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Article: Solitaire (Written in 1998)

Solitaire (Written in 1998)

The reader who has perused a bit among my other “essays” knows that I am pretty much a solitary hunter/rambler. I do it by myself. Perhaps some probing of the ramifications of this style of wandering would serve the reader- at least insofar as to protect him from serious mishap, and maybe to give a sense of why I love it so.

Make no underestimation of this practice- there are plenty of mishaps that can undo a lone man in the backcountry. So how do you approach going it alone? What can you take with you to mitigate disaster? 

Foremost among all factors necessary to going it alone is attitude. Plainly said, you are the decision maker. You, and you alone, determine where you are going, the route you will take, how quickly you need or want to get there, the pace you will travel, where and when you will camp, what you take with you, when you get up in the morning, what you have for breakfast absolutely everything is up to you. And to me, this is the core of solitairiness’ appeal. There is never any “discussion”, any “consultation” about where I’m going, when, or how fast. I just do it. I am not antisocial. I have a short list of wilderness companions who are extraordinarily competent folks I enjoy being with, and among us there is nary any friction. Frankly, two experienced, compatible, men increase overall backcountry camp efficiency by a factor of three, not just two, thoroughly compounding the effectiveness of either man alone. And I have been in the midst of some genuine hunting camps on occasion too, wherein I get along just fine with one and all.

Nevertheless, there is just nothing on God’s good earth to compare with the ultimate freedom of putting yourself, and only yourself, smack in the middle of good country. And your attitude, that you can and should and will do this alone, and do it well- is the very first prerequisite.

Of course, attitude should be underpinned by a solid base of experience, else it be foolhardiness. You will need a foundation of woodcraft with others who back each other up before I can recommend going it alone. The solitary rambler needs to have spent a lot of time sleeping on the ground, needs to know how to build a fire anywhere under any kind of conditions, needs the bone-deep knowledge that most things that go bump in the night are not going to get you (and the knowledge of the rare occasions where one might). He must have experienced every kind of weather. He needs to have winnowed his gear to the point where he has the best there is and he knows how to use it, and use it well, in his sleep.

And before he ever steps off into the wilderness alone, whether for the first time or the thousandth, he must accept complete responsibility for being alert. Every hour, every minute, every second, you, and only you, can determine what you do: Where you place every single foot, where you cross the creek, where you put on your parka, where you erect your tent. Every single one of these things and a million other ones have consequences- bad ones if done incorrectly.

Nobody does it correctly every time. I’ve survived my share of mishaps. Like the time a snowtrench collapsed on me in the middle of the night under 33 inches of new snow. I bailed out of my bag in my near-altogether and managed to get a fire going and steadily improved my situtation the rest of the long night; indeed, the rest of the long blizzard. Maybe being in that trench wasn’t even my “fault”- nature can and will throw surprises at you. What would have been my fault is if I had died (which I surely would have) because I didn’t have a fire starting kit and the experience and the determination and the confidence (remember attitude?) to use it effectively. (See the “Getting Further Back” speech for advice on what to always have with you). A very large percentage of people in such circumstances would have plunged off wild trying to “get out” of there and would surely have gone under instead. We read about them every year. Especially if they’re alone. I had enough solid field experience by the time this scrape came along that running for the “exit” never even entered my mind.

For the facts are the facts when you’re alone in the backcountry. And one fact is that there simply isn’t an “easy” or “quick” exit- no “escape clause”. You can’t turn the game off. You have to go through the gears to get out the same as you did to get in. To hunt really back in, where the hunting is best, all by yourself, you have to accept all the facts, and live them.

And there is nothing in the world as beautiful, as free, as self-revealing, as rewarding as this. You will, quite often, touch the face of God.

Patrick Smith

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