Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
Originally published March 8, 2010.
Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines. As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.
Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision. For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont. You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant. Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass. (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)
When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for. You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?
As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary. Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind. It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail. If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it. Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.
Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails? Not necessarily. As always, kids, the key here is balance. That brings us to Rule No. 9:
Choose the Right Trail.
As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier. That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers.
While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors. I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day. After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was. Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone. On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me. Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for. Here are a few indicators:
How many cars are at the trailhead? If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers. If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there. And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks? The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized.
Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers? Hear them? If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.
So pick the trail that’s right for you. If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away. And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike. Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.
© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.