The Pursuit of Solitude

I grew up entranced with survival. In middle school I would binge-watch full episodes of Bear Grylls’ “Man vs. Wild” on weekends, or read the Wikipedia synopses for episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” before relenting and watching the often harrowing scenes of ordinary Americans dragging themselves out of ravines on shattered legs, climbing out of crevasses, withering from dehydration on a life boat in the Pacific sun.

steve1.jpg
Still from Season 4, Episode 6 of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” Steve Callahan was adrift, alone, in the Pacific for 76 days. His story, simultaneously harrowing and miraculous, haunted me for a long time. Source

There was something about the idea of being tested in such an elemental way that fascinated me; watching the episodes, sitting on my purple bean bag in pajamas and fuzzy socks, I always thought to myself: could I do it? Would I be strong enough to eat insects raw or walk for miles on blistering feet if that’s what it took to survive? Did I have the strength of mind to make it through?

In Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorite authors whose writing reflects his lifetime obsession with mountaineering and the outdoors) captures pretty well this restless wondering I felt:

“I read somewhere… how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once.”

hiker on a hill
Pictured: me flagging surrender at the bottom of yet another hill

In a lot of ways I feel like I’ve been in constant pursuit of this measurement. The first time I went overnight backpacking (just a few months ago!) was largely in service of this pursuit. Even during the trip, I felt some sense of dissatisfaction; it was only one night, we could carry all our water and pre-packed food, we had everything we needed brought in from the outside world. What would it be like to truly depend solely on myself?

Of course, as a pampered private university student who values things like clean sheets and daily showers, I feel like I have no right to even be dissatisfied with the idea of using gear while backpacking. There’s an element of delusion in the obsession with self-sufficiency that is clear in Into the Wild; some would argue it’s even what caused Christopher McCandless’ death.

In a way, though, I’m still chasing solitude. A geographical and social isolation feels as close as I can get to a test of self-sufficiency without the danger of physical harm. Christmas Island is definitively remote; a volcanic island in the eastern Indian Ocean, it has a population of less than 2000. When friends tell me with enthusiasm that I’ll really enjoy Australia because their friends who went abroad did, there’s a guilty pride (verging on smugness) that I feel when I tell them that what I’m doing isn’t really studying abroad, that the Christmas Island population is pretty small, that no, I don’t know anyone there, that I’ll be completely alone.

A geographical and social isolation feels as close as I can get to a test of self-sufficiency without the danger of physical harm.

In “Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology,” Gupta and Ferguson describe “the archetype of the lone, male anthropologists out in the bush, far away from the creature comforts of First World Life,” which comes with its own “romantic notions of (implicitly masculine) personal growth through travel to unfamiliar places and endurance of physical hardship.” Coming across this line made me realize just how much I’ve bought into romantic (and traditionally masculine) notions of solitude. Take all the figures I’ve mentioned in this post- Steve Callahan, Bear Grylls, Jon Krakauer, Chris McCandless. Male, male, male, male.

The danger of romanticization is a separation from reality. Not until I got the grant and began looking into housing, plane tickets, travel insurance, vaccinations, etc. did I feel genuinely afraid for the first time. Something as simple as transportation (Christmas Island has no public transportation, most cars are manual transmission, and all cars are driven on the left side of road) made me realize how genuinely untethered I am from this place I’m planning to enter. Who was I to think that the distance and remoteness of this island could be something I used to measure myself?

But at the same time, I’m drawn to the island for things other than the prospect of being physically isolated. The spectacular red crab migration that only happens in this one place. The confluence of Chinese labor history and the asylum seeker detention center and the importance of the island as part of Australian border control policy. But also, the prospect of being physically alone.

There’s another type of solitude I also crave, with its own merits and problems- a poetic ideal of loneliness. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke describes the importance of solitude. His advice:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself.
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

The first time I read this letter (the first to a young Mr.Kappus) I took issue with it. I felt myself pining once again after this romantic and decidedly male ideal: some bearded, flannel-clad man in a cabin deep in the woods, writing poetry amidst his spare accommodations, his alpine loneliness. I felt the male-ness of this image (the silence, the dark) in a way I didn’t in my survival-hungry middle school days, and it exhausted me.

Edvard Munch's "Starry Night."
Edvard Munch’s “Starry Night.” Source

But I think Rilke is right about solitude in some ways. It doesn’t necessarily mean physical isolation or unheated cabins. Rilke’s solitude is a kind of other-ness that brings new knowledge. It’s the same as the solitude of Edvard Munch’s “Starry Night”; a sense of withdrawal that enables someone to view the world differently, to see the familiar in a new way, like someone watching the sea from the sky.

When I was very young (maybe 3 or 4), I had a dream that I was a huge swan the size of an airplane, headed for someplace far away. It was thrilling, and the sensation of flight has tantalized me in dreams ever since. I told my mother about the dream then- “妈妈, 我要飞到很远很远的地方。” (“Mommy, I want to fly somewhere far, far, away.”) She had one request- that I take her with me.

When my mother found out that I got the grant to go to Christmas Island, she was surprised and slightly hurt that I had been hatching these elaborate, far-flung plans without telling her at all. But the prospect of visiting me (despite at the 23-hour flight time) cheered her up.

Maybe I am pursuing a deluded version of isolation in an attempt to become more like my middle-school survivor role models. Maybe I am, despite my hesitations, believing Rilke. Maybe this voyage is just the dream coming true.

One thought on “The Pursuit of Solitude

  1. Pingback: The Materialism of Minimalist Travel – Shorebound

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