Solitude lost...or just discarded? How silence and tranquility became antiquated notions in the brave new west
May 01, 2013 | 15541 views | 0 0 comments | 1439 1439 recommendations | email to a friend | print
by Jim Stiles

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

~Henry David Thoreau

When Lewis and Clark returned to Washington, after exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson concluded that the North American continent would take “a thousand years” to settle the country

It took 75 years. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed in 1893 that the “frontier was closed.” There was no wild country to be discovered   It was over. The continent was beginning to fill and only a few realized what was being lost.

Within the dwindling landscape, some saw for the first time the degradation of aspects more difficult to define–those intangible qualities that are more a consequence of the land than a physical part of them. All of that empty space brought a great silence. To many it was intimidating and the cities they built to escape it were the refuge, not the haven. But for some, there has always been an almost primal need for the quiet that offered tranquility instead of fear.  There was a word for it—solitude.

Solitude has been pursued by those who longed for it in whatever place they found themselves. Thoreau noted, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”

Men like John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, devoted the rest of his life to saving the wild places he saw threatened. He loved the natural world. And he longed for solitude. “Only by going alone in silence,” he urged, “without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

Since then, other voices for solitude have articulated the yearnings of succeeding generations.  Aldo Leopold warned most prophetically, in ways he may not have even realized at the time, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.”

For my generation, Edward Abbey crystalized vague, undefined emotions about the land that we struggled to articulate. Desert Solitaire embraced both physical wilderness and solitude and fused them. For us, the two components were inseparable. “I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness,” he wrote, “ I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exhultation.”

Indeed, three years earlier, the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964. Wilderness would be undeveloped Federal land, at least 5000 acres in size, that “still retained its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”

And...just as significantly, offered “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”  In the eyes of the law, ‘solitude’ carried just as much significance as the resource itself. One component of wilderness could not survive without the other. Solitude lost was wilderness destroyed.

This is the way it would always be, I thought.  As environmental battles heated up in the 1970s and 1980s, the fight for the preservation of western lands was always waged on behalf of those qualities that defined wilderness itself.  Nowhere in the legislation, nor in the hearts and minds and souls of its strongest proponents, was there any mention of money, or economic benefit, or recreational industries, or outdoor retailers. But in the twenty years since environmentalists turned away from the defense of wilderness in its purest form to a more pragmatic, but degrading, strategy of wilderness for profit, a new generation of Americans has grown apart from values that were once so cherished and revered. Ultimately, in order to “save” wilderness, its very meaning may have been lost.

Almost a decade ago, I read an article from a group called “Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Units.  At a CESU gathering called, “Tourism Break-Out,” the group noted that tourism patterns in the West were changing; they worried about “the changing values of generations regarding parks – what one generation values in a park (such as solitude) may be less important to another generation (that may be more interested in extreme sports).”

The CESU report concluded, “(There is) great potential for partnerships with outdoor recreation outfitters, suppliers, clothing manufacturers, etc., who already know a great deal about our federal land visitors and have a strong handle on how people are using that land.”

CESU’s observations could not have been more telling. Since then, any effort to promote a pro-wilderness/pro-nature experience often embraces high-tech, adrenalin-laced and often high-risk physical activity.

My beloved Moab, Utah, once known for its scenic beauty and as a place to seek solitude and tranquility continues to transform itself. Almost overnight it became the “Mountain Bike Capital of the World” and the competition between them and the slow-moving hikers has become a point of contention ever since.

But in a nod to the changing needs of national parks and the people who use them, the Park Service recently changed its own rules regarding the use of bicycles in national parks. It “authorizes park superintendents to open existing trails to bicycle use within park units under specific conditions.”

While most parks, including Arches and Canyonlands, have no current intention to change their rules and throw bikers and hikers into a free-for-all, what may happen down the road is anybody’s guess. As today’s young seasonals become tomorrow’s middle managers, those changes may occur.

But bicycles are only a starting point for the recreation boom and the fading of solitude. Rock climbing, BASE jumping, slacklining, zip-lining, and commercial canyoneering compete for the attention and pocketbooks of would-be adventurers who rarely take time to just gaze. If anything, contemplating one’s navel has fallen from favor. The environmental heroes of the early years of the 21st Century bear little resemblance to Muir or Abbey.

Six year ago, world-renowned rock climber/dare-devil and “Goodwill Ambassador” for Patagonia outdoor gear, Dean Potter, made an early morning, unauthorized, free ascent of Delicate Arch. He filmed his own triumph and released it to the media. To many of us, the climb was a sacrilege.

I snapped off an editorial condemning the publicity stunt. Some took angry exception. One young reader wrote, “Dean Potter has raised more awareness about nature and done more for the protection of our wildlife areas than an army of you idiots bitching on the internet will ever do. It’s this geriatric community of do-nothings that wants to sit by and look at rock that is getting butt hurt. It’s so sad, watching you people grow old and bitter.”

Young recreationists like “Seth” look to extreme adventurers like Potter and Slackline King, “Sketchy Andy” Lewis with reverence and adoration. Lewis has drawn world attention with his high wire spectaculars, bouncing precariously on a cable strung hundreds of feet above the ground. He has followers world-wide. They are the heroes of the “environmental movement” in the 21st Century.  “Looking at rock” is an antiquated notion.

Even wilderness itself–legislated, congressionally-approved and designated —is changing dramatically, with less chagrin from hikers than one might expect.

A study by Troy Hall and David Cole attempted to determine if accelerated use of wilderness areas degraded the “wilderness experience” of its users. Their conclusions surprised even them. “Most visitors perceive adverse changes, but...have learned to cope, either by making simple adjustments in their behavior or the way that they think about these places.... few people are absolutely displaced.”

So, while backpackers and hikers might have preferred more solitude, it was no longer a make-or-break issue.

A story by Heather Hansen at ‘High Country News’ reported similar results. One study  “revealed that while people don’t like to have others camp nearby them...the biggest factor detracting from their experience was seeing litter.”

Near Moab, where use of the once obscure Mill Creek area has exploded and even attracted European tour buses, efforts to maintain its once pristine condition have overwhelmed those trying to protect it. One of my heroes, Sara Melnicoff of Moab Solutions, continues to wage a holy war against the litter dumped daily along the trail. She regularly hauls away truckloads of garbage. And yet, if we take the HCN report to heart, perhaps keeping all that litter on the ground is the best way to stop the exponential increase in visitation.  Desperate times call for counter-intuitive solutions.

What does the future hold? As energy costs rise and the population swells, can any kind of tourism survive. Many say ‘yes,’ and believe it will flourish, but  it will be very different.  Mass transit systems and a group ethic must prevail. The car, the same contraption that’s suffocating the planet gave us limitless options and unbounded mobility. Tourists of the future will lose that; instead they can expect the commercialization of  “natural” and “recreational” experiences. Or as the marketing brochure will insist—a perfectly blended mix of both.

They’ll be shuttled to motels and “adventure” centers. They’ll ride a bus to  trailheads. They’ll subsequently travel in groups. They can disperse if they like, but in wild new territory, unfamiliar to newcomers, there is safety in numbers. They’ll be dropped off and picked up at designated times and locations.

Regimentation is inevitable for mass transit to operate on such a vast scale. In this future, opportunities for solitude survive, but not as I imagine it. Painful to ponder but as inevitable as sunrise. What’s notable is that for many travelers in 2013, the Future is already here. And for them, it doesn’t sound that bad.  For a majority, perhaps, it sounds preferable to the kind of wilderness experience and solitude I prefer. I need to remember that.

The world races forward, faster than we dreamed possible. As technology continues to shrink the planet, its newer citizens embrace the collective over the solitary. Solitude feels like isolation and has no place in the Brave New West.  And so, a lament and a longing for the quiet moment, passed along from generation to generation, from the old to the young, for more than a century, from Thoreau to Muir to Leopold to Abbey ends. The solitude is there, if you know where to look for it, but who’s looking? And who would notice or care if it went away?

Is that a bad thing? Who knows? Maybe not. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”  The world has lost patience with solitude these days. They’ll never know what they threw away.

(Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr – Planet Earth Edition” now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West.” Both can be found at Stiles can be reached at
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