The Roots of My Woodsy Solitude

I continued my exploration of the Southwest that existed beyond the cities and towns.  My goal was always to get far beyond, among other things, artificial light and the sight and sound of motor vehicles of any kind.  However, to do so safely and comfortably, some new equipment was in order.  So I replaced my flimsy footwear designed for concrete and asphalt with my first pair of boots manufactured specifically for hiking; my foam rubber mattress with a compact inflatable mattress; my Sears cloth sleeping bag with a down-filled mummy bag; and my little plastic tarp with a one-person backpacking tent with a rain fly.  I purchased a water filter and a container to hold four eggs.  However, my Svea stove still served me well, and I retained my Kelty backpack, which would now no longer be a mere storage locker; like me, it would be a sojourner!

Loading my Kelty―its features, by today’s standards, laughably rudimentary―I experienced an unprecedented feeling of freedom and satisfaction.  From my freeze-dried food to my first-aid kit; from my remarkably lightweight tent and sleeping bag to my “candle lantern”; from my pocket-sized The Sierra Club Trailside Reader to my “snakebite kit”; from the fundamentally physiological to the loftily self-actualizing, I had psychologist Abraham Maslow’s complete “hierarchy of needs” ready to ride comfortably on my back for days and nights well beyond civilization.  United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps, as well as guidebooks by various authors, rounded out my equipment. 

My preferred companion in the Southwest forests and deserts was simply myself.  This way of doing things had deep, if not broad, roots.  At 12, I took my first long solo walk in the outdoors:  While vacationing with my family in the Berkshire Hills of Connecticut and Massachusetts, I slogged eight miles along country roads and a lightly-used railroad track, through woods and swamplands.  Although I was tormented by mosquitoes and deerflies and miserable with dew-soaked socks and Keds sneakers, never once during the trek was I lonely. 

When I was a teenager in New Jersey, I frequently walked alone in the outdoors, not for adventure, but rather for psychic defense.  At the age of 15, I stressfully ended a destructive relationship with a boy who for years I regarded as my best friend.  Although I tried, I couldn’t establish another close friendship with a peer for the remainder of my high school years.  I was now completely on my own.  To hide from my classmates my shameful solitude―teenagers, of course, want and need to bond―I avoided as best I could the streets and sidewalks between my house and my high school, often walking a stretch of railroad line bounded on both sides by a slender margin of trees and brush, which, for me at least, doubled as a kind of suburban “wilderness” experience.  I was comfortable walking along the railroad tracks.  I was similarly at ease walking our dog alone in some woods near our house.  Undeveloped wooded areas meant safety and relief.

Although I graduated from my high school after the customary three years, I was an unexceptional student who failed to gain entrance to any of the colleges―modest, in my opinion―to which I applied.  My parents therefore enrolled me in a distant boarding school for a year of remedial education―and, perhaps in their minds, re-socialization, for they must have been aware of my solitude.  I understood the boarding school’s necessity; still, I found the experience humiliating, tormenting.  I despised the school’s regulations, including regular haircuts, coats and ties for classes and meals, and the prohibition of smoking.  (I had been a clandestine tobacco smoker for four years.)  It was 1968, I was 17 going on 18, and I was eager to grow my hair long and, at least superficially, identify with the growing “counterculture.”  Most of all, now a hardened loner, I hated the boarding school’s clamorous beehive existence of studying, eating, sleeping, recreating, relaxing, and worshipping together.  Although, as at high school, I felt shameful doing so, occasionally I had to get away from all of this to regain some sanity.  Fortunately, the school was located in the Berkshire Hills, in fact, not far from where I happily vacationed as a kid.  So, after lacing up my Sears hiking boots, I’d leave the school property, briefly walk down a rural highway, and duck into the nearest woods.  After penetrating trees and brush for a quarter-mile, I’d sit on log and puff on a series of cigarettes smuggled to me by my sister through the mail―the sad sack luxuriating in the peace and solitude while a wet snow fell.[1]

With this nascent passion, I explored New Mexico’s wildlands.  Their variety and breadth astonished me.  Tempting photographs in my Audubon guide of the glowing Chihuahuan Desert in southernmost New Mexico led me to the fluted, harsh Organ Mountains.  In southeastern New Mexico, I escaped the heat of August by climbing into the Capitan Mountains, where, in the Lincoln National Forest, I caressed the head of a friendly, free-ranging horse and marveled at spiny cactus leaves nearly as big as a catcher’s mitt.  One winter night, I camped atop a bench of the Sacramento Mountains overlooking the Tularosa Valley, listening to the haunting conversations of great horned owls perched along cliff faces.  While camped on the Plains of San Agustin, a vast grassland in western New Mexico, I spent an afternoon and evening watching a succession of thunderstorms, compact iron-like curtains descending from the clouds, sweep across the appallingly vacant land.  In the Bisti of northwestern New Mexico, a colorless, sterile badland of soil and soft rock, I wandered among crusty hoodoos beneath a full moon fungus-white and blurry behind a cloudy sky. 

Not all of my initial expeditions were successful.  One February, determined to pitch my tent as close as possible to Mexico, I drove to the ghost town of Cloverdale, in New Mexico’s southwestern “bootheel” region, in the hopes of striking out west into the Coronado National Forest of the Guadalupe Mountains.  However, muddy, rutted roads halted my progress, and with disappointment I returned north through the Animas Valley.  Just south of the town of Animas, a Border Patrol agent, after undoubtedly noting the apron of mud on the sides of Little Red, pulled me over.  I complied with the burley Latino’s request to examine the contents of my backpack.  He merely glanced at the plastic baggies of granulated white sugar and Countrytime instant lemonade.  However, he opened a third baggie and gently wafted the scent of its contents, powdered milk, in the direction of his quivering nostrils.  Then, he thanked me and was gone, my brush with the War on Drugs over.  My experience in la frontera aborted, I spent the night in a cheap motel in the desert outpost of Lordsburg, New Mexico.

[1] Two decades later, I finally acknowledged my immense gratitude to the boarding school, for, despite yet more average grades, the institution forced me to be joiner whether I liked it or not, and got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams, where I made friendships that have lasted to this day.  I’ve regularly made modest contributions to the school ever since.

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