Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A trip to Solitude

Solitude is a subjective state of mind. For me it is experiencing nature with all your senses, without being bothered by people. This does not say I should be alone however. “Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature”, Einstein said. Alas, it is impossible for me to find solitude here in The Netherlands or in the countries around it. I’ll have to go back quite a few years to dig up the memories of solitude.

17 million people on a piece of land barely larger than the state of New Jersey give you the constant awareness of people around you, even when you wander around in nature. Visitors will find the concept of Dutch nature parks to be like city parks in their own countries. “Do not leave trail” is a sign you will see in Holland, but that I have never seen abroad.

I have memories of solitude while travelling in the USA and Canada. Lake Superior’s north shore comes to mind, just as the Oregon forests, where we got lost in our SUV until we found a ranger station. The Réserve Faunique de Port-Cartier-Sept-Îles in Quebec was an impressive experience, while following the Cartier Railway deep into the wilderness, two hours from the entrance of the park. We met only one other vehicle, and apart from its driver, a young bear looking at the car was the only living creature we encountered… But the most inspiring moments of solitude, those that are so overwhelming that I can still see it right in front of me as looking at a film, hearing the thundering silence, and smell the world around me, come from Maine. In 1999 my nephew Pieter and I travelled to the logging town of Millinocket in Maine’s heartland. Our goal was to raft the Penobscot River with one of the outfitters there. Whatever gave me the idea that it was fine to battle class IV-V rapids is still beyond me to this day – but that is what we did. The outfitter’s station was a one hour drive from Millinocket into the Maine wilderness, not far from Mount Katahdin, in a vast area that stretches out to the Canadian border and that can only be crossed over gravel roads. We set out very early in the morning from our hotel, at about 6.00 AM. Shortly after entering the wilderness area we had our first impressive experience – next to the road, in total silence, was a herd of about ten moose grazing between the tall grasses. Now, moose can be dangerous and should be respected. But they did not seem to be bothered by our big blue Ford Explorer in any way, so after a few minutes we ventured outside – they barely gave us a glimpse. We just stood there, in silence, knowing this was a very special moment and unique experience.

Later, the raft trip was a nerve torturing experience, with calm breaks of quietly floating until the next rapids would ask all we could give. It was a challenging trip, because four secretaries that would also be in our party had cancelled their reservations. Two rowers plus a guide are not really enough for a raft – it is too high on the water and you need more than three people to handle the most challenging rapids. A second guide, who’s task it was to inspect the rocks and the rapids, tied his canoe to the raft and helped rowing to prevent a whitewater Titanic experience.
“Why are you looking like that?” Pieter asked me between two rapids. “Are you scared?” I denied any such assumptions, but I was. But there are few moments I have enjoyed in my life so much as these – soaking up everything I saw around me, until hell would break loose again. Being there all alone with our small party of four, no other rafts, the omnipresence of nature hit me so hard, in a positive way, that I am sure I will never experience something like that again - unless I will go back one day. The image of a moose standing in the water, while we were slowly floating past, against the backdrop of Mount Katahdin and eagles in the sky above is something that can not be captured on photo or told to others. Just a couple of years ago Pieter told me something. “Remember how the guides joked that I was so silent? But it was all so beautiful, that I just could not talk.”

The next morning we drove past the moose spotting site again, but the moose were nowhere to be seen. The trip we did that day took us for hours and about 200 kilometres right across the forest reserve to the Canadian border, entirely over gravel roads in four wheel drive mode, and over narrow one lane bridges. At one point the road was strengthened with poles over a couple of hundred meters to cover a swamp area, that made our forward progress like a luna park attraction over a giant washboard. Pieter was driving most of that trip, 16 years old and no license… I think we met four vehicles during the 200 kilometres trough the wilderness to Canada. It was just him and me, a four wheel drive Explorer and the imposing beauty of the vast Maine wilderness. And did we see bears, you will ask. Yes we did – but not there. Two bears crossed the street in front of the car later during the trip in the outskirts of North Conway, New Hampshire, emerging from a garden…

Now years later, I long for such moments again. I am not really a person to set up camp on the banks of the Zambesi, but travelling north to countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland, or boarding a ferry west to Scotland, will probably provide in that need. I should try that one day. But the Maine experience is something that is worth revisiting. And I am surely not the only one longing for solitude every now and then. I wonder how many people reading this have the same wish. Where do you find solitude?


  1. I forget how lucky I am being here on the north shore of Superior. I'm minutes from the lake. Have access to miles of back roads and trails and crown land, read: free camping. Friends I made during college said "sorry" when I told them I was accepting a job in my home town. Ive been back here 11 yrs now and haven't regreted it a day. Mind you, the availability of sea food or coffee shops is a bit of a drive but its a great excuse for a weekend away. It also helps that I dont like either anyway...

  2. I have to agree with Matt. I often take where I live for granted, and as a result often take solitude itself for granted.

    When I went to Sydney, Australia for a year for university, everyone thought I would never be back to little New Brunswick. And I did have a wonderful time in Sydney, enjoying much of what the city had to offer, spending countless hours at the beach, and genuinely appreciating the climate every hour of every day. But at the end of the year, I couldn't wait to get back. And back is where I intend to stay.

  3. I find my solitude by water at the beach or the river. I grew up on a vineyard by the River Murray and always when there for peace and quite and a walk to think things over. Now I am in the city I go to the beach in various places.


  4. Odd. I am quite the opposite. Perhaps, as Einstein said, I am simply too young to appreciate "solitude", but, honestly, I find crowded busy chaotic cites absolutely delightful... much more so
    a deserted countryside.

    Like some of the commentators above, I come from a place where solitude (as described in this story) abounds. I can't stand it. It's so... dull. There's not much going on and the general pace of things is very leisurely. Call it relaxed and simple, if you will, I tend to think of it as out-of-touch and unbearably lethargic. I am literally counting down the days until I can get away from it at long last.

    Perhaps I just find solitude in a different way. Walking down the street in a bustling metropolis, you are surrounded by people, buildings, cars, noises, smells, etc. But you are alone. Another anonymous face in to
    the crowd, another average Joe on the street. All of this is yours to observe, yours to enjoy, yours to appreciate. That is my solitude. And that is where I belong.

    I guess it’s just a matter of personal preference.

  5. Interesting comments here. Matt, you know I've been in Wawa twice, and I think you've made the right decission. Great area for your kids to grow up in too.
    Same goes for Mark, I've travelled through New Brunswick - and it seems like a good province to live.
    Brenda, growing up in a vineyard, that must have been special. I live on the coast too, but beaches can get real crowded here.
    Max - your view, once again very articulate, proves what I said: solitude is state of mind, and that can mean different things to different people. But don't you think that it might be that you, when you will live in or near a city, will just break away from it every now and then?

  6. Quebec was quite impressive indeed. And I remember traveling from Matane, on the south border of the St. Lawrence, into New Brunswick, in the early morning. No one on the road, morning fog, seeing the sun rise - an impressive experience...