Every summer I hike two hours to the one-room, mountain-top cabin where I live for four months. Once there, I don’t have a laptop, a cell phone, or anyone to talk to. It’s just me and my cow dog, Rye.
I started working as a fire lookout in Montana 16 years ago. I was just out of college, without a job for the summer. My older sister had spent four summers as a lookout, and she’d come back with thrilling stories. I wanted to give it a try.
My first two weeks were the hardest that season. I was on an adrenaline high at first: I woke up to an amazing sunrise, the air was clear, I didn’t hear traffic—but then I started to feel lonesome. I wanted to call someone, and when I realized I couldn’t, I grew anxious. I couldn’t leave my post either, so I began to write a lot; I wrote letters to friends, and I tracked my thoughts and experiences in a diary. Writing made me feel less stir-crazy. Then something surprising happened. I woke up one morning in my third week and felt a sense of peace. Nothing triggered it. I just remember thinking: I’m alone, and I’m okay. I’ve since learned that all fire lookouts have to push through the initial weeks. You have to get used to living in your own head.
I never get lonely on the mountain anymore. Loneliness is an intense longing to be with someone else; I have people in my life whom I love deeply, but I don’t feel the need to be with them constantly. While it’s great that my mom hikes up to visit me once each season, I also happily wave good-bye to her when she leaves. My time is completely my own again.
I don’t go to the lookout to prove that I can survive on my own or that I’m a strong woman. I’m there because I believe in the power of solitude. It has taught me so much. For one thing, there’s no one to give opinions about who I am or what I’m doing. I don’t have Facebook status updates or text messages muscling their way into my head. Also, when you’re alone this much, you can’t avoid problems you’re having or an emotion you’re struggling with. You can’t distract yourself by shopping or seeing a movie. As a result, I’ll often hear the opinion of my inner head and heart. Several years ago, I arrived at the lookout soon after a bad breakup. I found myself reflecting on what I could learn from it; by the end of the summer,
I could see more clearly what went wrong and why ending the relationship was the best thing.
I stay busy at the lookout—it’s a job, after all—watching the forest carefully for any signs of fire. I return radio calls from my supervisor or call in the rare medical evacuation or fire situation. Depending on a lookout’s tolerance for solitude, some of us are on the radio more than others, but even with just my dog as a companion, I don’t feel the need to fill up the air with idle chatter. Sometimes I get the feeling that the ravens want me to call out to them, but I prefer to acknowledge them with a smile. If I get really frustrated about something, I might yell at the radio, rather than into it. Still, I don’t speak out loud very often.
Time passes differently at the lookout. I once watched a coyote dip below the ridge line; waiting in anticipation for him to reappear, an hour went by and I didn’t even notice. I am more in touch with my circadian rhythm: I wake when the sun comes up over the mountains, and I sleep when the sun sets. I pass the time by knitting. But mostly, I listen to the direction of the wind. I identify the flowers growing nearby. On my day off, I hike down to a swimming hole for a bath.
It’s always easier to arrive at the lookout than it is to leave. I rely on that time alone to recharge. I’m not sure I’d be able to keep up with my winter job in outdoor education—last year I taught 3,000 people wilderness skills—if I didn’t have that quiet. I dread the end of summer because it means I have to go back to the frenetic pace of everyday life.
When I first return, I try to spend a few days hiding out; I’ll send an email out to my closest friends and family to tell them I’m okay. They know they shouldn’t bother me. When I am ready to see everyone, we don’t try to catch up about the entire summer in a few hours; we slowly ease back into our dynamic and the way we interact together.
It’s exhausting to come home. I’m not used to all of the stimulation. Things I wouldn’t typically notice—dogs barking, people talking, the colors, the smells—are startling and take time getting used to. But my first hot shower is divine.
Hallmarks of Solitude Seekers
- They tend to be introverted. People who pursue solo adventures sometimes use isolation as a defense mechanism. Still, they’re often happy, secure introverts who know they need extensive time and space to re-energize, says Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College.
- They’re freethinkers. True solo career choosers (explorers, some scientists, lighthouse keepers, Peace Corps volunteers, and the like) typically go after these jobs because they value creative problem solving, Cheek says. They’re also more open to new experiences than most.
- They can handle introspection. Not everyone values insight. But solitude seekers generally welcome the personal epiphanies—both good and bad—that come with alone time, Cheek notes.