In far western Pennsylvania I stood deep within the Allegheny National Forest. I looked up, surrounded by megalithic mossy boulders and tall pines. It was quiet, the only sound was the faint protests of branches creaking in the fall breeze. I fumbled into my pocket and produced my cell phone, just to be sure. Searching....it tried in vain to find service. I breathed a mental sigh of relief. I was alone.
It's been a little more than a year since I completed my volunteer service with the United States Peace Corps. I've learned these moments of solitude come few and far between. I had never noticed that before I left. In fact, I had avoided these moments altogether. I know humans are meant to be social creatures, but the American millennial takes communication to the max. I used to spend so much time and energy just trying to not be alone. All my downtime was spent with friends or in constant communication with them through text. Before I became a Peace Corps volunteer, I could spend more than 24 hours alone without becoming cranky and aloof.
So when I left the shores of the United States behind, I worried about being alone. I had done my homework. I had scoured over blogs and online journals, reading about the inevitable isolation, the homesickness, the loneliness that came with Peace Corps service. I read about depression and alcoholism. I braced myself for the day when my service location would be revealed.
I was placed in a small town in Mongolia -- many of those things I had read about became my reality. I was isolated, hours away from any other volunteer or native English speaker. During my downtime, I would sit in my little sheep felt ger (yurt) and let loneliness and homesickness creep in.
One day I decided to take a walk. I didn't know where I was going to walk to, or what I was going to do when I got there, I just knew I couldn't sit around and think anymore. I ducked out of my ger. My neighbor, Dawkraa, was chopping firewood in the yard.
"Haashaa yawakh we?" he asked, letting the wood chips settle after his last swing. Where are you going?
I only pointed off into the distance, at a hilltop peak just outside of our tiny town.
Dawkraa followed my finger then gave me a quizzical look. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to hammering away at a knotty log.
I walked out of town and up the hilltop, passing the bones of livestock and wild animals. At the rocky summit, I stopped. The only sound was the breeze running through the grassy steppe. I was alone. Maybe it was the scenery, maybe it was the fact that I had actually left and did something, but the solitude was therapeutic. It was meditative. This walk would mark the first of many over my two years in the Peace Corps.
Sometimes I walked south out into the vast open steppe, into a sea of grass where the wind made the blades move like ocean waves. Other times I'd walk north, to stony hilltops and boulder laden summits. I walked passed rusted out cars and dried up lake beds. Through herds of goats and along the trails of camels. Sometimes I brought my guitar or listened to music on my Ipod. I'd read a book perched atop a boulder or the skeleton of a forgotten car. I'd journal, or just sit and watch the landscape. Suddenly being alone wasn't so scary or depressing, it had become a beautiful and necessary part of my life. I realized that this search for solitude was one of the healthiest decisions I had made during my service.
Then I came home. And I slapped a shiny new smartphone into my palm. This new, popular thing enabled me to never ever be alone again. At first, I scorned the piece of technology. But within days, no –hours, I had fallen under its addictive spell. I was instantly connected at all times to friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers through an overflowing list of mediums and apps.
Not only was being “alone” a thing of the past, it was virtually inexcusable.
We're expected to instantly respond to every text, return every call, comment on every post, share every tweet, like every photo. To tell someone you didn't have your phone on or that you had left it at home would be met with skepticism and irritation. It wasn't long before solitude, the one thing I had such trouble coping with in the Peace Corps, was one of the things I missed most about my service.
So I started doing what I had done in Mongolia. I started taking walks. But this time, they weren't to cope with my isolation. I needed them to seek out the quiet, to get away from the stress of continual connectedness and the guilt of an inbox of e-mails I hadn't yet responded to.
I stood in the middle of Allegheny National Forest, in the heart of Appalachia, to find that peace I had found more than a year ago on the steppes of Asia. Now, to go to where the reaches of technology couldn't find me. I was there with just myself, among the rocks and trees, and once again it was meditative. It had all come full circle, I had hiked in the past to get out of my home, stimulate my mind and do something new for myself instead of wallowing in homesickness. Now, I hiked to slow things down, to take a moment to myself without worrying or getting caught up in the fast paced society around me.
As I crunched my way over the fallen leaves toward the outskirts of Allegheny, I slowly heard the grumblings of machinery. The whirling of tires and sputtering of engines. I pushed through the underbrush and thorny branches out onto a paved road at the edge of the National Forest. Standing on the shoulder I felt my phone suddenly vibrate, ding, and buzz in my pocket as the messages and e-mails that had been held in limbo finally came rushing in with renewed cellular service. I wasn't bothered though. I knew I would walk again soon.
Justin is a writer, returned Peace Corps volunteer, part time archaeologist, summer tour guide, and blogger. He is currently leading summer community service programs for students in Southeast Asia. For more stories about Mongolia and beyond, check out his blog at Between the Contours.