18 Hours in a Hammock All Alone

I preach silence and solitude to people all the time. I tell them how important it is in an age of constant connection, iMessage, the 24-hour news cycle and the halcyon glow of nearly everything to slow down, to shut off, to get alone with one’s thoughts.

And I believe every word I say.

But I have a hard time doing it myself.

I have a morning meditation practice that I’m inconsistent with. And when I do, it’s a non-stop battle with my monkey mind. And, as soon as it’s over, I’m off to the races — writing, talking, responding, racing home, exercising (quickly, if I have time), then off to a boy’s baseball game or practice. I get home and it’s dark. And I’m tired. And I go to bed. Repeat the next day.

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Last weekend, I went backpacking with my good friend Justin. We hiked 37 miles of the Ice Age Trail in Southeastern Wisconsin. One of my practices while backpacking is that I shut off my phone. I check in with Jennifer quickly in the evenings and mornings, but mostly I keep my phone off.

The first couple of miles, my mind is crazy. I think about things left undone before setting out. I think about relationships that feel “off,” I think about all my particular crazies.

But in time, the voices begin to quiet and I start to tune in to the steady rhythm of my feet on the trail, to my breath, to the moderate strain of quads and hamstrings as I carry my 30-pound pack up an incline, to my parched lips, to the soft, melodic trill of songbirds, to the rustle of chipmunks in the leaves along the trail.

And soon, thoughts of life outside of the trail drift away, and my thoughts become simple and elemental: When do we find water again? When do we eat? Where will we sleep? How does my body feel? How do my feet feel? Am I too warm? Too cold? Will it rain?

These simple, animal thoughts consume my mind, leaving room for not-much-else. Sure, occasionally, Justin and I talk about our lives outside — our careers, our hopes, dreams, marriages, books we’re reading, Hamilton — but most of the miles we walk in silence.

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On this particular hike we dealt with rain. A lot of it. Cold, early spring showers. And on Saturday, after putting in a hard 13.5 miles in a sloppy, wet, marshy prairie in just over 5 hours, we strung our hammocks and rain flys and hunkered down to ride out the storm in a pine forest. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. We spent the next 18 hours curled into our hammocks trying to stay warm (except for the brief time Justin “had me over to his place for dinner”).

And I probably would have broken my rule about using my phone, but my phone was acting screwy and after a brief conversation with Jennifer mid-afternoon, it died.

18 hours in a hammock in a cold rain in the middle of nowhere. You would think all my crazy would set in.

But, not so much.

In that place, it was okay. I slept. I read my kindle. I watched the rain. I embraced the enforced silence and solitude.

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Jennifer asked me when I got home if I had any epiphanies on the trail.

“Not really.”

She asked if Justin and I had any life-changing conversations.

“Nope.”

But it was still so very good. I think silence and solitude is like changing the oil on the car. It clears things up, it’s good for engine maintenance, even if it doesn’t lead to an epiphany.

And the daily practice of contemplative prayer, meditation, or whatever you want to call it is good, but extended silence needs to be a part of the rhythm too.

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Now, here’s the part where I get really honest.

I’d love to say, that I came back and just rolled in the bliss. I’d love to say that on Monday morning, my mind was clear and I was surfing on my good vibe throughout the week.

But the truth is, life comes right back at you. Sunday night, I stayed awake late wrestling with my demons, wrestling with my constant companions of insecurity, loneliness, unfulfilled desires and all the stuff I think about when I can’t sleep at night. (Or, to be more accurate, the stuff that keeps me from sleep.)

But I still believe in the goodness of the trail. I still believe that even though your life is waiting for you at the terminus, those three days of clearing the mind are worth every bit of effort. It’s still good to create that space, even if it can’t be maintained.

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May you find silence and solitude. May you find spaces between the chaos of modern life to shut it all down, to tune out the world, to just “be.” And may you have epiphanies. And when you don’t, may you find rest in that, too.

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