I am not shy, but I am elusive. I like one-person tents and journaling. I can hike for hours without saying a word. I am the one most likely to disappear from the group after the camp dishes are done and the food bag is hanging neatly from a branch, lines pulled tight and knots securely fixed. I will be sitting on a rock, arms around my legs, chin resting on my knees.
I always thought my barriers would go down, scraped raw by adventure and the truth it reveals.
But they have not.
On an Outward Bound Semester in Alaska, I kept my cards so close to my chest that my teammates expressed their frustration by joking that I had the advantage over everyone else in the mountaineering section because I had been practicing self-arrests my entire life.
Sam lowered me into a crevasse and then later told me I was more willing to trust others with my life than with my thoughts. “What are you so afraid of?” he asked.
But I didn’t feel afraid; I felt emotionally depleted, my nerves fraying against the knife edge of eight other people pressed up against me at all times. At night, we slept three to a tent, listening to wolves circling the perimeter of camp. By day, we were stuck on a raft negotiating remote sections of river or roped together while crossing glaciers, crevasses rippling underneath thin layers of snow. There was no escape, no chance to wander off, no place to shut the door.
Halfway through our expedition, we sat in a circle and wrote out “pros and grows” for one another. Danielle told me it’s okay to show emotion. Chris said not to zone out as much. Sam asked me to express myself more freely, to trust that others would respect and love me more for it. They all said I was too quiet. I wanted to tell them to wait. The way they wait for the weather to clear or the waves to settle or the sun to rise or the water to boil.
Sitting at the base of a tree with my head against the trunk, I tried to chase the words out of my chest, to find the answer to the question, “what’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong,” I told them all. “I just like to be alone.” When the dishes were done and the food bag stowed, I went to the edge of the shore to skip rocks. I could hear them talking and laughing, playing card games and looking at the map. I threw a rock along the water’s surface, watched it skip twice and then sink.
When I am pushed, the words disappear. My head become a blank piece of paper. Not even the mountains can change that. When I am told to, “speak up,” I shut down. I wear my introversion like a shield. I crave the silence of being alone in the woods, the way it falls around my shoulders. Being stuck in a group, even the best group, is difficult for me. I can’t tune others out and my overactive mind processes and analyzes everything. I retreat because I am exhausted. I need a space without words, a space to close the door. A space that most expeditions and adventures don’t easily allow.
I have struggled to find the balance between accepting who I am and pushing myself beyond the comfort zone of my solitude, to balance my love of adventure and connection with my need for silence and space. The adventures I love most are laced tightly between the risk of avalanches and long falls, the recirculating holes and entrapments of rivers moving like freight trains. My physical vulnerability requires an ally, someone to balance out the risk, to negotiate the hazards, to pull me out of the wreckage when nature’s hand falls hard against my fragile heartbeat. My emotional vulnerability requires space.
The risk of adventure puts me in the position of having to find a way to cultivate my own peace within the dynamics of a group. It forces me to rely on those around me, to go in pairs or groups, to literally tie myself to another person. And that makes me nervous. Not because I don’t trust others to catch me when I fall, but because I know it won’t be long before the group dynamics sap my energy completely and I retreat within myself, trying to find a way to recharge.
Sam told me to express myself more freely, to trust that others would love and accept me more for it, but my reserve is not just a trust issue. My heart is willing to slip out of the shadows and into the light of the campfire ring, but it takes time. Time for trust, but also time to recharge, time to be silent, to organize the events of the day and process the emotions welling up within me.
I am cautious and careful. I like people, I enjoy their company, but I choose my adventure partners slowly, needing those who are at home with the inevitability of my silence. Because no matter how much I enjoy someone’s company, I will always want to slip away. I will always need a space to shut the door of my heart and swallow the key. No matter how long I’ve known someone, no matter what the adventure might be, I will always find myself circling the perimeter of camp, my eyes locked on the horizon, my words tucked neatly under my tongue, my heart grateful for those who can let me go, who understand my propensity to wander off in search of silence, knowing that eventually I’ll come back to the group.
I always do.
Photo by Iswanto Arif