I remember very clearly one day in May 2012. I was strolling along the footpath of my university with my friend Kylie, the hot Maryland sun beating down on us. With just a few days left in the semester, we were talking about our summer plans. I would be going back to New York; Kylie would be going home to California. I turned to Kylie and told her*, earnestly, almost desperately, “I want to use this summer to learn how to love myself.”
Now, four years later, I look back on myself at twenty and that bold statement and find it to be simultaneously sad, insightful, and naive. Self-love and self-care are topics that we don’t discuss enough and should always discuss more. I would not find self-love that summer. Instead, I would feel anxiety about my relationship at the time, play guitar for hours on end, use too many substances, and try to come to a place of acceptance with my loneliness. I would travel, and travel would not be an antidote to my problems because it never is. But it would allow me to learn and grow in other ways, and start to formulate a dialogue about loneliness. Self-love would come later.
Towards the end of the summer, my two brothers and I drove across the United States. My older brother was about to start graduate school in Washington State, so the three of us loaded up a U-Haul and drove 3,000 miles across the vast expanse of our country. After arriving and unpacking in Pullman, I flew south. It was my first time out on the west coast, so I went to see Kylie.
Kylie and I spent five days together, sightseeing around her native San Francisco and Berkeley, staying up late, laughing, crying, and bonding. When I hugged her goodbye at the Berkeley train station, my heart was pounding. I was about to travel by myself for the first time in my life. I would be spending a few days hiking in Yosemite National Park, and then would be returning to San Francisco, this time to explore on my own.
I had my doubts about solo travel, but I knew that I wanted to try it. At that time, safety wasn’t my number one concern. My fear was loneliness. I had been saturated with love during the past few weeks, first traveling with my brothers and then staying with Kylie. It was reassuring to know that I had somebody there, all the time. I didn’t have to be alone with myself and my thoughts. And there I was, alone. I boarded my first train of the day and sat down in a row by myself.
Sometimes, when I feel desperately lonely, I am reminded of movies. Usually romantic comedies. Because oftentimes, movies will feature some bored or lonely protagonist, and then out of thin air, a character appears in this person’s life. A stranger sits down next to the protagonist on a park bench and starts a conversation. An attractive love interest bumps into the protagonist by chance and then a plot unfolds. I glanced around the train. It didn’t appear that an attractive love interest was about to just sit down next to me and start a conversation. Because, of course, humans do engage with each other, but not always. When I am out and about in the world, I rarely expect people to come up and spontaneously initiate a conversation with me. And when it does happen, it’s a treasure.
I got off the train at Martinez, which would be a brief stop before boarding the next train to Merced. From Merced I would take a bus to the Yosemite Bug Hostel, where I would be staying. As I waited on the crowded platform, I saw a boy. Maybe he was my age, maybe older. He had an overstuffed backpack on his back with a pair of boots dangling from one of the ties. There was a tennis racket case strapped onto the side of his bag. Maybe he was going to tennis camp, I thought to myself. Maybe he was there with his family – the man standing at his side had to be a father, or an uncle. The boy turned my way and we made eye contact. I looked away.
Go talk to him. No. Go talk to him. My brain is telling me to move but the signal is not reaching my feet. He has a backpack, you can talk to him. I want to but I’m nervous. He’s clearly not coming here to talk to you. Move. Go talk to him.
So I put one foot in front of the other, walked up to him, and said, “Hi.”
“Hey, how’s it going?” he responded with a smile.
And just like that, we began a conversation. He wasn’t there with family, after all. He was on his own, on his way to meet some relatives. He had never ridden on a train before and was looking forward to it. “Want to be train buddies?” he asked.
We got on the train and sat down across from one another, and exchanged stories. I told him about my cross-country roadtrip and my time in Berkeley. He told me that he and a friend of his had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. They had started in the north and were hiking south. They had just recently split up, thus this boy’s detour to go see his family in California. I listened, rapt, as he told me stories about hiking, about illegally camping and nearly getting caught in the dead of night, about hiking with his mandolin and teaching his hiking buddy music theory along the trail. He gestured to the tennis racket case, the neck of a mandolin poking out. “I thought you were going to tennis camp,” I told him with a grin.
He also talked to me frankly about loneliness. He told me about a night at a campground when all he and his friend wanted to do was go and talk to people. “We were so lonely. We were just sitting there, trying to figure out how to go up to some girls and start a conversation. We had to go talk to someone.”
But how could you possibly be lonely, I thought, if you were there with your friend?
But it was possible. I had felt it too, not just in travel but in various moments throughout my life. The feeling that, yes, there is another human at my side, but I am still not fulfilled. And yes, I love this human being at my side, but it is not enough. I’m still lonely. I’m still sad.
I think that the words of this stranger, this guy whose name I don’t even remember, caused something within me to shatter. Because I don’t know if anyone had ever talked to me so frankly and honestly about their own loneliness before. It was not a plea for pity, but rather a verbalization of something that we all feel and are generally too ashamed to admit. We are taught that loneliness is bad. We are taught to mask our loneliness, and we can mask it so easily because all we have to do is pull out our phones, and poof! we have the illusion of being connected to people. We fear loneliness because being alone causes one to internally reflect, and sometimes we aren’t ready to face those reflections. At that point in time, I certainly was not comfortable being alone with my internal reflections.
When the train pulled up to the station in Merced, just two short hours after I had met this kind stranger, I stood up and gave him a hug and said goodbye. I walked off the train elated by the interaction, in that way that only truly connecting with another human being can elate you. I was so thankful for his honesty. Four years later, I am still thankful. I needed that reassurance, that this thing that I was battling wasn’t unique or unconquerable or shameful.
I arrived at my hostel with new found determination. I would make friends. I would find hiking buddies. This was going to be great, I thought.
But somehow, that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality that had driven me across the train platform wasn’t translating. The hostel had a lodge area, where one could order food and hang out and rest their weary legs. It was full of people laughing and talking. I wanted desperately to plop myself down on one of those couches and talk to people, but I couldn’t do it. Approaching a single person on a train platform is wildly less intimidating than trying to befriend a group of strangers. Eventually the overwhelming juxtaposition of my solitude among the mass of people became too much. I got up and left, to go lounge in a hammock in the moonlight and silently berate my cowardice.
The next morning, I got myself up early. It was already hot, and would get hotter. The hostel was quiet, most people already out in the trails. I gathered my things and shuffled off to the bus stop at the top of the hill. There I took a shuttle to the visitor’s center in the park.
I decided to hike the Mist Trail, a compelling choice on a 95 degree day. There was a hike up to a waterfall called Vernal Falls. It was only a three mile hike round trip, but it was labeled as difficult. I could do difficult. I could see waterfalls. I started my hike.
The trail was a steady uphill climb. I started sweating immediately, my clothing sticking to my body. The trail was crowded at times and empty at others. I continued at a steady pace up the path.
The first mile was a steep climb on a tidy path. I was surrounded by giant trees: fir, ceder, ponderosa pine. There were boulders everywhere, towering over the path. I passed a squirrel sitting on one of the boulders. I approached it, assuming that it would scamper away, but it just sat there, curiously eyeing me. I continued walking, pausing every few minutes to wipe the sweat off of my brow.
After hiking one mile, I arrived at the bottom of a staircase cut into the face of the rock. The staircase would continue until I reached the top of the falls, 600 granite steps away. The steps were large, some of them over a foot tall. I started up the stairs, my breathing heavy and labored as I climbed step after step. Soon enough, my legs were shaking from the exertion. Sweat streamed down my face, and when I licked my lips they tasted like salt and sunscreen.
But still I climbed. And climbed. And then I could only go ten steps before stopping to rest. And then five. And eventually, I took one last shaky step up before I rounded a bend and saw the falls.
And sometimes that’s enough to make it worth it.
I took a lengthy break by the falls, entranced by the view. But eventually, it was time to continue onward. There were just a few steps left to make it to the top of the falls, where I would pause and eat a hard-earned lunch. I continued up the staircase. My body was trembling with every step. But eventually the steps got smaller and smaller, and the terrain flatter and flatter, and my legs were singing in joy when I reached the top. I walked to the guardrail over the falls and stared out over the vast expanse before me, the trees and the mountains and the inexplicably beautiful landscape. And I made it, I thought. And I did it by myself.
There was a young couple about to head out, and I asked them to take my picture. I had to commemorate this triumph, this 1.5-mile-long feat that I had accomplished. I gave the widest smile I could muster, exhausted and accomplished and drenched in sweat, and the camera went “click.”
When I reflect upon this time, both the summer as a whole and specifically my time in Yosemite, I regard them as equal parts challenging and precious. This was a difficult time in my life. I was twenty years old and sad and confused, in only that way that being in love with the wrong person can sadden and confuse you, and I had very little sense of myself and my identity. Four years later, I am slightly less confused, and a lot more comfortable with who I am and the person that I am becoming.
I remember hiking that day and carrying that feeling of loneliness with me like an extra weight on my back. Wouldn’t this have been a better experience if I had someone to share it with? I thought to myself. Wouldn’t I be having more fun if I were there, laughing and talking, with another human being? Perhaps. But I also fundamentally believe that I needed this time to feel lonely, lost, confused, and sad. I think that it gave me the motivation to make some necessary changes a few months down the road. Out of the rubble came self-love. Without self-love, we can spend all the time in the world with the people who are dear to us and still feel alone. I doubt that having a traveling companion would have changed how I felt while in Yosemite.
I will say, however, that hiking can be a remarkable act of self-care. It is a powerful feeling, being out in nature, the sun beating down on you, putting one foot in front of the other and allowing your body to work its hardest. Although associated with feelings of loneliness, being in Yosemite at that time was very good for my mental health. To this day, my short hike up to Vernal Falls is one of the best hikes I have had in my life. Because at the end of the day, when you shower off the sweat and relax and put your feet up and reflect, maybe the thought is, “I’m still sad,” but hopefully accompanying that thought is, “But I accomplished something amazing today.”
*Kylie currently uses they/them pronouns, and the use of she/her pronouns above reflects Kylie’s pronouns at the time of publication of this post