So there I am, sitting on Solomon Pass, about 13 miles outside of Safford, Arizona. Ahead are cows, canyons, mountains, rattlesnakes, and a dearth of water – and while I have a GPS track to follow, my waypoints will run out well before I have access to a computer again. Behind is my hiking partner, headed back to air conditioning, a bed, a way home. Press on alone, or turn back to civilization? The Grand Enchantment Trail didn’t make this decision easy.
The Grand Enchantment Trail – or the GET, for short – runs about 770 miles from Phoenix, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Where trails like the Pacific Crest Trail have well-maintained trail tread for most of their length, the GET uses a series of well-used trails, older, overgrown trails, and walking overland to reach its destination. As such, it’s well-known in the hiking community for being a next-level challenge – which is exactly what I was looking for. Still, I try to be prudent; I learn as much as I can about the trail and the desert before I leave, and even enlist a friend to hike with me. But while you prepare as much as humanly possible, you can never be completely prepared for a trip like this – which I learn, the hard way.
The 230-odd miles leading up to Solomon Pass feel like a comedy of errors – the first day, I don’t carry enough water and have to wait out the heat of the day in the shade; the second, we dodge rattlesnakes, and I develop symptoms of heat exhaustion and wonder whether or not I’ve tried to take on more than I can handle. Then it’s onto an actual trail, sidling around cows and cow dung and having to backtrack to hidden water. The trail doesn’t last long, and we’re faced with detours and rerouting and walking down twisting, dangerous roads, pushing hard, harder, to make a permit date along the way. Date made, we slow down, brace ourselves against the countless kinds of cacti, yucca, and catclaw that crowd the route and the scars that each leave scars, that four months later, still trace patterns like spiderwebs on my skin. When my hiking partner tells me she’s had enough, I’m not surprised. I am surprised, though, that I don’t think I’m done.
I sit on the top of Solomon Pass, thankful for cell service, calling people that know me and know the route to see if they think that continuing on alone is something I can do. It’s not whether they think I can do it, they tell me. It’s whether I think I can. And I know I’ll regret it if I don’t at least try.
And I am so, so thankful I did.
While I didn’t finish the trail, I made it another 175 miles, and I learned so much about being outside, being alone, and being myself in the process. Having an InReach – a GPS and personal locator beacon with two-way messaging – helped for checking my location, checking in and checking the weather, and in an emergency, I could’ve called for rescue. But though I had occasional concerns, those miles were mostly about discovery. I discovered what it felt like to be the only human in miles, walking washes and canyons, and mountainsides. I discovered how capable I was, how I was able to handle anything that came up. And to my utter surprise, as a person who loves being around people on trails, I discovered how much I loved being alone. The solitude helped me develop a better relationship with myself, and, ultimately, allowed me to come to terms with an earlier-than-planned exit from the trail after 425 miles.
You don’t need to hike the Grand Enchantment Trail to find that solitude. There are other ways of being in the outdoors that still push you out of your comfort zone, where you find your limits – or you find that freeing space where you thought your limits were. Enjoy day hikes with a group? Grab a map and get on a trail that you know well by yourself. Go car camping with family? Drive up to the campground for an evening of solitude. Like one- or two-night backpacking trips with your partner? Try a trail you like alone, and feel the difference between leaning on other people and relying solely on yourself.
When you try hikes or other outdoor activities alone, the experience might feel good or bad, as compared to being in a group, but it will certainly feel different. You might go slower or faster than you do with the group. You might notice the night sounds more, or the sound of your thoughts might push those away. You might find that starting in familiar places emboldens you, makes you curious about other trails, campgrounds, or even activities you could try. You might discover that being alone in the outdoors is the rough-and-tumble joy you never knew you needed – or that it’s not what you’re looking for, that it’s too much, and that’s okay, too. Regardless, after you go outside alone, you will know more about yourself, as intriguing, uneasy, or exciting a thought as that may be. And that knowledge will make your outdoor adventures all the more meaningful.