Solitude: “I went to the woods . . .”

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden (iPhone 5s)

“I’m doomed!” I thought as I saw the cars. Freed of responsibility for the afternoon, I had driven to Flat Rock in search of solitude.  I’d never seen more than half a dozen cars in the parking lot on previous visits to the Carl Sandburg Home. On this sunny Saturday, I barely found a spot in the Flat Rock Playhouse parking lot across the street.

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Coolpix L320

At least a dozen people passed me as I searched for a trail map at the building by the front lake. There were no maps. Carl Sandburg, the “Poet of the People,” would have rejoiced to see such a diverse crowd enjoying his peaceful retreat — old and young couples, college girls, families with small children, exercise enthusiasts, dogs and their owners. But how was I to take a photo representing solitude if I was surrounded by people on my hike up to Big Glassy Overlook?

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Coolpix L320

As it turned out, I needed other people to help me reach Big Glassy Overlook. I headed up the long driveway, past Sandburg’s house, and along the path that — I thought — led to the top of Glassy Mountain. With few signs and no blazes marking the trails, I became concerned that I was headed instead towards the circuitous Little Glassy Trail, which we had taken a couple of weeks ago.

Taken with CoolPix L320

“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” ― Henry David Thoreau (Coolpix L320)

While I hesitated, a mother and two little girls came into view. The younger daughter seemed to find my request for help amusing. Was it because I, a grown-up, was lost? Although they were going to the goat barn, the mother knew how to reach Big Glassy from there, so I tagged along. The mother pointed out that my shoe was untied. I felt myself sinking even deeper in the young girl’s estimation.

As we walked towards the barn in awkward silence, another group approached from the opposite direction — grandparents and tweens. They were looking for Little Glassy Trail, but they had just come down from Big Glassy Overlook and assured me that I could get there on the path behind them. I thanked the mother and little girls and headed up the trail.

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Coolpix L320

A couple was ahead of me on the uphill path, so I slowed down, hoping to achieve “solitude.” I trudged up the hill, hearing the crunch of fallen leaves as I walked (my shoe was untied again). Soon the sound of voices died away, and I was by myself in the woods. In college, I often took long walks alone; maybe the close quarters of dorm life had something to do with my need for solitude then. But, in recent years, family hikes had become a social activity, a time for talking as much as getting exercise or trying out a new trail. How long had it been since I had gone on a hike by myself? Or listened to the crackle of dry leaves beneath my feet?

Coolpix L320

Coolpix L320

One nice thing about being alone: I could take lots of pictures, although the memory card in my Lumix had rebelliously declared itself to be “Write-Protected.” Once its built-in memory filled, I was left to my iPhone 5s and Coolpix L320, neither of which offered an AF grid. So much for trying the Rule of Thirds. I had noticed large patches of granite more than once during the 1.5-mile hike to the top of Glassy Mountain. Now that I had finally reached the overlook, I walked carefully over the slippery outcropping to see the lovely view of the valley.

The couple who had been ahead of me on the trail was sitting on a bench when I arrived. They got up immediately, despite my urging, “Don’t let me drive you off!” Secretly, I was glad when they assured me they were leaving. I would have a few moments alone in this serene spot. Instead of taking pictures, I sat down on the granite summit, drank from my water bottle, and enjoyed the panorama.

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This was a mistake, because, seconds later, two more couples showed up. The older couple began posing for photographs in front of the view, while the young couple settled on the bench, seemingly determined to stay there until the rest of us left. I needed to go, anyway — I was supposed to take my daughter shopping. I retraced my steps on the descent, thankful that it was light enough for me to enjoy the fading fall colors. Amusingly, I encountered the mother and her two daughters on my way down the trail. They had visited the goats. “They were butting each other like crazy today,” the little girl told me, as if I were now a friend.

Although my walk to the overlook had been mostly solitary, now I encountered more people, alone or in pairs, hurrying down or heading up. To my surprise, I met some people I knew: the homeschooling mother and son who had introduced me to the Carl Sandburg Home on an August field trip! I was introduced to the father of the family, and we chatted briefly. The mother was pleased that I had returned to the Sandburg site so many times. I tried to explain about the “solitude” photo assignment, but their faces wore puzzled expressions as we parted ways.

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Coolpix L320

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iPhone 5s

By now, I was making plans with my husband on my phone. He updated me on our son’s chess tournament: his team had won second place! I got lost — again. Impatient to reach my car and immersed in the logistics of whether I could get downtown in time to pick up my daughter, I failed to notice where I was walking. Wondering if I had time to stop by the bakery and buy an almond croissant, I veered left onto a driveway. Suddenly, instead of the shimmering lake at the entrance, an unfriendly gate confronted me. “How did I miss the lake”? I thought in disgust. (I had planned to take more pictures.) Resignedly, I clambered over and walked along the road to the overflow lot — thankful that I would soon be rejoining my family, sad that my slow rate of travel had cost me the croissant.

Unlike Thoreau — who lived in the woods for two years, two months, and two days — I went to the woods to be alone for a few hours. What had this solitary experience taught me? Getting lost seemed to accompany solitude, if solitude meant being by myself in a public place. My self-consciousness had also increased on the hike: I was keenly aware that the people I met perceived me simply as a middle-aged woman, not as part of a family or a couple. When I had encountered people whom I knew, I felt compelled to justify my presence there without any family members. Why? Did that imply that I saw myself not as an individual but only in relation to other people? In addition to elevating my heart rate, the climb to Big Glassy Overlook had heightened my sensory perceptions — my awareness of sounds, in particular. Bird calls, rustling leaves, the occasional falling nut: would I have missed these, had I not been alone?


All photographs taken by Sandra Fleming. Text and photographs are copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014. Please do not use or reproduce them without her permission.

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32 thoughts on “Solitude: “I went to the woods . . .”

  1. Pingback: Developing a Philosophy of Photography: Landmarks | sappy as a tree: celebrating beauty in creation

  2. Great photos! I think I liked the pond and bench best. Also, your story about the hike was well done. I love hiking too. It’s not easy to be alone in our crowded world. I’m just catching up on reading blogs.

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    • Thanks for reading, Doug. I also thought the bench picture conveyed the idea of solitude. I am trying to catch up on posting pictures — maybe over the weekend. . . .

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  3. Pingback: Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Looking for Loneliness | sappy as a tree: celebrating beauty in creation

  4. Solitary walks are the best Sandi and you should never be ashamed to take them as often as you have the chance! Most of the town of Concord didn’t understand Throeau’s desire to live alone in the woods, apart from society either, so you are in good company. 😉

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    • Thank you! I wish I’d had more time to myself on the summit, looking out at the view — but I suppose it’s selfish of me to want to keep the beauty to myself. (Still, I plan to go back on a weekday morning.)

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    • Thank you — and thanks for reading, Victoria! Except for getting lost (which didn’t cause a major problem) and having more company than I’d bargained for, it was a lovely day.

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  5. The photos are stunning and your trip to the woods gave you a little bit of everything; from meeting new people to finally catching solitude while getting lost.
    Isn’t that strange that we have these thoughts while alone? I became self-conscious of those, when I traveled alone or when dining alone at a restaurant. It didn’t bother me to be alone; in fact it was the purpose, but I caught myself getting irritated with the looks of people around me, and sometimes with the question…’where is your family’?
    Somehow this irritation went away with the years.

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    • I hadn’t thought about that, Lucile: when I went down the wrong driveway, I really did have solitude (because everyone else was smart enough not to make that mistake). By then, I didn’t want solitude any more, but I was glad that no one saw me climbing over that gate.

      Yes, I think you’re right: it’s more the questions in the eyes of others that cause us to question ourselves.

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  6. I love your last paragraph. For some reason I thought the leaf at the base of the trunk spoke solitude. I don’t know why maybe because it is separate from the tree and and now it is standing with the tree like it didn’t want to leave. Is that ODD or what!? Anyway it is a good picture. Loved the pond picture. I also thought the gate spoke of wanting solitude, but I’m not sure if that is private property on the other side of that gate.

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    • Thanks for reading! Your comment about the leaf photo made me look at it more closely, and it is more interesting than I had realized: the Coolpix (the “Black Friday special,” I call it mentally) is good at close-up photos. Its battery died as I was coming down — I forgot about that, but it didn’t matter much, esp. since I got lost. It was private property on the other side of the gate; I still don’t know how I wound up there.

      I’m not sure that I will ever learn to think as a photographer: my instinct is just to put that beautiful object right in the middle and let the camera handle the focusing. Words are worth a thousand pictures, right?

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    • Yes, I can see why it was popular — and with a true cross-section of the local population, as far as age, race, and socioeconomic status (as best I could tell). It’s free to hike there; it costs $5.00 to visit the house, which is managed by the NPS.

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        • I lived in this area for 18 years before visiting the Sandburg Home. The house itself is fascinating but not good for small children; lots of stairs, and lots of things that shouldn’t be touched or stepped on. I had small children when we moved here, so historic houses weren’t at the top of the list. My husband still hasn’t been to Big Glassy Overlook, so I suspect that we’ll go back a few more times.

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  7. Beautiful photographs! I go looking for solitude all the time – mainly because I seem to be surrounded by kids all the time and, while I love them, they wear me out in a hurry! Solitude is refreshing.

    That said, I couldn’t live alone the way Thoreau did. That would be too much of a good thing. 🙂

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    • Yes, solitude is refreshing, especially when you have a houseful of kids. My house isn’t as full as it used to be, so I suspect that I will have more solitary walks in the future — which is not a bad thing, just different.

      No, I couldn’t do what Thoreau did. I saw the replica of his house at Walden Pond a few years ago, and it was a tiny space. On the other hand, he got a book out of it 🙂

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      • I have four kids (11 going on 12, 11, 4, and 3), so my house is definitely full. I miss having the time to myself that I used to have, but then my kids bring so much joy to my life that I can’t imagine life without them (though I’m sure it would be quieter). I suspect that when they start leaving the nest, I won’t know what to do with myself. 🙂

        I’d love to see Walden Pond sometime. I have a very long list of places I’d like to see, but finding the time and the money to see them all is a challenge. They’d make for some great family vacations, though, especially as all my kids love books and reading. A literary tour of America would be a great way to spend the summer… 🙂

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        • I have relatives in Boston, and the first time I went to Walden Pond it was to swim with my brother and his daughter! It’s a very popular place with local people. On a later visit, I finally saw Louisa May Alcott’s house and the replica of Thoreau’s house, but there is so much to do, education-wise, in the Boston area that it is overwhelming. I wish we got up there more often.There is so much traveling I wish we’d done when our kids were younger and schedules were freer, but money was a limiting factor then, too.

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        • Same here. There don’t seem to be as many literary destinations in Iowa, but it would be fun to see all the places around here that featured in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. And seeing the whole of the East Coast is on my list of things to do before I die. When our younger kids are a little older, we want to go on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. and see a lot of the historical things there. It would be wonderful if we could take the whole summer off and go traveling around the country like that, but I don’t think that’ll happen unless we win the lottery or something. And you have to play to win… 😀

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  8. So many different impressions. I think it is good to be alone and be able to enjoy nature and your own thoughts and impressions. I can relate to the awkward feeling. I have felt that way myself when alone. I have attributed it to that I was not used to doing things by myself. Is it called glassy mountain because of all the smooth granite surface?

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    • Yes, Glassy Mountain got its name b/c of all the exposed granite. These days, it is not unusual for me to be at home or run errands by myself. But I haven’t gone a solitary hike outside my neigborhood in years. My husband and daughter were worried about me, I learned later — because I get lost easily. My husband is having knee trouble, so that may cut back on family hikes.

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      • I meant activities like hiking, going to a restaurant or going to a movie alone. I think when we are used to being with people most of the time doing these types of activities it can feel strange doing them by ourselves.

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        • Yes, I see what you mean, Deborah. Back when I was in college, I preferred to walk alone (although my parents didn’t like it, and now it makes me uneasy if my daughter goes hiking alone). But you’re right: I haven’t gone to a concert by myself in decades, and that would feel very odd to me as well; same thing with going to a movie by myself. It all depends on what feels “normal” to us.

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