There’s a good reason Big Bend National Park is consistently listed as one of the least-visited national parks in the country. Situated along the U.S./Mexico border in West Texas, it’s about as remote as you can get.
For me, that’s the big draw.
Like many national parks, Big Bend has a variety of no-service areas, allowing you to spend time in nature unencumbered by devices, but for me, Big Bend has a benefit that goes far beyond a lack of distraction: because the park has so few visitors (especially compared to the places that draw huge crowds, like Yellowstone), it’s possible to enjoy those wide-open spaces completely alone.
And that has more value than I think our hyper-connected world likes to admit.
One of the main reasons I love hiking so much is that it gives me a valid excuse to disconnect. Even when I don’t have to be “on” for work, I still have to remain connected for all the other people in my life. We already know that constant connection is damaging to mind and body, but disconnecting is only a piece of the puzzle.
In other national parks, you can disconnect all you want and never get a moment alone.
I experienced this the last time I went to Grand Teton National Park. Everywhere I went, there were people. Even on the most remote trails that a casual hiker like myself could conceivably visit, there were people.
I want to stress that these people weren’t jerks, weren’t doing anything rude or wrong, weren’t even being particularly loud — in fact, some were as quiet as I was — but the reality is that even their presence was a distraction.
There’s something to be said for empty places and absolute silence.
Just as we know constant connection is damaging to the psyche, so too do we know that being alone can be healing. There is value in emptiness, value in silence, value in getting away from it all in a literal way, value in going to a place where you can enjoy vistas and views for long stretches of time without seeing a single soul.
My recent trip to Big Bend gave me exactly that.
There’s something about desert landscapes, more so than mountains or prairies or oceans or forests, that seems to lend itself to healing. The desert landscape carries with it overtones and associations that reach back deep into human history. It’s a landscape that comes up over and over in stories of transcendence, transformation, and healing.
It’s little wonder that I found the same thing myself when I visited the massive desert that is Big Bend.
Though Big Bend is a deeply varied landscape, boasting high mountains, massive rivers, and beautiful forests, it’s a primarily desert landscape. When last I went there, I took the time to go on a hike or two by myself, and I was able to climb one very popular trail without a single person on it — the Lost Mine Trail.
Now I’m not in the best shape in the world, and I’m certainly not the type to take on a trail that’s beyond what I can handle — this was enough to leave me winded by the time I reached the top, but not so much that I was dead on arrival
During all this time, I was alone, except for maybe one or two people who were on their way down. This was in the afternoon, so it wasn’t like I had to go out very early or late to get the place to myself.
That hike was magical in many ways. It was probably the first time in months that I could say I was truly by myself for hours at a time. It was the first time, in a long time, that I could be alone with my thoughts (without some imminent need or distraction tugging at my awareness).
I was alone, I had nowhere to be, I had no one to answer to, I had nothing better to do, I had nothing that needed to be done when I got back, and I had a only-slightly-worried wife waiting back at the cabin (who was only too happy to get some time to herself).
I did not expect it to be as wonderful as it was.
I’m in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. I’ve been sober for 7 years. I’m very familiar with the dangers of real isolation, and for a long time in sobriety, surrounding myself with healthy people was a key to survival.
But when I took that trip, the emergency was over. I no longer had to watch my back every moment and constantly be with other people who were doing the right thing. Still, those early instincts — of never allowing yourself to be alone — had stuck with me over the years.
I didn’t know I needed time alone. I didn’t know how much I was really missing until I climbed a little mountain by myself in the midst of a massive desert.
That time up there wasn’t just peaceful — it was healing. The exercise was rigorous enough to quiet my always-on mind. The end was completely void of humanity, which meant I didn’t have to stand around and chat with some stranger, but rather was forced to endure the rare silence in my head and just breathe and look at the world.
I think I rediscovered meditation that day, or rather the essence of it. I’ve done countless guided meditations in my pursuit of better sobriety, but this was different, this was something deeper, something more profound.
I wasn’t trying to escape my mind, as I often had when trying to meditate. Instead, the process of hiking, completely without distraction, and of coming to a place where I didn’t have a slight anxiety about possible interaction with the people around me, naturally took me out of my thoughts and into the experience I was having.
The truth of the matter is that people distract me, even when not intending to, even when absolutely silent, even when in a completely different room. I do not naturally relax until I’m totally alone, and I didn’t even know that I was like that until I made that hike.
I found out, there, on top of that little mountain, that I was missing something. In a hyper-connected world where I never strayed far from those people who were, and are, my lifelines, it turns out that sometimes I need a little time alone to heal from the weight of the past, to heal from the grind of the present, to heal from the pressure of the world.
I used to spend days locked in a room in my apartment, isolating and using and escaping. Today, my Upventur is getting outside, getting out into nature, getting to walk and breathe and live without fear.
I used to be shackled to those substances, and even going outside was an impossible nightmare. Today, just going on those adventures I never thought I could have is a visible manifestation of my freedom, an experience I can feel that proves I am free.
Today, my Upventur is spending time with myself in a healthy way. In the dark past, I spent more time with myself than any person ever should, but after that trip, I realized how crucial it was to let go of the fear of being alone — a fear that only came from a toxic yesterday — and to embrace the reality that I can be by myself today and feel OK.
More than OK: I can be by myself and heal. I can be by myself and thrive. I can be by myself and have an adventure that helps me discover who that person is I lost so long ago.
Hiking by myself is my Upventur. What’s yours?