A young woman faces a new loneliness in the cold, empty woods of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
This story was originally published on jessicamichellecastillo.com on May 7, 2018.
I thought I knew what loneliness was. I know some of its depths quite well, but I was not prepared for the cavernous sense of being truly, deeply alone in the isolated wilderness.
I spent two days camping alone in the Big Meadows campground — mile 51.2 of Skyline Drive — in Shenandoah National Park, my first national park on this journey. This wasn’t my first time visiting Shenandoah, but it was one of the most memorable. I needed to go through this experience to really understand it. I’m glad I did it and made it out with all my mind and all my toes.
I arrived on Sunday and left Tuesday, the first of May. An unexpected cold front with high wind snaps came through and I hadn’t anticipated it would be so cold in mid-spring. Having left Miami just a week before, I wasn’t yet acclimated to the 30° F low temperatures with 28 mph winds and wind gusts of 45 mph at nearly 3,600 feet elevation. It was cold.
The NPS campground and park is exceptionally organized, straightforward and easy to navigate. A park ranger registers you and explains the layout of the camp, maps and road signs dot the park and campground, park rangers are stationed at nearby ranger stations and others patrol the campsite loops. There are even camp hosts, volunteers at every 1–2 loops that can help in case of emergencies or with basic aid. There is at best very spotty cell phone reception at the campground and throughout much of the park, so knowing where to find help is important.
After picking my campsite, getting checked in at the registration office, setting up camp, getting firewood, and going for a walk, I returned to the campsite ready to get a fire going and make some dinner. The camp store had no more newspaper for kindling so they gave me a cardboard box that I shredded to start the fire. I had only camped two times before in my life and both times were with groups of people. This was my first time camping alone. I set up the tent alone and got a fire going alone, and I was pretty proud of myself.
But, as the day wore on and sundown was approaching, things got dicey. The cold winds were kicking up and it was hard to keep the fire going. Wearing three pairs of wool socks, leggings, a short-sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a knit sweater, a fleece hoodie, a jean jacket, a parka, a hat, a scarf, and gloves, I sat closer and closer to the fire to stay warm, only to get a headache from inhaling the carbon monoxide. I was heating over the open fire an unappetizing soup of chicken and wild rice — the rice was weirdly very curled and the chicken was rubbery and highly questionable — and as the wind slapped my face it also blew embers into the mediocre broth of sadness.
I sat there shivering as dusk fell, eating lukewarm soup in the still, cold darkness, quiet, and suddenly I was incredibly self-aware of how alone I was. I tried to not think about it, because if I did, I could feel I was sliding over the edge of madness. I’d glimpse into a dark abyss of isolation and solitude that was not at all peaceful. It was ominous and an endless black hole. I felt on the brink of losing my mind.
I had no other human connection, not even a virtual connection to my family and friends. Remaining stagnant in the isolated wilderness with just an occasional “hello” to strangers in camp and on the hiking trail, and little to no cell phone service, it was a deep loneliness that I hope no one else knows. I could handle the ruggedness, and the cold, but this form of solitude was too much to bear.
It reminded me of Matt Damon’s character, Dr. Mann, in Interstellar. He was marooned on a planet for decades and is overwhelmed with emotion when the other astronauts arrive and save him. He weeps and later says, “Pray you never learn just how good it can be to see another face.” The human need for belonging is real and raw. My experience was a minute peek into that dark separateness, and doesn’t stand up to Dr. Mann’s, but it’s a view I’d never like to see again.
So this crosses off any future dream of me being a space explorer, like NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who orbited the Earth for nearly an entire year completely alone. Absolute props to him. I wouldn’t be able to do it. Also, as my friend Shannon pointed out, it gives you renewed perspective on solitary confinement in prisons.
As twilight withered to blackness, I put away the cookware and washed up for bed. I had realized earlier that I set up the tent in the wrong place. Rather than on soft, flat ground, I initially set up the tent on a hard, rocky surface (this explained why the stakes wouldn’t go in and why my palms were now bruised from forcing the stakes into the ground, and into a bend). So, before dinner, I had moved the tent to an area of softer soil, but it was on a slight slope and not all that flat ground.
As I tried to fall asleep, with my 1000 layers of clothing and wrapped up like a burrito with a fleece blanket in a sleeping bag in the tent, I kept sliding sideways down the slope. I was worried I’d roll down the hill in the middle of the night as I slept so I placed my backpack next to me as a buffer. Fine. Now the problem was I couldn’t feel my toes. I gave myself a test: if I can’t feel my toes after five minutes of wiggling them in these three pairs of wool socks, wrapped in a blanket in a sleeping bag, I’m sleeping in the car. I couldn’t, so I did.
Once I got settled into the backseat of my Honda Civic — it was cold, but still warmer than the tent outside with temperatures below freezing and, with the wind chill, below 0ºF — I felt better. I was worried that I’d suffocate in the car (I soon found out that it takes a lot for this to happen), so I tried to turn on the car to crack open a window. The car wouldn’t start. The battery must have died when I was setting up camp and unloading the car, and forgot to turn off the overhead cabin lights. One hurdle at a time, I thought. I was just glad I could feel my toes.
The next morning, I went down to the camp registration office and the ranger there had another park ranger meet me at my campsite and gave my car a jumpstart. I let it idle for half an hour and it was good to go. Pretty seamless.
I then hiked the Lewis Spring Falls Trail — a moderate, 3.3-mile hike — and the Dark Hollow Falls Trail — a moderate 1.4-mile hike. Keeping my body active and observing new settings helped my mind stay active too, and helped me ignore the feelings of stark aloneness.
In fact, I don’t mind hiking alone. I also don’t mind traveling alone, navigating cities and sites alone, living alone, sleeping alone, eating alone, going to the movies alone, driving or sitting in silence, thinking. All of these things I quite like and don’t mind doing at all. But, I understand these may make others feel incredibly lonely. We feel loneliness in vastly different ways, times and places. I now definitively know I cannot be a hermit and live an Into the Wild or The Stranger in the Woods lifestyle. I assume they chose their hermit lifestyles because living any other way made them feel extremely lonely. People are different, unique, weird and fascinating.
As I hiked, I filmed videos of the trail and spoke to the camera, almost as if I were describing what I was seeing to someone not physically present. I felt like the camera was Wilson in Cast Away. Talking to or handling a smartphone or camera becomes no less crazy than talking to a volleyball. They are both inanimate objects whose importance is derived by our own imagination to create a connection to another “person” out of anything. The object serves as a thread to civilization and humanity.
Again, I didn’t mind the ruggedness. In fact, it wasn’t all that bad. The restrooms were pretty centralized and not far from my campsite, and they were clean and heated (for a second I debated sleeping in this little hut). The showers were coin-operated ($1.75 for 5.25 minutes), and had hot water and privacy.
With all this said, I’m still considering trying camping alone again under hopefully better circumstances — warmer weather and a more populated and lively campground. Most of the other campers at Big Meadows during this start of the peak season were in RVs and were either retirees in their 50s and 60s or young families.
I was the only one I saw there alone except for the second night when, in the site next to mine, an older wanderer arrived around 6pm in his old Westfalia van. He got out to go to the bathroom I think just once, and then I saw him again only the next morning as he opened up the curtains of the backseat of the van, climbed over to the driver’s seat and drove away.
I wonder if he had lost his mind at some point, camping and roaming all by himself, or if he was perfectly sane but his loneliest feeling was being surrounded by people in civilization. Perhaps he wondered the same about me. ◊