Being alone never felt as alone as it did on the Sunday afternoon that I arrived at the Tucker-Johnson shelter on the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail. It was late September, well past the peak hiker season, and the leaves were starting to fall. The shelter was about a half mile off the main trail, which meant that even weekend and local hikers would be few. Typically, I took refuge in knowing that other hikers would be staying at the shelter. Even if we didn’t connect, there was a sense of safety in having other eyes, ears, feet, and hands around. The place was desserted when I arrived.
I had recently slowed the pace of our hike to savor the colorful change of the season in Vermont. The red, orange, yellow, rust, and brown hues of the leaves had been slowly creeping into the summer greens making the transition to Fall beautiful and dramatic. The wind was washing through the trees sending them swaying to and fro, shaking loose waves of leaves that slowly floated to the ground. Birdsong was sparse, not like the vocal dominance that is typical in the Spring, when the earth comes to life. Fall is the season of decline, gateway to the silent dormancy of Winter.
There had been copious warnings of bears in the vicinity. Typically, Fall sends them into heavy feeding in preparation for hibernation. After an early dinner, I sat for a few moments and watched Bella keenly tuning her senses to the area. Her ears were erect like dish antennae. I’ve come to rely on her senses of acute hearing, smell and sight. I had come to read her various postures of awareness, with her moans, groans, and growls. As the sunset faded toward darkness, I stuck with established bear protocol by hanging our food with a PCT style bear hang.
On the one hand, I was glad to be away from the sound of cars and other intrusions to the natural order. The forest is a welcome refuge from the imposition of aggressive drivers, the ubiquity of capitalism and advertisements, and other plagues of modern civilization. However, on this particular afternoon, I was visited by a sense of aloneness, one not touched by loneliness and not blessed by the wekcome sense of solitude. I simply felt alone.
Through that aloneness, I looked ahead to the dark uncertainty of nightfall. I struggled to not think of the night as a long eternity, with hours of anticipation of dawn and the safety of daylight. I knew I could depend on Bella and her keen senses to help allay any overwhelming threats. I turned on the phone and switched it out of airplane mode. There was about half a bar of signal, and not even the dreaded 1X roaming network was available. This further drove home the sense of aloneness, bordering on isolation. So I sat, alone, and listened to the overwhelming silence of the deep Vermont forest.
Later, lying in the hammock waiting for the blessing of sleep to arrive, I realized that with the onset of Fall, our hike for the season would soon end. Faintly I heard, in the distance, beyond the safety of the mountain, the rumble of trucks on the Interstate. They were, at best, two miles away. I wasn’t sure if I should be comforted, or if it was the imminence of a system of life that I’ve forever struggled to accept and call home.