Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


September 10th, 2015



On the second day out from Cape Reinga, the trail led up from Twilight Beach over Scott Point and down to Ninety Mile Beach, named not because it is ninety miles long (more like eighty couple kilometers), but because Captain Cook, on his circumnavigation of the island named it the Ninety Mile Desert. Hiking it calls up cinematic deserts– flat sand, no landmarks to measure progress, heat puddles distort the distance. It is vast, open, and finally, even with the ocean and the dunes, blank. What the distance tells is absence– complete solitude. I walked most of the day without seeing a trace of humans. Not until late afternoon did the tour buses roar past, all the passengers waving. In New Zealand, the beach is part of the public right of way (at low tide) so the tour buses take their load to Cape Reinga, then to the dunes to sand surf, and end the day barreling down the beach on their way home.

Apart from those rushing vehicles, I was alone in the open. Solitude, like being, is spatial and temporal. It is easy to spend time in a closed, familiar space without feeling alone. People do it in offices every day, but hours in a vast open space produce an uncanny sense of solitude. The OED definition of alone includes: a combination of “all” plus “one,” emphasizing oneness essential or temporary…wholly one, one without any companions, one by himself. How strange that solitude–the “all-one”– begins as a multiplicity. “All” is more than one, and the non-distracted experience of solitude can be a multiplication of being.

One writer who comes to mind in understanding what it means to be alone is Thoreau, whose experiment at Walden Pond was a two-year exercise in solitude. Of course he was only a mile or so from town and did not lack for companionship when desired, but he also found himself isolated for stretches of time that exceed most people’s experience. In Walden, he regularly imagines people posing questions he just happens to be happy to answer. When queried about solitude, he responds: “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” There is a strange doubling here. He first claims to love being alone, but then immediately marks being alone with a companion–his own solitude. He goes on to detail a range of nonhuman companions that keep him both alone and accompanied.

Emerson, Thoreau’s friend and mentor, saw the ability to experience solitude as an important positive virtue, a way of avoiding falling into the unquestioned values of society. He notes, though, that it is easy to experience solitude in empty places. It is more difficult, and by implication, more profound, to be truly alone in the midst of society. I find myself at conceptual loggerheads here: solitude as a way of experiencing a profound sense of oneness (Emerson), and solitude as a way of living human multiplicity (Thoreau). That day, on ninety mile beach, Thoreau was the more felicitous guide. It was a drama of contending selves asserting and receding with the waves and tides.

T. Hugh Crawford