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The Art of Going Alone: A Story in Three Parts

Part One: The Concert

The Summer of 2018 was not the best I’ve ever had. I was going through an unexpected breakup, my job was boring me to death, and there were heat waves that left my bedroom at upwards of 95 degrees. I was feeling restless, lost and uncertain – my confidence low. So I did what I normally do when I’m feeling out of sync: I stayed busy. I started hiking on weekends, made loads of plans with friends, signed up for a few trail maintenance crews. The summer went by quickly, as it always does, so I started to stack up plans for my September. Nearly every weekend was filled with out of town adventures or people visiting. A whirlwind of beautiful distractions.

The final piece of the puzzle came from a spontaneous decision in mid-August. I had found out that Josh Ritter – a longtime favorite singer-songwriter of mine who I wrote about here – and Jason Isbell, a new favorite singer-songwriter of mine who I’m sure I’ll write about eventually, were playing a show together. I was over the moon at the idea, having never seen Isbell play live. Only one problem: the show was at an amphitheater outside of Missoula, Montana.

I’d known about the show for a few months but hadn’t thought too much of it other than a daydream. I knew I’d never find someone to go with me, since the only Josh Ritter fans I knew were busy that weekend or lived out of state. But it stayed in the back of my mind and I kept checking for tickets. Finally, a few weeks before the date, I decided fuck it, I would just go alone.

And that’s exactly what I did. I left my office in downtown Portland on a Friday afternoon and drove 5 hours to Spokane, Washington. After a quick overnight rest, a shower, and breakfast at a local diner, I hopped on the road again and was in Missoula by midday. I hung out with my AirBnB host for a bit, went for a walk to get lunch (and ice cream) and before long it was time to head to the show.

The Kettlehouse Amphitheater is an amazing venue set in the hills of Bonner, Montana, along the bank of the Blackfoot River. The evening was still warm as I took a seat on the grass and sipped a beer. It was a lovely view and a lovely night. I only felt odd being by myself at the very start. Then I settled in and watched my surroundings fill. Chatted a bit here and there with people squeezing their way onto patches of lawn around me. Missoula is small – the fact that everyone seemed to know everyone made me smile. I laid back and stared at the sky.

The show was amazing. I sang along with every song as loud as I could manage – my voice already hoarse from singing so much in the car. Ritter was as charming as ever and Isbell was pure precision. When it was over I was just so happy. I could not have cared less about being alone. That night, that trip was for me and only me. I packed up my things and let the crowd carry me toward my car. Back at my AirBnB I wrote in my journal, set my alarm, and went to bed. I had a 9 hour drive ahead of me the next day.

Part Two: The Ballet

A few weeks ago I got an email: 40% off tickets to Oregon Ballet Theatre's final performances of Cinderella for that weekend. I took a look and found there were still some good deals. I’d been seriously busy for weeks – picking up extra hours contracting for a second job on top of my already full life. I needed a change of pace and thought a trip to the ballet would be a nice treat. I marked the email as unread and went about my day, trying think of someone who might be willing to be so spontaneous. Before I could send a single text, it hit me: I didn’t really care. I hopped online and bought the cheapest single seat in the house.

The very next evening I sat one row from the front on the very far side of the auditorium and watched principal dancer Ansa Capizza leap and pirouette her way around the stage with a broomstick. I shared in the whimsy of the pumpkin carriage, and let myself get swept away by the romantic closing pas de deux. It was magical and I loved every minute of it.

During intermission I walked around to stretch my legs, visited the restroom, all the normal intermission things. I read the program and checked in with a few friends via text. I felt no urge to talk to anyone. I wasn’t worried if anyone else around me was having a good time, or disappointed by the stunted view of the stage. In the months since Missoula I’d been setting out on my own more often. I was comfortable being alone somewhere typically dominated by groups, more used to the feeling, easily content. It was exactly what I needed.

Part Three: The Book

Recently, I picked up a book from the library that’s been on my list for quite a while: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. Long story short, it is fascinating. I dove into it every chance I could for the three days it took me to finish it. The story is of Christopher Knight, “The North Pond Hermit.” Knight lived in the woods of central Maine by himself for 27 years, completely alone.

It’s partly based on interviews with Knight himself, partly with people from the community where he lived, and also some rumination from the author. Knight lived alone in a way that I could never imagine – I have strong connections to my friends and family, and I’m affectionate by nature. But the book got me thinking more generally about the idea of spending time alone. It’s becoming my preference lately to do things by myself. In a way, I think that trip to Montana set me free.

I’ve travelled on my own before, and had no hesitations while away about eating meals by myself, going to museums, wandering aimlessly, but there have been limitations. I remember being in Austria and considering seeing an opera. When a friend I’d made plans to meet up with wasn’t interested, I chose not to go at all. Back home I’ve always felt the strange societal pressure to have a plus-one for events. I’d buy two concert tickets instead of one and offer the extra to friends for free. I’d always be seeking hiking buddies and certainly wouldn’t go to something like the ballet by myself.

But now, I don’t think I’ll ever skip anything I truly want to do simply because I don’t have a companion. I’m ditching the stress of scrambling to find someone as spontaneous as I am for the freedom of doing exactly what I want, when I want, the way I want. I enjoy observing the world enough to never be bored. I like to sing along to songs when I drive, loudly, but I can only mostly carry a tune. I love the feeling of being on the road on my own. Out in nature on my own.

Finkel quotes many well known “solitaries” throughout his book. People like Lao-tzu, Emerson, and Thoreau. I don’t think of myself as having found that kind of grand level of wisdom. I’m not on a spiritual quest or religious pilgrimage. And all this isn’t to say I no longer like spending time with the people I love, or plan to exclude them from my life. I just think I needed a way to heal, a way to get my confidence back, a way to grow. Going out of my comfort zone allowed me to prove that I’m still solid on my own two feet. Alone but not lonely. Happy just to exist in the world. Just me.

Stay Backwords,

Ginger Duncan

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