Solitude and the Love of the Human Race

Dust storm, Mojave Desert. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

When I return from a solo backpacking trip, all I want is company.  I see another person at the trail’s end, at the road that leads back to the cities, I’m a slavering dog – I hump all legs, my tongue is out, I run around in circles, I want to talk and talk.  My fellow humans seem god-sent, their presence like a long-awaited lovemaking.

Once in the hot summer in the canyonlands in southern Utah I spent five days alone – a mere five days – and by the second day I took to muttering to myself, talking with stone and water, trees and plants.  I had long conversations with a spring that jetted from a wall of maidenhair fern.  I’d sit by it and thank it and wash my face in its fresh cold clean stream, and at night the animals drank near my camp.

In the mornings I had strict deadlines for loafing as much as possible, marked by the sun as it walked its rays across the canyon wall.  I had no watch on my wrist, and I counted the hours by the passage of light.

On the third day, I shed my clothes.  For what seemed a very long time, I was naked in the depths of the earth a hundred miles from the nearest town.  The nakedness, the plenitude of light, the soft warmth of the air, and the sense of illimitable freedom was erotic, and often I had stupendous erections, helped along by the memories of women I had known.

One day around the corner of the sinuous canyon came a man and a woman.  I had been rolling in hot mud, bathing in streams muttering, singing songs like a child at play.  I stood up like a shot, wearing only a bandana on my neck, the mud caked on my legs, my hair a rat’s nest, and my prick standing at attention.   For a moment there was embarrassment, on both sides, and my immediate thought was to cover myself.  But there was no clothing at hand, and here they were, two strangers who’d already seen everything there was to see, and I was so glad to see them that I resigned myself to the situation and smiled.

“You found me at last!” I said.  “I’ve been waiting for you for days.”

We laughed about it, and all was right in the world, and on they hiked, bidding farewell to the lunatic in the canyon.  The sympathetic understanding and tolerance found among backpackers.  Where else in these United States can you be a mud-clad erect male and not be jailed for indecency?

It is of course impossible in the cities.  I visit New York, my hometown, where my family lives, where for such behavior obviously I’d be arrested, confined, charged. All hail the cops.  Do what you’re told.  Teeming subways, teeming streets, and everywhere the uniformed men with guns.  At rush hour in the morning, walk in the one direction toward the towers and the elevators, and at rush hour in the evening, walk in the other direction home.   The technoindustrial hive, with a business-friendly panopticon.

What most concerns me when I return from the canyons to a place like New York, however, is whether it’s possible to feel the same love of humankind that I feel when I’ve been apart.  The philosophers have laid this out in the abstract, but I take it personally – because I want all relations to be as intimate and easy as canyon relations.

I think that being surrounded by your fellow man in a hive day after day, without hope of solitude, produces contempt and alienation, a feeling that the humans are interchangeable, that the surfeit of their numbers reduces their individual worth and meaning.  In such a state of crowding, where all the world is racing on the frenzied path of productivity, where the constant to-and-fro evokes the image of the ant-hill – the “technological termite existence” that Wallace Stegner warned about  – a man of compassion is sickened because he is overwhelmed.  He wants to love, care for, talk to every person he meets.  If he did so, he would be hysterical with exhaustion and regarded by all, moreover, as a drooling naïf.

What I’m saying is that the wild places, where few people can get to easily, are to me a necessary antidote to my affliction of misanthropy.

In the grand global vision of people packed en masse in the insectival urban swarm, with the majority of humans scheduled to be interred alive in the cities by the middle of this century, we are fated to retire into ourselves and look away at the sight of our brothers and sisters.   It is a basic psychological survival mechanism of urban life, and for anyone who considers it from afar, objectively, it is a deeply depressing prospect.


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Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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