Entering Silence

How one woman survived three days in the wilderness—alone.
By Laura Gates

I shivered in the pitch-black night as a steady rain showered my head. I sank deeper into a state of abject loneliness with every miserable drop. My saturated sleeping bag weighed me down as I searched blindly for my flashlight, all the while berating myself for not tying up the tarp before I fell asleep beneath a formerly clear, starry night.

Feeling panicky on the first night of my solo experience in the woods, I imagined the worst—three days of rainy, damp desolation. What am I doing here? I wondered. I could be home, snuggled up with my husband in our cozy bed!

And then it hit me. I realized that this moment was exactly why I had come here—to face my demons head-on, to ride out the fear of being alone in the dark and of being eaten, possibly, by a bear. Isn’t that what a vision quest is all about? Flinging oneself into the wilderness (in this case, a California state park on Labor Day weekend, but still) to test one’s inner strength and hopefully receive some sort of life guidance, perspective, and inspiration?

For the last 10 years, I had contemplated embarking on a quest like this with awe and trepidation. An extrovert by nature, I thrive on the company of others. I can’t be alone in my own house for five minutes without feeling anxious, so how could I endure three entire days by myself? I feared I would go crazy with no one to talk to, engulfed by the deafening silence of nature.

To my surprise, I discovered that nature is extremely loud. Have you ever heard throngs of blue jays chattering overhead at the crack of dawn? I was definitely not alone—from the disturbed gopher under my sleeping bag (was I camped on his house?) to the constant parade of insects, birds, and critters, I was in a forest teaming with life and endless entertainment.

Two days later as I packed my gear, I had a hard time believing the time had passed so quickly. Suddenly the power of facing and overcoming my deepest fears overwhelmed me, and I fell to my knees sobbing. A strength I never knew existed inside me welled up as I realized I could now be alone and unafraid.

I shouldered my backpack, danced a little jig to celebrate my emancipation, and walked out of the wilderness a changed woman.