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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

The Medicinal Value of Camping Alone

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


The headlights died as I clicked the engine off. Leaning forward, confirming the darkness, a whole slurry of doubt came flooding into my mind. Alone? In the wilderness, that is absolutely crazy. My friends' responses now making sense: Why? How are you going to pass your time? What if something goes wrong?

Why did this trip have to start at night? After driving four hours into the middle of the desert, I still found myself hesitant to get out of the car. The landscape I’d been so eager to be in was now a cold, dark mystery outside the safe little bubble that got me here.

It was obvious, I’d gone too long without camping. The battle was lost, the last year made me a city boy. Setting up a tent in the dark sounded like an impossible task, as did cooking. But I reminded myself, You have no other choice. And I was right. That was the point, I had to survive by myself. Shelter, food, entertainment, back to the basics. With no cell phone service to procrastinate any further, I stepped outside.

This past year I struggled a lot with personal and career drama. Life had become a sea of oysters without pearls. I’d lost hope in mankind, in myself. The only thing that made sense was to pull away from society completely and get lost in the desert for a while.

Standing with my feet in the sand, gazing up at a sky of shimmering pearls sent a tear rolling down my cheek. In that moment I was reminded that the first breath you take in nature is the most healing.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

When you are camping alone, there is so much to do. It is stressful at first. Normally someone is building the fire, somebody else is setting up the tents, and I’m meandering with a beer. But there weren’t any type A friends to let do the work, just myself, my looming hunger, and an everlasting sea of boulders and Joshua Trees.

Tent, food, fire. What came first? Perhaps a quick night hike would help me decide? No, it was late. But the stars looked so good! An owl hooted in the distance. A few deep breaths and it hit me… Screw the tent. Sleep in the car— on such a nice night, a hike and a trail mix/beer dinner is what I want.

There’s no other agendas here, only my own. And I am in nature - glorious; animalistic; wild nature. Prep the pack, grab the headlamp, and step away from the vehicle… The only way to truly settle into the outdoors is to go on a night hike. There is no greater sense of solitude than stepping out into a dark void alone.

That’s not to say I wasn’t peering over my shoulder at a constant clip. The imagination was on a fierce tear, sending all sorts of monsters darting between bushes behind me, cackling in the rocks, and plotting to beam me up for anatomical research.

Just me, myself, and the crunch of gravel under foot. You don’t always take a hike, the hike often takes you. I felt pulled into the night, something in the desert was essential to my journey so on I marched.

Excitement, exploration, danger. I felt like a kid again, in the ultimate playground. It was a full on cleanse of all the stress, anxiety, and depression that life had smeared all over me. Dirt on my boots and crisp air in my lungs. Not a helicopter, siren, or sound of rubber bouncing over a manhole. I was back in the promised land.

Solitude brings gratitude, or so I thought, standing atop a massive rock pile, watching a bright orange moon rise over the mountain to the east. I nearly spit out my beer when I first saw the flash of color over the ridge, certain this would be the moment I’d be abducted.

Instead, I found myself in an eternal moment. The kind you don’t forget, the kind that is yours and yours alone. The diamond in the rough when you’ve been lost, making you realize all along that the steps you took were right, because they brought you here. This like every moment before, you are exactly where you need to be.

Yes, beautiful things lay waiting in the desert at night. The coyotes seemed to agree, as they howled out in a grandiose chorus… Likely springing a trap on unsuspecting prey, but I preferred to imagine them singing for me. Cheering me on in this desert homecoming, naturally insisting that it was time for another beer.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

...Like a baked potato I awoke in my car, harshly reminded of the desert's bipolar temperatures. Dehydrated in the night, the trail mix a poor excuse for a dinner. A dry mouth and a hangover, the night’s majesty ripped away in the blink of an eye by the harsh reality of the sun.

This is where the rubber meets the road in the solo camping experience. Like a zombie I rose to search for water, which was the first step in a long line of monumental tasks to become a viable person again. It is through such occasions that one can find a new way of living, when laziness has no place and organizing the brain is akin to advanced calculus.

A valuable lesson was learned: always set up your camp before having fun. Waking up in a hot tent has the easy remedy of an open flap. A belly full of a quality dinner makes for a zen morning, and drinking water with your beer in the desert ensures a steady rise.

The hot sun spared no mercy as I worked, fighting distraction and hangover alike. It was breakfast, the pit toilet, setting up my tent and shade structure all before being able to relax. Such a valuable experience in the riches of being prepared and no one to blame but myself.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Finally, with a cool iced tea in the shade, I pondered the subtle process of camping. The beauty that solitude in the wilds brings isn’t just in the moments you share with nature—it is the process that we as humans must take to be in nature.

In our normal lives, we control the temperature, the lighting, the music. When we are in the outdoors we relinquish our control, leaving our basic needs as the only thing to worry about.

Building shelter, providing sustenance, and recreating alone is a process constantly in motion. Solitude is about finding peace in the process, reconnecting to nature through work - because the essence of any ecosystem is work.

A jackrabbit bounds past my camp, a prairie falcon circles overhead. Two desert residents, working away as they have for centuries. Just witnessing the dance of nature is to participate in it. Sitting quietly, listening to the wind and its birds flirting from branch to branch. The creak of the Joshua Tree stretching to the sun. The scamper of a proud lizard, the far off rattle of a flying grasshopper. A world that you can only be a part of in desolation.

For an animal, there is no other reason for living except to live. To eat, to sleep, to procreate. It is incredibly simple. For humans it could be the same, yet we’ve made our basic needs for survival far more complicated. We get wrapped up in/with so many details that it becomes easy to forget the simplicity of life. Finding connection with moments of stillness is a powerful way to recharge the soul.

Each day after the hangover, life got much easier. Facing the elements alone builds character- to handle loneliness, boredom, and fear forces you to face yourself. Like seeing your soul in the mirror you become aware of what aspects can be improved on, or cut back. In other words: It allows you to mold yourself into who you want to be.

Just as the process of camping alone is always in motion, so too is the process of self improvement. What I learned from my desert sojourn became a groundwork for my personal development. It inspired me to set my mental health as a priority, as well as embrace my need for adventure.

That voyage to Joshua Tree was the gateway drug to a whole new reality. Solo travel into the wilderness has become a staple of my life, and has furthered my own personal evolution while intentionally getting lost in America’s most beautiful landscapes.

There is a whole world out there to explore, and infinite depth inside yourself to harness. So grab your pack, headlamp, and step away from the vehicle.

Don’t be scared, it is all part of the program.

Joshua Tree National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Check back in next week for more by Scott Carnahan on the Pathloom blog!


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