By Gabrielle Chastenet de Géry
Solo. Solitary. Alone. These words echoed in my head as I began walking away from my class towards the small clearing ahead of me. I knew that this was going to happen, of course. I had known it for years. But with every step I took further into the woods, the meaning of “solo” really sunk in. I was cutting my own path into the wilderness—stepping into acres of vast, unspoiled Northern New Mexico forest to spend the night by myself. A high school senior. 17-years-old. Alone.
I made my way to the solo site where I would stay for the next twenty-four hours, and as I walked, it hit me: I was scared. What would do I do for so long on my own? I had been given only four things: a whistle, two tarps, and a rope. I was armed with three questions that I was supposed to wrestle with and find answers for, these three personal reflections were the official reason behind my solitary trek into the forest.
I set up the rope, pulling it taut between two trees, my fingers remembering how to tie the knots I’d been taught the day before. I spread the first tarp down on the ground, and threw the second over the rope, making a triangle of shelter. With my makeshift tent set up, I stepped back and sighed. This was it. The first hour of my 24-hour wilderness solo had passed.
It wasn’t the vastness of the open space that gnawed at me. I grew up with the forest as my backyard. My sister and I believed we were fairies, hours melting away as we ran barefoot through the trees. We lived in a world of our own creation. We were taught to question the world and to reimagine the reality that we lived in and find wonder in our surroundings. On weekends, my family would go camping, hiking, foraging or skiing. I’ve been rock climbing since the day I turned five and haven’t looked back. I grew up exploring, always hearing that it “was the best way to learn.” Questioning my strength and pushing myself to explore my limits was everyday fare in my life. But this walk in the woods felt different.
I sat down on the end of my tarp, placing my backpack at the top. It blocked the entrance to my shelter on one side, creating a wall of security, a false hope that this assortment of cloth, zippers and metal would protect me from the hours that lay ahead. Then I made my way out from under the tarp and felt the sun soak slowly into my skin. This was that part that I was unsure of. The part of the solo that didn’t come with instructions. I lay down in the wild grass, resting my head on a small stump. Looking up at the cluster of clouds, I thought about the questions I had been given. Where are you from? Where are you going? Who are you?
The Wilderness Solo had been billed as the “culminating experience” of my senior year of high school. It was meant to launch me into a period of self-reflection, a time during which I’d start writing my college application essays and studying the Transcendentalists. Unlike the classic American high school experience, I graduated alongside nine classmates, with fifty students total in my high school. I went to a Waldorf school, a school inspired by the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, where students of all ages are taught to question the world, and to think for themselves. The Waldorf school curriculum pushes us to learn through inspiration. We’re encouraged to take the information we’re taught and decide for ourselves what our opinions on it
are. Teachers’ comments don’t get memorized as Word, instead, we’re trained to be individual thinkers, to reflect and to understand ourselves and our place in the world in a greater context. I’d been at the school since third grade, so questioning my life and forming my own interpretation had become a sort of second nature. I’d also been camping for years with my school. The
wilderness program at Waldorf starts young, so every year I’d adventured somewhere with my small class. Opting out of these trips is not an option. I’d piled into busses with my classmates and set up camp for a week at a time for years, doing everything from whitewater rafting to deep canyon backpacking.
Sitting there in the woods that day with memories of my past winding out in my mind, I thought about the questions we were given. I remember feeling humbled as I contemplated my answers. I felt small knowing that the world was still moving at the same speed around me. I had slowed down, stopped and it had kept going. I had thought, naively, that the solo would somehow feel familiar, given my years of working toward it.
I’m not quite sure what my exact answers were that day in the woods, and I’m pretty sure that they’ve changed now, two years later. But I do know that it’s through this exploration and questioning of the world that I find myself closer to the answers. Traveling challenges my assumptions, and allows me to change and grow. I know that every time I am in a new place,
forced to confront my expectations of the world, I get closer to knowing myself.
Waking up the next morning and realizing that in a few hours I would be back in the busy world, I made my way out from under the tarp and set about packing up my temporary home. Then I sat, leaning my back against a pine tree, to watch the sunlight make its way down to me through the tallest trees. I closed my eyes when it reached me, and let it warm my cheeks until I heard the thumping of footsteps and distant muttering of voices. Time was up. I stood, grabbed my pack, and left behind the solitude, rejoining my classmates as we trudged back towards life.