, as a puma could maybe pounce at such a time. Doubtful, but a great reason for a paranoid like me to sleep in. Anyway, back home the danger was that I was in an emotional rut; I wasn’t writing, creating. I was in a relationship that was doomed to end soon due to her circumstances. Work itself was a great albatross around my neck. I was immersed in compulsive behavior. That’s enough to list.
To Live Alone
As I relaxed with sundown, I thought to myself, “What the hell did I do this for?” I may have even mumbled this. The loneliness had voiced itself. There was this sense that I had sucker-punched myself into solitude with a half-baked camping plan. I reflected on Nietzsche reflecting on Aristotle: “To live alone one must be either a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both – a philosopher.” I felt less of a philosopher than an awkward beast, but one that was cognizant and culpable for being alone. And then I found myself curious why I thought myself “culpable.” There’s a kind of self-blame inherent to loneliness. And I hadn’t yet let go of my chatty narratives to immerse myself in solitude.
As the sun dropped further, I began to relax into the bird calls. I imagined them like orchestral members doing their sound checks. Two woodwinds, and a percussionist that issued the ribbed sound of a zydeco washboard. When the avian ensemble wound down, the headlining crickets were on stage by 8:00 p.m. My plantar faciitis was lit up from the bluffs hike.
And soon the waves in the distance grew louder as the cars became infrequent. The waves seemed to increase in power, and the crickets chirped powerfully in a way that a city cannot hear (and just as a city cannot see the depths of the Milky Way). I looked above and felt a protective love – the eucalyptus trees reaching toward each other concentrically, leaving enough room for sky, me. In my head I said, “I heard on Radiolab how you guys network and communicate.” Immediately, I felt the response, “Of course we speak to each other.”
Meditating in Darkness
It was tent time as the darkness blanketed. And within minutes of shutting things off, the critters were ready to rummage. One raccoon, I presume, was at my bag on the picnic table, and seemed to check for 30 minutes to make sure the empty water bottles truly didn’t have anything yummy. I had knotted the tasty goods in the locker by the table; the creatures didn’t seem to even try to deal with that. There was something slightly amusing about the intricate, relaxed search of that raccoon, and I found myself calming my breathing, even smiling, as my ears were fixated on every cracked leaf and puttering animal. It was the human-like steps in the woods to the left of my tent that forced me to do the real existential meditation: If it’s a human, that human could be a murderer, in which case you’re dead. It’s likely not a human or human murderer, so it’s likely another raccoon or three. A mountain lion would prefer to stalk you, so it’s likely not that. There are no bears, and you have no decent food scent in the tent, so you will live. Most likely.
Such went the cognitive therapy coaching, which gave me a “very likely going to live” prognosis. It was the calmest that a neurotic mind was gonna get. Also, it was at this point that the earplugs definitely helped. And somehow I slept pretty well, and slept ’til 7:00 a.m. Then I packed up everything and hiked out, threw it all in the car, and made it to Spooners to enjoy the cove, having it nearly all to myself. Brewed some coffee with my propane burner by my car, and sipped as I walked along to that calcified slab in the waves.
It had been the first solo trip–ever? in a long time?–where my emotional chemistry wasn’t composed mostly of loneliness. Sure, that narrative came up, but I let the voice of immersion and nature speak louder. I had felt, in fact, protected and with a surrounding that was largely friendly, if happily “indifferent.” I had felt that I had provided myself enough deliberate space to write, and read, and relax.
I had found that I would not second-guess the richness of my inner life.