I bet you totally thought this was going to be about free soloing. It’s not. In fact, this one isn’t even about climbing. This is a piece I submitted to the podcast the Dirtbag Diaries. It wasn’t accepted but a different one was. It’s due out this fall, and once it airs I’ll post the transcript to it.
Like a lot of people, outdoor adventure has had a profound impact on my life. While I was living (really, it was more like dying) in Abilene, Texas my life diverged. I zigged instead of zagged. That zig was adventuring.
It started with a canoe trip down a snake infested creek with my best friend and adventure partner Nic the Hispanic Titanic Martinez. I had been canoeing exactly once before. “Don’t worry. You’re from Wisconsin, it’s in your blood” Nic assured me. Nic is tough the way rawhide is tough. When Nic was a kid, and I mean 10 or 11, he’d take off on horseback with his rifle and his dog and disappear into the void that is the west Texan desert, and as long as he was home in time for school the next day his mom wouldn’t get mad or form a search party.
Nic has always adventured solo. It’s kind of just how he’s hard wired. Unless he’s with his daughters, he shows up alone, does his own thing and drifts off when he’s had enough. I begged him for months to take me out with him sometime, but I had to work to prove my worth. Eventually I earned my place at the fire and one by one we racked up adventures.
To most people, a lot of what we did would seem benign. We’d trespass through brush fields and mesquite forests with our knives and tomahawks, always very quietly, because in Texas they shoot trespassers. We paddled creeks that were filled with trash from nearby towns, alligator snapping turtles, and cottonmouths. We camped in dried lake beds and in parks that no one ever used. We drove for hours and hours until we were so remote it was a bit uncomfortable and we’d hike, or paddle, or camp and drink beer and whiskey, and smoke grass and cigarettes and get cut up by thorns, mesquite, cactus and barbed wire, dodge rattle snakes and boar and get stung by all manner of bugs and minions of the devil himself and burned, oh god burned by that awful sun. We were side by side for years. Whe you said our names, Nic and Keith, it was one word.
And then Nic moved to Kentucky. A couple weeks later so did the rest of his family. I was devastated. I was alone. The day we parted he said to me “Promise me you won’t stop adventuring just because you have to go by yourself.” I made good on that promise.
The first few times I went out it felt wrong. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t even know where to go. I had always relied on Nic. For direction, for the gear, for the plan, hell, for the tent even. But he taught me well and left we with several fine knives, a couple good blankets and a good compass. Little by little I found new places to trespass, new boring parks to illegally camp at, and awful new streams with new trash dams to portage. A couple times I went to the places he and I went to, but they seemed dead. Like they didn’t even want me there in the first place. So, I left.
I mean, I left Texas. A little over a year and a half after Nic and his family left, I did, too. They went east and I went west, bound for great adventures with my buddy Legs, whom I met protesting pipelines in the desert near Mexico, just outside of Big Bend National Park. He left his mom, and I left my wife and we both left Texas with a simple plan: Go west. All the way west, to the Pacific Ocean (since neither of us had seen it) after visiting some water protector camps along the way. And after that… we didn’t know. Probably head south and go see some people we knew in California or something.
After a long trip north to White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota, Legs and I made it as far west as 70 miles outside Pierre, South Dakota, and then the motor in my Subaru exploded. We coasted to the side of the road, got towed back to Ft. Pierre, and I spent the next three weeks waiting on a new motor and living in the back of my car with both of my dogs behind a gas station sweating out the summer heat and trying not to be seen by the police.
One stoned and incredibly drunken night or two before my new motor arrived Legs and I talked and decided to split up.
He was going west, all the way west, he said, and I was going… I didn’t know. So I headed east, alone, and I went to Wisconsin for my Grandmother’s funeral (which was actually in Illinois, but that’s besides the point) and then south to Texas and then my soon-to-be-ex-wife said she needed to be alone and I got that because so did I, and even though it was painful for both of us we kept on divorcing and I left Texas for good this time. For the first time since I was 21 and left for the Air Force, I was off on some grand adventure all by myself. So, I went north, back to Wisconsin.
I didn’t have anyone to adventure with, and that was ok with me. I loved it. I hiked every small park near my parents’ house in the same backwater village I grew up in. I explored the nearby fairgrounds and the small towns I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I road tripped, and got into politics, and found new bars to hang out in, and camped in Wisconsin state parks and I got my own tent that I took on camping and rock-climbing trips. I paddled rivers that had currents and no poisonous snakes (sometimes with my cousin Mike) and I eventually I made it all the way west and stood barefoot in the Pacific Ocean with my dogs on New Year’s Day and I listened to Long December like I do every New Year’s Day and I sobbed. And when Portland didn’t work, I came back to Wisconsin, moved to Madison and started rock climbing. I did that by myself. All of it. Even climbing. I bouldered and went to classes and events and hung out at REI and the local climbing shop and climbing gym and sat by myself and read and got all my own gear and rope and just kept going out by myself until the gods sent me climbing partners. And I love the relationship and teamwork of climbing. I like having a partner. Adventures are great when you have a partner. But the thing about adventuring alone is:
You get to do it at your own pace, your own speed. You can stop when you want and press on when you want. You can go out to paddle or hike and if you get there and decide to bag it because you’d rather just sit there and get high because it’s a beautiful day, you can. If you want to stay out an extra day and call in sick to work, you can. If you just want to sit on the shore and drink beer because you’re sad and wish you had someone to adventure with, that’s ok too, because it’s totally your space. If you want to quit your job and pick up and take another stab at going out west and crossing those mountains, that’s totally ok too.
You quickly learn what does and doesn’t work for you. Shoes, tents, climbing gear, what you need to eat, how long you can go without eating, how long you can stand your own smell. There’s no one to borrow something from so you learn what you need and you learn how to make do. You get good at carrying more than what you need because there’s never anyone to share your load. For that same reason you learn how to pair down to next to nothing, and you see how long you can go with as little as possible because when you run out, remember, there’s no one with an extra can of peanuts or an extra smoke or to get your fire going on a windy night when all the wood is wet.
Most of all you get to know yourself really well when you adventure solo. I met a guy in a bar once (he was there with several friends and I was there alone) and he asked me “You’re just sitting here all by yourself?” “ah-yup” “And that don’t bother you” “nope” “Man, I just don’t think I could sit and hang out by myself like that. I just don’ think I’d like it.” I felt bad for that guy: uncomfortable in his own company. We’re bombarded with messaging that solitude is bad. That it’s the realm of those cast out. But life beyond the pale is where you’re confronted with yourself. You’re surrounded with nothing but miles and endless miles of you. It’s either acceptance, or ego death, and it can be a bit terrifying.
Solitude shows you the questions you’ve been looking for. It’s within yourself that you start discovering the answers. Like stray trees errantly growing on deserted plains you find your truths. You find your boundaries on desolate roads and you park your car and walk into the void because out there on some hill, you’re waiting for you to come discover yourself. Out there on your own you start to construct a very healthy and authentic sense of who you are. Because out there in the desert when you finally run out of places to hide and no longer have the energy to run, you’re left with nothing but the truth about you, whether or not you want to accept it.
One particularly lonely day in my old apartment I got to really missing having someone around. It had been several weeks since anyone had come by and I got to thinking, “If someone were here right now, what are some things that they could do that would make you feel loved?” And all the answers I came up with, I started doing for myself. I cooked, I picked up, I said nice things to myself and I stopped letting myself be mean to me. I made good choices and healthy choices and I did laundry and folded towels, picked my underwear up off the floor, got groceries, went on walks and had movie night with myself where I’d wear pajamas and cuddle under a warm blanket on a cold night with cheap beer and pizza. The person that does all those things for me, I met him adventuring by myself.
All of this is not to say that adventuring solo is better. I’m merely pointing out a few of the many lessons I’ve learned, and the understandings I’ve come to and the stoned wisdom ascertained by getting into and out of some incredibly mundane and some exceptionally dangerous situations by myself. Adventuring with someone has many advantages that soloing can’t compare to, no doubt. But there are volumes on adventuring together, but little, it seems on the value of going it alone.
2020 was the year of going it alone. And a lot of us didn’t so well with it. Being alone can be uncomfortable, and it can be awful. But don’t let that be the reason you miss out on adventure. Instead, make it your new adventure. Make you your new adventure partner. If there’s a place you’ve been wanting to go or thing you’ve been wanting to do or see, go. Right now. Pack your bags and leave town. Go paddle that river you’ve always wanted to, take up that activity you’ve always wanted to, get on your bike or skateboard or in your car and don’t stop until you run out of road. Go find your Pacific Ocean, go climb that fucking mountain. It won’t get done just dreaming about it, no one’s going to do it for you, and if you say you can’t find someone to do it with I have a hundred dollars that says if you ask yourself to go with, they’d say yes.
See you on down the line,