How Adventuring Alone Became My Ticket to Happiness

This article originally appeared on Outside

Sweat slips down my cheek as I glide my fingers through the crisp water. I've reached the turnaround point of the day's kayak jaunt, and already, the lactic acid in my arms feels plentiful enough to fill the waterway I'm paddling: Cleveland's pocket of Lake Erie.

I attempt a shoulder stretch, grab my sun-melted snacks, then look around for potential hazards. No sign of rain clouds, no boats in my periphery. It's just me, a couple of seagulls, and sparkling freshwater to the horizon.

This, I whisper to myself between M&M bites, is awesome.

Until recently, my outdoor pursuits were as much about socializing as they were about admiring my surroundings--camping with family, trekking with my university's Outdoor Adventure Club, weekend peak-bagging with New York City friends to get a nature fix.

Solo outings never made it on my radar. It's not that I wasn't willing to try them; it just never crossed my mind. I always had a friend, or my husband, willing to tag along. Plus, as a frequent misreader of maps, I felt safest with a buddy in case things went awry.

As it turns out, knowing things could go awry--and that it'd be entirely on me to puzzle my way out--is one of many reasons I ended up falling in love with solo adventures about two years ago.

In 2020, my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Cleveland for his job. I had grand plans for us to explore the new outdoor playgrounds at our fingertips, from Cuyahoga Valley National Park trails to Lake Erie's vast waters. Then came a slight hiccup: the pandemic put him, as an emergency medicine physician, in the hospital around the clock. He barely had time for sleep, let alone weekend paddles or mid-week hikes. My Cleveland adventure dreams, like our shiny new sea kayaks, collected dust.

"You should hike with your friends," he'd always encouraged me, worrying that his absence was the reason I'd seemingly hung up my hiking boots. What I didn't want to acknowledge to him, or to myself, was that I'd yet to actually make new friends within a 50-mile radius.

Meeting friends in your thirties in a new city is tough--particularly when the majority of people your age in said city seem to have kids, while you're still happily navigating dog number one. Add a worldwide health crisis to the mix, and making connections feels downright impossible.

To be fair, I'm partly to blame. I chickened out of outdoor meetup after outdoor meetup, then got flaked on once and quit my quest to meet hiking buddies altogether. I don't need anyone else, I told myself in one of many melodramatic pep talks. It was true, but I still spent way too many weekends sitting at home before finally deciding to venture out on a solo hiking trip.

In October 2020, I went for a hike in CVNP alone to admire autumn leaves. Four miles in, I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so alive.

I had picked CVNP's section of the blue-blaze Buckeye Trail, a state-wide loop that includes a section of Ohio's only national park. This, I'd been told, was one of the urban national park's wildest stretches. Deep gorges, pine-fringed waterfalls, and shaggy trees create a patchwork of unspoiled northeast Ohio nature--a lattice I memorized out of over-the-top vigilance, knowing my tendency to get turned around.

I was more aware of my surroundings than I'd ever been while hiking that day. The attentiveness became meditative, almost transcendent. I studied the twists and knobs of trees, perked my ears at each forest sound, and did something I almost never made time for with the proliferation of screens in my life. I listened to, and actually heard, my own thoughts. Every word bubble on that initial trail pointed to a newfound truth: solo hiking is my happy place.

I chased that hyper-aware high throughout CVNP during our first Cleveland autumn and eventually added the skin-tingling shock of frozen winter outings when December hit. Dwindling temperatures meant thinning park crowds. On many Yaktrax-required days, I saw no one else on the trails. I knew that without the safety net of fellow hikers, I'd need to be even more focused. Caution, paired with heavy snow that turned my well-trodden CVNP routes into a winter wonderland, sent my adrenaline soaring all over again.

When spring hit, I had one final solo sport to check off of my by-myself bucket list. It was the one I fretted about most: kayaking. I didn't fear the actual act of it; I've paddled on more vacations than I can count. I feared the logistics--the seemingly unsolvable puzzle of loading a 50-pound sea kayak on my SUV's roof rack with no help, navigating Lake Erie's boat-stirred wakes and sporadic moods, then hauling my 'yak back on the rack after assaulting my upper body with an hours-long paddle.

After months of research, I pulled the trigger on a pricey lift-assist rack to help me tackle those roadblocks. It worked like a charm. Now, it was time to face intimidating Lake Erie. I knew I'd gained the solo-adventure awareness skills (and the safety gear) to do so.

If hiking on my own was a path to aliveness, kayaking alone was my ticket to cloud nine. Pride coursed through my veins when I first launched my vessel from the marina. My chest, initially tightened by nerves, burst with happiness when the river finally let out into the freshwater abyss I'd long admired back on shore.

From that first sunny paddle on Lake Erie to many teeth-clenching winter hikes in snowy CVNP, adventuring alone has become like medicine for me. It's also pushed me to leap beyond my comfort zone, including a 2022 solo trip to Greenland, where I chased the northern lights and shared trails with more musk oxen than people.

This newfound confidence has done more than up my adventure game, though. It's helped me put myself out there to meet new people--and it's worked. Through meetups, apps, and connecting with local outdoor photographers via social media, my adventure-friend circle has ballooned. But at least once per month, I schedule time to hit nature with my new favorite trail buddy: me.

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