On hiking, isolation and social distancing

A student reminisces on seeking seclusion in Los Angeles mountains and the lessons they’ve learned since then.


Living in Los Angeles, solitude is something hard to come by. 

I found this out immediately when I arrived in January to study there for the spring semester. Every fast food place I went to was packed at all hours of the day. There was nowhere to park my car at my apartment complex. I couldn’t find solitude in my apartment — three other people who lived there always kept coming and going. 

Even sitting by myself in the car, witnessing the endless stretch of infamous LA traffic felt like a social activity. When surrounded by the pressures of constant interaction, loneliness is something to be desired, not feared. Every time I came back from a day of work and class, my head was echoing with the noises I was surrounded by that day, and it rarely went away before the next day started. 

I needed to be alone to reset my brain to a place of peace.

On my very first Sunday in LA, I hiked up the Burbank Peak Trail in Griffith Park. The crowds of people journeying up to see the Wisdom Tree looked like a group of tourists in line for a ride at Disneyland.

At the top, after making my way through people taking selfies in front of the lonesome pine tree, I looked out over my new stomping grounds to see skyscrapers and movie studios with cars snaking through the city. Through the haze, I was met with a view of the massive mountains of the Angeles National Forest. 

They taunted me with their promise of seclusion and isolation — I had to meet them.

A week later, I drove north up the Angeles Crest Highway through the canyons and along the mountainsides of the national forest. Every turn of the road took me further away from the LA towns and higher up in solitude. After driving about 10 miles into the mountain range, I pulled off at the Hoyt Mountain through the Grizzly Flat Trail and was delighted to find no other cars parked there. 

After an hour-and-a-half journey up Hoyt, encountering not a soul aside from three black crows circling above my head, I reached the summit. To my right I saw the skyscrapers of downtown poking their heads out of the haze in the distance. To my left was an endless range of mountains, constantly increasing in height, daring me to climb them.

Week after week, I explored the forest. I broke every rule of hiking by yourself — I didn’t tell anyone where I was going and I didn’t leave a note on the dashboard of my car. Traveling as far into the mountain range as I could was the only escape I had from the absolute madness of life below the haze.

The last time I hiked in the Angeles National Forest, something felt different. I started my ascent. Step after step, head down, I found myself becoming impatient with the climb. 

I didn’t feel the same wonderful loneliness that I did every other time. Instead, I found the steps to be tedious and the views uninspiring. 

I checked my watch as I walked, hoping I would make it to the top in time to get back before happy hour was over. As I reached the summit, I found the mountain was fittingly called Mount Disappointment. 

Rather than looking out into the vast mountain range ahead of me, trying to find what mountain to climb next, I looked into the cityscape in the distance. Despite being in LA for almost two months at this point, the isolation of the National Forest was more familiar to me than the bars and shops in West Hollywood. 

While I was spending my days in the clouds, the other students in the program were out in LA meeting the right people and getting experience to build their careers. I had found the loneliness I was looking for, and spent an ample amount of time in that seclusion, but I had barely done anything to help me prepare for starting my career in the entertainment industry. My network of people I know felt as if it was shrinking, not growing. 

I quickly turned back and began rushing down the mountain, even running at certain flatter areas to finish as soon as possible. 

I passed another lonesome traveler taking pictures and exploring every plant and tree that he was interested in. His pace was slow and deliberate, whereas I hadn’t taken any pictures on this trail. I didn’t even sit down to rest and appreciate the fresh forest air one single time. My head was staring at the ground for so much of the hike I couldn’t even remember what type of trees I was surrounded by. 

On the next free day I had after Mount Disappointment, I didn’t do my usual drive into the Angeles National Forest to find solitude. I stayed in my apartment and watched TV.

Two weeks after my last hike on Mount Disappointment, I had to return home because of COVID-19. In the times of social distancing, I now have all the loneliness I could have ever desired. 

When I was in LA, the only way to escape the societal madness was to travel up a mountain and pretend that the city’s chaotic buzzing didn’t exist below me. Now, when we are all stuck at home, there is no social madness at all, only solitude.

My hike up Mount Disappointment showed me that when I take anything to the extreme, including the precious loneliness that I so desperately desired, it leaves me wanting more. It is clearer now more than ever that we desire social interactions — we constantly look for the answer of when this age of forced isolation will end.

Now that the world has paused, I think I ought to do the same. Instead of obsessing over what I’m craving, let’s take a moment to think about what I have before it disappears without warning.

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