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Nothing like the joy of a solo walk

September 21, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

One of the things that makes me a happy traveler is walking alone someplace beautiful. I tried it for the first time in Avebury, a medieval village surrounded by ancient stone circles in the county of Wiltshire, about 75 miles west of London. There, public rights of way wind over the downs that bubble up from the valley floors, like soup at a gentle simmer. The grades are easy, and the turf is so springy that it cries out to be tramped on.

One deliriously lovely spring day, I set out on the Ridgeway Path, a track that has linked channel ports to the River Thames since prehistoric times, cleaving to the airy crest of Wiltshire's chalk downs most of the way. My preparations were scant: In my backpack, I carried sandwiches, chocolate, water, an Ordnance Survey map and a poncho. But there was really nothing to worry about. I couldn't die of hunger or exposure on a path so close to civilization, and sheep were the region's wildest beasts.

This is what made the day blissful: the all's-right-with-the-world English countryside; finding my way, like a child on a scavenger hunt; the peanut butter sandwiches that tasted better than caviar on toast points; and, above all, being alone in a peerless way, hearing only my own voice in my ear and liking what it said.

"Alone we can afford to be wholly whatever we are," poet and novelist May Sarton wrote, "and to feel whatever we feel absolutely."

Vermont writer and outdoorswoman Wendy Knight understands the allure of solo hiking and backpacking. "Being outdoors alone soothes my soul," she told me recently. "I'm more relaxed and attuned to the natural world. The thought of going with someone else takes away from it."

I've gone backpacking with my brother and taken walking tours with groups of strangers who became my friends, most memorably many years ago through the Anti-Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. But it's the prospect of walking alone that makes my heart leap, though I know it's unwise in many places.

Last summer I hiked the Highline Trail in Montana's Glacier National Park. The trail, which crosses the tundra from Logan Pass to a stone chalet in the mountains, is my idea of a perfect path, mostly level, passing bighorn sheep, melting ice fields, walls of scree, meadows of wildflowers. But because grizzlies frequent it, the national park urges hikers not to walk it alone. I found people at the trail head to walk with, talking and laughing along the way. But I never heard the voice inside my head, a small price to pay, I guess, for not getting eaten by a bear.

"We don't prohibit hiking alone, but we don't recommend it," says Randy Coffman, who is the branch chief, emergency services division of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., which mounts about 4,500 search-and-rescue missions a year. "If an accident should occur when you're alone, it may be more difficult to get help."

Coffman says some hazards -- avalanches, snowstorms, rock falls, altitude sickness, wild animals -- can't be minimized even by preparation and well-honed backcountry skills.

He reminded me of the solo climber whose arm was pinned under an 800-pound boulder in Utah's Canyonlands National Park in April. Weakened and desperate, Aron Ralston escaped on the fifth day of his trial by cutting off part of his arm to free himself, then hiking to safety. "He was experienced," Coffman says, "but Mother Nature doesn't preselect who might get in trouble."

People who are drawn to solo adventures in remote, rugged places must be fit and skillful at the very least. "If you hike alone, you have to be able to do everything you might otherwise count on someone else for," says Heather Clish, director of trails for the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club. "That includes route finding with a map and compass. You can't rely on fancy gear or anything with a battery [such as a cell phone] to pull you through."

Clish and Coffman also emphasize the importance of letting others know where you're going and when you expect to return. "File an itinerary with the park's backcountry office, and give it to someone at home," Coffman says.

My approach to keeping safe when I go walking alone is to choose a countryside with minimal dangers. I don't go alone in wild places, such as the grizzly habitats along Glacier's Highline Trail, because I haven't the stamina or skills; even if I did, I doubt I'd be able to use them when faced with a grizzly or pinned by a boulder.

Admittedly, I'm often tempted, but giving in to the urge or misjudging the dangers of a seemingly benign place has gotten me into trouble.

On the French Polynesian island of Huahine, I once set off along a short, easy trail through the jungle, never dreaming I would be surrounded and chased by a pack of wild dogs. Despite having been warned not to hike alone on trails above the town of Dharmsala in northern India, I let myself get separated from my companions and had to brave my way past a gang of jeering, grabbing young toughs. And last year I was mugged at knifepoint on a heavily used dirt road near the town of Batopilas at the bottom of Mexico's Copper Canyon. Luck and good lungs for screaming saved me.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but I'm still drawn to venture out alone, which I try to do carefully. I don't need to climb Mt. Everest, but I do yearn to hear the voice that speaks only when I walk in beauty on my own.

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