Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

Unfettered: The Quest for Solitude and Wide Open Spaces

Can we make a little space for solitude in the midst of heavy commitments?

Death Valley as the ultimate vacation destination? Well, for me it was, just a few weeks ago.

I finally finished the huge and exhausting project that I wrote about in my last entry—the one that felt like a dark tunnel. And I did feel like I had come out into the light after a prolonged darkness: relieved but also bleary-eyed and disoriented, trying to get my bearings in the new surroundings. Emotionally and physically, I felt completely “spent” and exhausted. Unfortunately, it was tough to find an opportunity to rest or reorient, because I found myself facing a pileup of other tasks. Several of these projects had pressing deadlines, providing an extra shot of stress. I wrapped up this high-intensity season with an academic conference, which can be pleasant in small doses but can also be a strain for me as an introvert.

In many ways, my state of mind paralleled the one that I had on another trip to the Southwest, one that I described in an entry from last year, “Looking for an Escape? The Impulse to Run Away from It All.”  On that earlier trip, I had started driving off into the desert and wanted to just keep on going, away from everyone and everything. But given my late start and my many commitments at the conference, I had to turn back sooner than I wanted.

That earlier blog entry on escape has turned out to be, by far, my most popular one to date. It seems that many readers resonated with this desire to escape, to be free, to just keep driving and driving away.

In preparing for this month's entry, I looked back at the suggestions that I had given in the entry on escape. Had I been able to follow my own advice as I planned for this more recent trip? And if so, did it help? 

The escape entry reminded me that if at all possible, I should try to avoid overwork in the days before a trip, so that I wouldn't be exhausted going into the trip. Was I able to follow this suggestion? Nope--not this time. I did protect a quiet day before another trip last fall, and it definitely helped me to relax. But not this time around. Not only did I have to work right up until the trip, but I needed to focus heavily on several deadlined projects during the trip, which is very unusual for me. I didn’t want to be doing all of this work, and frankly, I was pretty crabby about it. But did the ongoing work and fatigue mean that the trip had to be written off as a total loss in terms of pleasure? Maybe not.

Here was another recommendation from the prior entry: Could I at least take a break from my to-do list? This ended up being a more workable idea. It didn’t seem wise to toss the to-do list out the window altogether; I did have some real commitments, and I would have created additional problems for others and myself if I totally dropped the ball. But if I played my cards right, I could at least protect one day.

So on the morning of that one day, I avoided my email like the plague. I settled on Death Valley as my destination. And I hit the road early in the morning.

As I got farther away from Los Angeles, the traffic gradually eased up. With the press of cars reduced and some mountain views to enjoy, I started to feel lighter and lighter, almost buoyant. Unbidden, Pharrell Williams’ bright little ditty “Happy” bounced into my brain and stayed there.

There's just something about those wide open spaces. The desert has its own stark beauty, one that I can best appreciate when I've been in a season of overload. When there have just been too many people, too many tasks and deadlines, and too much email, the stripped-down sensibility of the desert feels just right to me.

Death Valley offered up not only sweeping desert vistas, but also craggy cliffs and smooth sand dunes. Not only were the scenes visually striking, but they touched me at a deeply personal, symbolic level. I felt as though my senses and my spirit were just drinking everything in. 

At one point late in the day, things quieted down even further. There were no cars visible (or even audible) in either direction—just the sights and sounds of the desert, with wildflowers scattered on the ground and mountain vistas in the distance. 

 * * * * * 

The sense of solitude didn’t last for long, of course. The drive back toward Los Angeles turned out to be a stressful one, blighted with white-knuckle attempts to pass slow-moving trucks, fierce Santa Ana winds that blew dust everywhere, and an unruly contact lens that threatened to dislodge itself in the midst of five lanes of bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic.

I was determined not to let this tense re-entry undo the majestic aspects of the day, and I tried to hold on to that fleeting sense of peace and quiet. But I couldn’t stay out of the fray of my current circumstances. I was back, and I had to deal with it. I couldn’t linger in the wide open spaces of the wilderness; I had to be present, here and now, in this noisy, dusty, traffic-clogged highway.

I know that I can’t hold on to those rare and beautiful moments from my day of solitude. And I certainly can't put them into words. But I’m clear on one thing: That drive into the desert was a precious and lovely thing. And even though daily life continues to be demanding, I’m glad that I set apart that one day—a day that helped to clear my mind, nourish my soul, and revive my spirit.  

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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