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Going Alone

Discovering a universe without apparent meaning

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Kurt Bell

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First Edition

Copyright © 2017 by Kurt Bell

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For David Bixler
Who showed us the wild…

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Reviews of Going Alone

“Interesting is an insufficient and effeminate word to describe such depth, darkness, and hope you seem to aim to provide. Deep is better suited to describe the first twenty or so pages I’ve read thus far... Death is another word I would associate with it, too. Truly, it’s a little death this book of yours. Because when I read, I don’t just read, I adopt, integrate and discard. A book is powerful that causes you to kill a part of you and give birth to another... such is yours my friend.”

 

-Ali Hussein

“Bell's book dares you to do something most people hate: spending time alone with yourself. Going Alone addresses the very real insecurities most people think about. Once the lights are off and you're lying in bed and the cell phone is peeled from your hand; we think about: choices, regrets, and our untimely (but inevitable) meeting with death. Bell suggests not running away from such thoughts, but towards them, head on, preferably in a wilderness environment.

Where it's just you and The Great Indifference.

Even if the book doesn't motivate you to get outdoors, Bell's reflections on the desert, the meaning of a good life, and how to obtain a sense of objective virtue will be enough to lay the book down, take a moment...and listen.”


-Giuseppe Rastelli

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***WARNING***
Do not go alone to the wild unless you are willing to accept the very real risk of suffering and dying alone. Take some precaution to let others know where you will be, and when you will depart and return. Bring something to save your life, such as a first aid kit, and a satellite GPS phone or emergency beacon. Again, don’t go alone unless you are willing to accept the very real risk of suffering and dying alone, and are willing to accept responsibility for bringing pain to those who love and care about you.

Also, this is not a book of answers. Read on only if you are prepared to continue life with less, and are ready to die expecting nothing more. If so, then welcome to the result of my own Great Life Adventure.

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“Be you still, be you still, trembling heart; Remember the wisdom out of the old days: Him who trembles before the flame and the flood, And the winds that blow through the starry ways, Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood Cover over and hide, for he has no part With the lonely, majestical multitude.”

-W. B. Yeats

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Sections:

  1. Introduction

  2. The Cast

  3. Siberia Bridge

  4. My muse is a Corpse

  5. The Anxiety Hike

  6. The Path of Wildness

  7. Going Alone

  8. Stoic Poetry

  9. The Good Life

  10. My god is a Little God

  11. Final Thoughts

  12. Epilogue

  13. Ecclesiastes 9

  14. Recommended Reading

  15. Appendix

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INTRODUCTION
How the journey began

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     Greetings from a man in the past, with a sincere interest in your future.

     My name is Kurt Bell. I’m fifty-three years old as I write these words, which is important and relevant, as I do not think I could have written them at any other age. This book could not have been produced in my forties, or in any decade prior, or to follow. This is a story to be told from my fifties, and my one chance at describing the landscape and perspective of my life, as seen from this particular vantage and time. This is my Season of Philosophy, which is my way of describing a period of life for recording ideas and stories which are reflective and cumulative of the best lessons so far lived and discovered. This book is an effort at sharing my experience and advice with those to come, and who might be inclined to sit and read a bit from an aging man who will be gone from life much sooner than he’d like. For, despite my various trials and challenges, I do dearly love being alive, and it saddens me to know I’ll soon die and pass away forever to nothing. Saying this isn’t a forecast or prognosis of eminent death, but instead, is simply a sober reminder of the reality that life so often ends when we least expect, and sometimes just when we’re at last ready to live.

     I wrote this book with the young in mind, particularly, the young who are just now waking into adulthood with questions about the life they’ve found themselves living, and the future which yawns ahead like a strange road to uncertainty. I was in this same position once, from about age fifteen to forty-five, which was a long time of seemingly aimless drift. I’d like to help you shorten this period, and make better use of the precious days I believe we each only get once.

     It took me a long time to break free of life’s drift, and settle into what I call a life of courage, joy and independence. There’s no gimmick here. I have no ulterior motive. I don’t believe in an immortal soul, and therefore have no interest in saving mine or yours. However, I do sincerely want to be helpful, and I’d like to help you enjoy a better life, and begin living this better life sooner. I won’t ask you to believe anything I say, though I will explain the reasoning behind the arguments I propose. Let me start by sharing a little of my own background, and some of the events which contributed to the challenges I faced, and have mostly overcome.

     I arrived at young adulthood on my own. At age fifteen my family was in the process of breaking up, and I was operating as an adolescent without much adult guidance or oversight. I was lucky though that a high school teacher at the time introduced me to a book titled Walden, by the author Henry David Thoreau. This happened after our English class had been assigned to read The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, and I’d expressed to the teacher how much I’d enjoyed the story, especially the narrative description of wilderness, and the experience of life in the wild for both man and beast. I remember this same teacher taking time from her duties to walk me to the school library to locate and offer me a copy of Walden, which proved a pivotal event in my life, as the book opened my eyes to a way of living and thinking which closely aligned to some inner interests I’d barely become aware were developing within me. Walden helped me to find the courage to venture out and alone onto my own road, to…follow the beat of my own drummer, as Thoreau would describe, and to allow myself to live life in better accord with my own inclination and native aptitudes. It was the going alone bit which moved me most, as this provided an example in courage to strike out without companionship, aid, or comfort; and to take risks I might not have otherwise taken. I took Thoreau’s example to heart, and began my own solo meanderings and living in emulation of a lifestyle I thought well suited to who I was, and the man I wanted to become.

     My first attempts at Thoreau’s lifestyle were a few solo hikes into the mountains surrounding our humble ranch near Lake Hughes, California. My family lived then in a very rural location, on ten acres of land a few miles up Pine Canyon Road from the community of Lake Hughes, sixty miles north of Los Angeles. Our home was surrounded by chaparral wilderness, and going alone required very few footsteps from our front door. I spent much time then walking alone in the wild; escaping perhaps from the confusion of my teens, looking for something, not yet ready to discover what wasn’t there in the wild to meet me.

     The remains of our home at Lake Hughes are still there, burned out after the fire which destroyed everything in 1983. The foundation and remaining bits of our lives at “Moonshadow Ranch” are located on the north side of the road, down in the river wash, just a quarter mile downstream from the remains of an abandoned highway rest area. Though our home site can be easily missed, the roadside rest is still evident by a dirt turnout and parking area on the north side of the road, amidst a cluster of tall pines.

     Our family bought Moonshadow—which included a simple, one-bedroom home—for $15,000 dollars in 1976. We bought it at the tail end of a family journey we called “The Odyssey,” when our traveling home was a converted Frito Lay potato chip delivery truck, and we wandered the United States and Canada searching for our collective selves. It would be a mistake to overlook the influence The Odyssey had on my life, which in many ways played as important a role in setting precedent for the importance of adventure as Thoreau’s model of independence and self-reliance at Walden.

     After The Odyssey—and after I gained the relative independence of a driver’s license and a car—I began venturing further out on my own, even transforming my first car—a 1970 Camaro Rally Sport—into a miniature motorhome. I did this by removing all but the driver’s seat, and fashioning a bed, dresser, and storage cabinet into the places where the removed seats had been. When I was done, I’d created a little muscle-car motorhome, which was quite comfortable for my solo adventures; though honestly, I only used it a few times for this purpose. In fact, I found hitchhiking to be a more interesting and inexpensive way of getting around; and I was lucky to enjoy a short hitchhiking career before America lost its willingness to pick up strangers by the side of the road.

     I began hitchhiking during the last two years of high school, initially just in California, though gradually I made my way halfway across the USA, and up nearly into Canada. I enjoyed three or four very long solo hitchhiking adventures during this time, when I literally went with the wind, and slept out in the open, with very little money, resources or access to communication. These experiences (mini Odysseys, really) had a great influence in dulling my apprehension about going alone. Today, I can thank those hitchhiking trips for development of the nerve and gumption I’d later need to simply walk away from the sane and secure, to venture alone into wild places without a map, a friend, or any certitude regarding finding my way back. This early life path I was on—of ever extending adventure, of going further and deeper into strange places, always alone, and seemingly without a safety net—would likely have led me to disaster, and perhaps an early death, or a solitary life of social irrelevance, if it hadn’t been for the institution of Chaffey Community College in Alta Loma, California, and a professor named David Bixler, as well as the small band of college friends with whom I shared a few years between high school and university.

     David Bixler introduced me to Biology, as well as the more academic side of Thoreau, and the perspective of natural history, and the methods and processes of science; and gave me and many others our first experiences of true wilderness. David Bixler awoke the grown-up empiricist in me, and sent me forward on a life of reasoned discovery, with an eye and an interest in the frontiers of what we know, and why we should care about what is true, and not just what is comforting, traditional, sanctioned or popular.

     Another important event at this time was discovering the public broadcasting TV series, Cosmos; written and hosted by Carl Sagan. This program—and its companion book—won me over to the full paradigm of science, and ignited a flame of interest in the natural world which burns as strong today as when I felt my first shutter of awe at the recognition of deep time, and the processes by which our species has come to know ourselves and our small place in the universe.

     The path I chose as a young man was risky, as going alone is a hazard at any age. Go too far…and you may not get back. And even if you return, some essential part may be left behind in the place you found; a place in mind, a place alone, a place you may never successfully relate to others who’ve never been so far afield without the comfort and guidance of maps, compass, companions or gods. Going alone is key, and the people who visit deep solitude may appear eccentric or even mad to those who’ve never been; describing realities which don’t seem very real; which may, in fact, only be real in the world they alone know. I sensed early this risk in going alone, and took measures to protect myself from going too far or too long. The most significant decision was my choice to settle and marry a young woman whom I love, respect and admire, and who represents and lives a life very different from anything I’d known. Likewise, was I to her. And together we formed a symbiotic union of stability and adventure, which has served us well for over thirty years.

     Over time, I finished high school, went to college, got married, pursued a career, paid my taxes, and raised a family. I’ve managed to fulfill most of the expected roles and responsibilities of a social man of my time. On the other hand, I’ve also lived another, quite different life. A life in pursuit of the noble goals suggested by Thoreau, the example of the Odyssey, and the fond remembrance of the solitary adventures of my teenage years. Through this other life, I discovered and developed a separate side of myself, became the man whom Thoreau suggested I might be, and lived a life which has been a source of much satisfying personal fulfillment.

     I wrote this book in appreciation of Thoreau’s Walden, and other similar books which have influenced me over the years, and which I’ve identified at the end of the book in the Recommended Reading section. I hope my book may prove helpful, particularly to the young, to someone like myself, who finds themselves suddenly awake and conscience in a universe of wonder, and not sure just how to proceed, or how to best spend their time. I won’t tell anyone exactly what to do, though I will share objectives and principles which I have found helpful. Nor can I offer companionship, as the path I recommend isn’t wide enough for two, and must always be found and followed alone.

     Now a note about how this book was written, the characters within, and the formatting approach. I wrote Going Alone between 2013 and 2017; between the tail end of my family’s life in Japan, and the start of our new life in the USA. The book was compiled from various on-line journals, which in turn were composed in bits and pieces, via tweet-sized sentences and paragraphs—“blurbs”—which I pecked out on my mobile phone. I wrote nearly everything while on the move and adventuring, usually while walking and hiking, often far beyond the edge of Internet connectivity. Each upload was hashtagged with a theme, which in turn became the major sections of this book:

          #MymuseisaCorpse
          #ThePathofWildness
          #GoingAlone
          #TheGoodLife
          #TheStoicLife
          #MygodisaLittleGod

     The blurbs are rarely related, though sometimes there is a small story being told in the process of updates, which may become clear if the blurbs are read in their original order of upload. It’s possible to find the original blurbs—in their original order—along with any associated photos, as well as date and time stamps, by referencing my various Facebook pages. In particular, my Facebook page softypapa (appendix 1) which is the place where nearly all my extemporaneous writing did first appear. The blurbs are included in this book in italics, and collected together in sections under the heading “Notes from my muse.”

     The section of this book titled The Path of Wildness was developed while my family and I were living and raising our daughter in Japan, in the small village of Yada where my wife grew up. The Path of Wildness was my first try at the larger book. However, the story was not complete then, the ideas not fully considered or fleshed out, and it took returning to America, and my time alone in the desert, to complete the tale.

     The section titled Anxiety Hike is from a blog post (appendix 2) and video of the same name and was added to provide a guide to anyone who might want to experience for themselves, the landscape and inspiration for so much of this book’s content. If you decide to try this hike, just remember to go alone for best results. Though keep in mind that the landscape here will kill you, and is incapable of shedding a tear.

     My book includes some characters such as the muse, the Ghosts of Siberia, The Soulless Beasts, The Desert Killer, and my little god (deliberately lower case). These characters are, of course, fictional, and were created as foils to my own reflection on the character of humanity’s encounter with something I call The Great Indifference, which is defined and described in the section titled Going Alone.

     Place names are nearly all made up: Black Mountain, The Deep-Water Wilderness, and Volcano Wilderness, as well as places like The Sandman’s Bed, Mt. Wildness, The Woodsman’s Cabin and The Edge of Deep-Water are my own names for places without a name, or which I renamed for my own purpose. Siberia, Bagdad, Black Ridge and Campo #1 are real places, some of which are described well in Joe De Kehoe’s excellent book The Silence and the Sun (appendix 3) which shares the history of settlement along the stretch of railroad and Route 66 between Barstow and Needles in the Eastern Mojave Desert, where much of this book was written. The stone-lined footpath at Siberia is real. Please be careful to not disturb the stones if you go looking for it.

     I sometimes refer to “Biology” as though it were not simply a branch of natural science, but almost some entity or quality of our nature. In fact, I’m using this word as a label to describe our innate drives and motivations, particularly those which are a result of our genetics. I use Biology where others might use the word instinct; though my meaning is intended to be more comprehensive, and reflective not only of the qualities of our being—which are the result of our DNA programming, including epigenetics—but also the possibility of more comprehensive programming by our society, upbringing and times. There’s some “Biology” in the behavior of an ant colony which can’t quite be nailed down to any particular genes within the individual ants. It’s this emergent quality of groups, and society, which is somehow rooted in what we are, yet nevertheless transcends the individual. This is what I mean by “Biology.” The sum natural qualities of what we are at the level of the cell, organism, family, community and civilization. This is probably as close as I’ll get in this book to anything mystical or spiritual, though I’m confident even the mystery of the programming of groups will one day give way to the inquiry of science.

     My only regular companion in the desert is my 2004 BMW R 1150 GS Adventure motorcycle, which both delivered me to and from the desert, and kept me entertained with pleasant distraction when the deep void of nature triggered a response of panic or despair, and I ran. The desert is the perfect environment for this type of bike, which is branded a dual-sport adventure tourer, capable of both street and light off-road riding. Though I never rode it far off road—preferring my two feet for such travel—the bike was nevertheless ready for any dirt road or double track I chose to follow, and I couldn’t imagine these adventures with anything else. What follows is a list of items I carry with me, or on the bike, to facilitate my desert adventures:

KURT’S IMPERFECT ADVENTURE KIT

Equipment and tools for desert travel and survival

  • 2004 BMW R 1150 GS Adventure motorcycle + gear

    • Steel side panniers

    • Full windscreen

    • Fog lights

    • Schuberth G3 Pro modular helmet

    • KTM Powerwear motorcycle jacket (this jacket doubles as my heavy winter coat)

    • KTM riding pants

    • Riding gloves

    • Spy Riding goggles

    • Rain outfit (jacket and pants)

    • BMW USB power adaptor

    • Tool kit and tire repair kit + tire inflator

    • AAA Premium roadside coverage (100 miles tow)

  • 5.11 Rush72 backpack

    • Large drop pouch (to hold bread for sandwiches)

    • Two (2) rock climbing carabiner to hook things on

  • REI Half Dome 2 tent + ground cover sheet

  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivy (for emergency overnight away from base)

  • Marmot Trestles 15 degree sleeping bag

  • REI Stratus Regular inflatable sleeping mat

  • Clothing

    • REI Vented Explorer’s Hat (all year)

    • Wool cap (winter)

    • Medium-weight jacket (winter)

    • Medium-weight vest (winter)

    • Heavy sweater (winter, early spring, late fall)

    • Light sweater (winter, spring, fall)

    • Windbreaker (all season)

    • Insulating long-sleeve shirt

    • Heavy-duty button-up shirt

    • T-shirts (2)

    • Underwear (2)

    • Hiking socks (2 pair)

    • Hiking shorts with accessory pockets

    • Strong leather belt

  • Cooking Gear

    • Coleman 5 Piece Aluminum Mess Kit

    • GSI Outdoors Collapsible Java Drip + filters

    • Primus Express Stove

    • Jetboil 100 gram propane bottle (2)

    • Jetboil 450 gram propane bottle (1)

    • Metal cup to boil water in

    • Metal clasp to pick up hot bowl and cup

    • MSR Alpine Spatula (collapsible)

    • GSI Outdoors Glacier 3-piece cutlery set

    • Lighter (2)

  • Water Containers and H20 Rations

    • Platypus Big Zip LP 2.0-liter pouch (1)

    • Hard plastic 2.0-liter water bottles  (4)

    • Cold weather: 2 or 3 liters per day

    • Warm weather: 3+ liters per day

    • Hot weather: Are you sure you want to do this?

  • Lighting

    • A large flashlight for night hiking

    • Black Diamond headlight

    • A tiny light to carry in my pocket for emergencies

  • Emergency Gear

    • Small first aid kit

    • Moleskin blister dressing

    • SPOT Gen3 SOS emergency beacon plus emergency rescue service contract

    • Mobile phone (to use when in range)

    • Space blanket for emergency cover

  • Food

    • Dehydrated ration (full meals, enough for the trip)

    • A loaf of bread + peanut butter & jelly (light meal)

    • Coffee and snacks, such as granola, chocolate, etc.

  • Camera & Phone

    • Canon Ivis HF G10 video camera

    • Canon Directional Stereo Microphone DM-100

    • GoPro Hero Session 5 + floating hand grip

    • Sena Prism Tube helmet camera

    • iPhone 6s (32 gigabytes)

    • Otterbox Defender iPhone case

    • Otterbox lightning USB cable

    • External charger

  • Beach Gear (yes, I bring beach gear with me to the desert*)

    • Bright red swimsuit (like a lifeguard might wear)

    • Mask and snorkel

    • Churchill bodysurfing fins

    • Beach towel
      *I bring beach gear as I sometimes will end a desert journey by riding to Shaw’s Cove in Laguna Beach for a refreshing ocean swim. I usually go straight into the water from the steps (watch out you don’t step on a stingray—ouch!) and then swim to the rocks at the right side (north) of the cove. If you look closely, you can find a little underwater cave which you can swim through which is an amazing way to punctuate any desert adventure.

  • Miscellaneous

    • Hand towel

    • 50 SPF sunscreen

    • Journal/sketchbook, plus something to write with

    • Swiss Army Knife

    • Geology hammer + safety goggles

    • Spare batteries

    • Accessory bags

    • TP

 

     So, here we go. Welcome to my book, and the result of my life’s effort of fulfilling the suggestion and challenge offered by Thoreau in Walden. This book is my own answer and homage to that great author’s masterpiece of expression of the bold experiment he made of his life, and the example he has become to so many. In 1998, I visited Thoreau’s grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. While there, I left a small pebble atop his resting place—as had so many others before me—as simple homage to a man and his creative effort which has meant so much to me, and has helped me to be stronger and more courageous in my desire to…

“…live deliberately, to front only the essential
facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it
had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.” (appendix 4)

     Now, I leave a somewhat larger pebble to Thoreau in the form of this book. A simple gesture of appreciation for the life of courage, joy and independence which I have found by way of his example.

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ABOUT

Going Alone was begun by Kurt Bell in an effort to help others understand and manage  the recognition of the apparent indifference of the universe to our well being, happiness or even our existence, and to find ways to make a good life in spite of this fact.

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