The Inner Maze (On My Own, But Not Alone)

| April 20, 2015 | 1 Comment

me and a mountain lion

By Chris Kassar

YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN. I chuckle upon seeing this sign hanging in the ranger station. When it comes down to it, aren’t we always? I ponder. Inspired by the alarming level of uncertainty that accompanies my recently bestowed college diploma, I wander into the desert seeking clarity about my next step and trying to track down a confidence that consistently evades me.

Early the next morning, rain kisses the roof over my head to welcome a new day. Still naked, I roll out of my tent to find a double rainbow arcing over a vast landscape punctuated by fiery fins and jagged cliffs. My feet touch the soft cool sand and I notice that mine are not the only footprints on the damp earth. I am out here by myself, but I most certainly am not alone …

Thus, my twenty-first birthday begins. Mountain lion tracks, only hours old, encircle the area in which I just dreamt. Immersed deep in the desert on my inaugural solo backpacking venture, I scan the crimson ridges that tower above, hoping to catch a glimpse of his majestic silhouette. The biologist in me knows he could be miles away by now; my gut says he still watches from a nearby perch.

Chills pass through me and my body slumps to the sand. No one would blame me if I bailed. I could hike the nine miles back to the car and still have a story to tell. This thought flies away on the slight sage-scented breeze. My entire being—riddled with goose bumps—urges me forward. These bumps are born from excited anticipation for what hides over the next rise amid the solitude and silence I seek. I realize that I am alive here, not afraid.

For the next five days, my feline friend and I traverse our way through the aptly named “Maze,” a series of red rock twists and turns peppered by spooky spires, wild walls, and welcoming mesas buried deep in the heart of Utah’s canyon country. With map, compass, and my internal GPS, I forge a path through nameless washes and up skinny slot canyons to tiny springs, which are the only source of life-giving water left in this truly wild and rare blank spot on the map. At each oasis, fresh tracks precede mine, serving as a reminder of my elusive yet loyal hiking partner. Some would say he stalks me; I feel we are on a journey together, sharing the search for the one element we both need to survive.

Walking in the wild without human company feels and is different. The sense of uncertainty that drove me here fades and I quickly discover my rhythm. I have time to listen to my internal iPod as it plays the music of my mind, heart, and soul. With no distractions, I can see for the first time. The colors of this Martian landscape burn more vividly and the undulations of my inner terrain become clearer and more navigable. I face challenges that demand self-reliance and discover a peace not encountered in everyday life. I cherish the freedom to flow as I wish and the contemplative space to work on my most important relationship.

After five days, I climb the Golden Staircase and emerge from the Maze leaving only tracks and self-doubt. With me, I carry a deep well of certainty, confidence, and inspiration from which I draw each day. Like a spring in the desert, the insight gained from solo time in nature provides a hidden, life-giving spark critical for surviving and thriving in the everyday. Just like my wildcat companion, this newfound internal strength may be hidden from my sight, but I have no doubt it is very close at all times.

In the 15 years since Chris walked through the Maze with a mountain lion, she has made a point of taking at least one solo backpacking trip per year. For more on solo travel, click here.

Category: Hiking & Backpacking

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  1. gaildstorey says:

    Wow, Chris, I loved this piece about your solo hike and your wildcat companion. Can especially relate to feeling alive rather than fearful. Right now I’m supporting my husband’s 6-month hike of the Continental Divide Trail by resupplying him from small towns along the way. This morning I hiked in a ways with him on the Acoma Zuni Trail, NM and hiked out alone–37 degrees and freezing rain, but gorgeous, as is all of the wildly varying terrain of New Mexico! Happy trails to you!

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