Time Alone

Derecho damaged woods.

I spend plenty of time alone in nature. Mostly it is during walks, or jogs, or bicycle rides. There is no desire to spend an extended time there. “Nature” borders on the sad these days because of its degradation by humans.

When on my grand tour in 1974, I spent time alone. Unless I clicked with someone, it made little difference if I ever saw them a second time. Landing at Heathrow, taking buses, trains, private cars, and in one case, a hovercraft across the English Channel, most of my travels were with someone I met at a youth hostel or hotel, and then for only the time until our next destination. I enjoyed spending the end of each day with others at a hostel. By morning I was ready to venture on my own to interact with the places I’d come so far to see.

Things clicked when I met Gerhard on the green at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. We met before a performance of Twelfth Night and hung out together afterward. He invited me to visit in Vienna when I made it there in six to eight weeks, and I did. I even tried to get a job in Vienna to extend my stay with him and his room mate from a small village in the Carinthia Alps. When I returned to Europe for military service, while living in Mainz, I took a train to Vienna to visit them again. We corresponded for a long time afterward.

Sometimes I met people I wanted to shake. I met Jorge from Argentina at a hostel in Munich. He was a decade or more older than me and literally falling apart as his partial plate broke twice while I was with him. He brought too much gear, as if he planned to live in some European city permanently, lingering for hours at a local cafe. “He carries with him such a large portion of Argentina that it will break his back someday,” I wrote.

My traveling companion is quite a mess. He smokes very much and eats chocolate and drinks coffee and doesn’t exercise much, all of which combined lead to his poor physical health. Today too, he broke his partial and as a result is walking with his front tooth missing. Also, his temperament makes him very slow and lethargic in moving, and more important, in his thinking. He cannot perceive the world as I do, but acts like a selfish mouse searching only within the egocentric world of self. I often wish to abandon him, but just as many times I see him as needing help. At any rate, I’ll travel with him for as far as Amsterdam.

Personal Journal, Oct. 22, 1974

While I was with Jorge I was encouraged to write more, take photos, travel, and etc. All things seemed better at first. We made it together as far as Heidelberg. He was missing his native Buenos Aires, and my patience with his encumbered companionship was wearing thin. I left him to travel to Cologne alone.

I’m reading a book called Notes from an Apocalypse by Irish author Mark O’Connell. In it he describes going off by himself to the remote Scottish Highlands in a form of pseudo right of passage or retreat. What he found was he couldn’t really get away from other people. A Royal Air Force airplane flew over his campsite, close enough to see and be seen by the pilot, who was on a training mission, or perhaps making a bombing run to Syria, he wasn’t sure which. So it is anywhere on the globe. The mark of we humans is everywhere. In Iowa that is particularly so.

When Big Grove Township was first settled, it was known for the saw mill on Mill Creek. The native oak, walnut, hickory, ash, elm and cottonwood that once thrived among numerous pure springs were long gone by the time we got here. Soon after the big grove was removed, so was the sawmill. Such is living in Iowa, a place with very few natural areas. Even the farmland across the state relies on artificial inputs to produce crops. Every place is subdivided and deeded to someone.

In modern life we can get time alone yet there is always something pulling us back into the maw of humanity. Lately, during the coronavirus pandemic, time alone means a flight into the imagination, into memory. I’m okay with that. If I yearn to do things in person with people, I also accept the restrictions designed to prevent spread of COVID-19. In a time of contagion we get plenty of time alone.

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