By Zoë Rom
It was way too late when I finally realized I was off trail.
The rocky wash I had mistaken for a path spit me out in a grassy clearing, strewn with boulders and wildflowers. My own heavy breathing and the sounds of a much softer breeze playing in the aspen branches were the only discernible sounds. I was still, listening intently for some other sign of life outside of the small rustlings in the grass. I was alone - and had never been less lonely.
Loneliness and solitude are all too often confused. Always the introvert, I’ve been known to wake up well before dawn and drive for hours in search of solitude down singletrack trail or on a lesser-known peak. I will use a paper map, throwing my phone into the depths of my car to eradicate digital distractions. There are no signs or Strava segments. I am followed only by my shadow cast in the early morning light.
Runners, specifically trail runners, are perhaps an infamously solitary species. While group runs are great and provide an opportunity to share a morning spent outside with others deep in love with running, sometimes, I get greedy. I want to keep it all - the cool breeze, smell of pine, and crunch of gravel beneath my feet - to myself. I want to revel in valleys and vistas that I alone can see. I want to drink it all in and leave nothing behind but the outlinesof my own two feet.
I’m a different person out there. So much braver, and honest, and lovely when I’m exploring alpine treads alone. Free from the weight of expectations of who I am or what I’m supposed to be, I feel like I can fly. Unencumbered by company or society of any sort, I can soar over hilltops - singing, laughing, and dancing by myself. I expand to fit the space I’m given. So I’m always looking for wider, emptier spaces to grow in. I love the feeling of being beholden to nothing - no time, no expectations, alone and free in theforest. No one knows where I am. They couldn’t find me if they tried. I feel like the most expansive, most solid, most real version of myself when I am simply running down some forgotten dirt road. It’s a version of myself that sometimes I wish others could see, but that I alone have the privilege of knowing.
I don’t listen to music, because I can’t stand the idea of missing a single thought or sensation. I want to inhabit each step, each breath with as much presence as I can muster. Sometimes I’ll take pictures - my social stream is filled with images of solitary trails winding into the distance. The photos will be unlabeled - perhaps because the trail doesn’t have a name. Perhaps there is no trail at all. Sometimes, I just like to keep it a secret. I preserve the intimacy I’ve found with the trail deep within myself, only examining it in moments of true solitude.
I think this makes people uncomfortable. They haven’t felt the same happiness and communion I’ve experienced with just myself. When I’m alone on the trail strong, sufficient. More complete than I could ever be in the presence of others.
I was recently asked,
“Don’t you ever get lonely, spending all that time by yourself?”
No. No, I don’t. I’ve found more company in the rocks and trees and winding trail than I could ever need. There is fellowship with the sun and the breeze and with myself - unbound and weightless, soaring down the trail.