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The Road Journal

Mind Games

What does alone mean to you? 

I’m asking for a friend. He’s been alone for 12 weeks—he says he loves it; he says he hates it. Sometimes I think he doesn’t realize he’s alone. Sometimes it’s all he thinks about.

He had direction. He had drive. I know it's in there somewhere. He has passion—a lot of it.

I worry that he's lost.

No, not that "lost."

I think he's lost in his own mind... 

(Kluane National Park and Reserve, Yukon Territory)

***

Too often, “alone” is only defined in its physical parameters. It's a product of the mystique that surrounds solo travel in the wilderness. Words like "survival” and "lost" become overused clichés.

I’m not Bear Grylls and I’m not Christopher McCandless. Watch Discovery if you want that; or better yet, read a book.

There's something deeper at stake than the physical body. Let me offer my own definition:

ALONE: It’s resilient self-sufficiency and utter helplessness. It’s the purest peace and the most punishing chaos. It’s exhilarating and it’s terrifying. It’s freedom of movement, and imprisonment of the mind.

Well Matthew, it sounds like you’ve completely lost your mind.

Lost? No, no, no. I know exactly where it is. It’s getting out that’s the problem.

The mind in its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven...
— John Milton, Paradise Lost.

A good day's Heaven. A bad day's Hell. (Rogers Pass, British Columbia)

I'm living my dream right now. Well, I think I am. Most of the time.

For the past year, getting "out there" and chasing this passion was all I could think about; it became an obsession. I had tunnel vision—other interests, other responsibilities, other passions all fell by the wayside. 

I had never felt such a singular burning infatuation with an idea. Everything felt disposable—material comforts, friends, even love.

I knew it would take sacrifice. But I was prepared to do whatever it took to make that dream a reality.

My truck became home. Relationships suffered. Oatmeal became breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Life on the road consumed me—up before dawn, chasing light, shadows, sights and sounds. Every day was a new adventure. There was no destination, no end goal—only the road.

Plotting tomorrow while trying to savor today. (Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)

My life was a rollercoaster—up, down, looping around, disorienting and demanding—complete chaos, but too fast-paced to warrant concern for where I was at any one particular moment. I was addicted. I had never felt so alive.

Then things started to slow down. The peaks didn't arrive so quickly. I was coming into low points with less momentum. The blurs around me took shape and I stopped noticing where I was physically and started noticing where I was mentally:

Alone.

Perspective. (Mt. Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia)

Friends are a positive buffer for the mind. They amplify your highs and deafen your lows. When it’s good, you celebrate together. When times are tough, you commiserate together. It's said that friends have your back, but really, they have your head.

Solitude works in reverse. Your accomplishments reach an audience of one. Your problems are all your own. Life seems at once more complex and far simpler.

Self-evaluation is your best friend and your worst enemy. There is no praise, only pride. Self-pity is the unfortunate substitute for consolation. You're your number one fan, and your harshest critic. 

Doubt isn’t easy to deal with alone. A couple good days in a row will make it recede, but it’s merely dormant, far from vanquished. And it doesn’t take much to bring it roaring back.

When you’re surrounded with friends, time is on your side—they tell you to take a few days to relax, settle down. Revisit your problems after some time off and you’ll have a better perspective.

Empty time used to be my favorite. I relished long drives and moments of still nothingness. It used to feel like freedom.

Recently, it has felt like confinement. I'm locked in my own thoughts. 

Life on the road consumed me... There was no destination, no end goal—only the road. (Glenn Highway, Alaska)

Maybe that's why I started writing again. I used to be able to bounce thoughts off a half-dozen housemates and a network of diversely opinionated friends. Now my thoughts bounce between my ears in a perpetual neural tennis match worthy of 7 Days in Hell (both in its length and complete ridiculousness). Writing opens up the turnstiles to the public.

Now, I don't look for sympathy when I write. And I'm not seeking vindication from the public. I will never claim that my hardships are any greater than the daily struggles of your 9 to 5 or your college course load. They're just different, and I want to open that up for discussion. I'm searching for another view to compare against the only one I know.

I do my best to keep the negatives in perspective: Financial stress? Well, at least my only significant expenses are food and gas. Heartbreak? Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? If it's meant to be, it will be. That what-am-I-doing-with-my-life temporary freak out that you’re not supposed to have until your mid-life crisis? Well, I’m sure lots of people my age feel this way… they’re just not in Alaska… living out of their truck. Hmmm.

I've always responded very emotionally to music—sometimes it heals, sometimes it hurts. (Kananaskis Country, Alberta)

I'll be the first to admit that I overthink the hell out of my problems. Call me neurotic. Insecure. A perfectionist. I'll reanalyze the same situation dozens of times expecting a different conclusion. Crazy, right?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
— Albert Einstein

Look, I don’t want to be a downer. It’s FAR more fun to post highlights from amazing places when the weather cooperated, the light was perfect and I nailed the shot.

But that’s not reality. That’s just social media.

For every clear starry night, there were five nights of waiting out the storm. For every fiery alpine sunrise, there was a night of shivering in an ice-coated tent. For every satisfying day in the field, there’s a week of questioning if I'm doing the right thing.

All the "likes," "shares," "followers" and "re-posts" in the world can't justify my lifestyle. That kind of vindication has to come from within.

How far would you go to escape your mind? (Denali National Park, Alaska)

***

How far would you go to escape your mind? 

That's a question I've been pondering for quite some time. Every time it resurfaces, I put it to the test. But to this day, I still don’t have an answer.

I’m a runner. In LA, that was literal—I can vividly recall long nights in college in which I drove out to the beach to go running because I couldn’t think straight. Endorphins and salty air seemed to do the trick.

Now, I’m a runaway. When things go south, I disappear into the mountains for days at a time, seeking solace in the wilderness.

I'm out there looking for something—success, meaning, freedom? I honestly don't know. But I push myself—physically, mentally—the whole nine yards. The more effort I exert, the less energy I'll have to focus on outside issues. My mind can't wander if it's constantly being worked, I figure.

I toe the line of my own limits—cold, soreness, exposure, exhaustion. I seek out objectives with a certain amount of risk and uncertainty—projects that should require 100-percent of my focus in the moment on the task at hand. If instincts and gut-reaction take over, I'm on the right track.

In search. (Kluane National Park and Reserve, Yukon Territory)

It's an inexact science. After post-holing thigh deep snow, hiking dozens of miles in the desert sun, scrambling chossy exposed ridges and bushwhacking up 40-degree inclines, I can confidently say there is no fail-proof way to clear my head. What makes you forget about your lack of income won't make you forget about the girl, and what makes you forget about her won't make you forget that you're burning through cash you don't have. And sometimes, no matter where you go, you still question why the hell you're there in the first place.

(Alaska, Matt... Seriously?)

But through it all, for better or worse, I've come to a couple realizations about my perceived struggles during my time alone:

  • Regarding finances: Whittle down your wants and recognize your needs. Build a lifestyle designed to meet those. I need to be outside every day. I need to be active every day. I want a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. (There's a difference.)
  • Regarding love: Life is fragile; love shouldn't be. Life is short, it's chaotic, it's uncertain—appreciate something that isn't so fleeting.
  • Regarding ambition: Why ration passion? Success is subjective—the quality of your life should be a product of how passionately you live. For some, that's a 9 to 5 with paid vacation, home-cooked meals and a house on the beach. For me... well, I'm still in search. 

And when it comes to being alone... maybe it's just a state of mind.

(Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Wyoming)

Matthew Tufts