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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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.

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“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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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?

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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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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.