[OPINION] Happiness is not a cabin in the woods

As Christopher McCandless puts it, “Happiness only real when shared.”
Replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.
Replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

Before I moved to Shoreview, I lived in Roseville near a secluded Protestant church surrounded by a wooded enclave. It was probably only a few acres of trees, but the densely packed conifers sheltered my adventurous illusions from reality. For the first 12 years of my life, the woods were my after-school escape. 

I built impressive forts out of fallen branches — fortified with snow during winter — and hunted for toads and painted turtles in the shallow pond next to the woods. I remember climbing monstrous stumps with fungi steps to witness the pocket of untamed beauty: an expanse of trees encircling an overgrown marsh. Sometimes, I would bring others along, but often, I would come alone. 

The ideas of transcendentalism — especially those of leaving humanity behind for the wilderness — appealed to me most. I’ve always fantasized about going on a Cheryl Strayed-esque solo thru-hike through the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia, somewhere with mountains and waterfalls. It would be a solitary journey of girl power and self-discovery — and a perfect opportunity to upgrade my granola-girl Instagram feed (kidding, kind of).

This desire to escape modern life through solo eviction to the wild is nothing new. It appeared in Thoreau’s confinement to Walden Pond and legendary “explorer” Everett Ruess’ solitary odyssey of the American Southwest. And perhaps the most renowned solo thru-hike was Jesus’ 40-day wandering in the desert. 

At the root of each “marker of manhood” lies a begrudging distaste of modernity and, beyond a yearning to find meaning in a seemingly superficial world, an underlying need to prove oneself against the elements.

A few years ago, after first falling in love with the Eddie Vedder-written soundtrack, I watched Christopher McCandless’ fateful voyage through the Alaskan wilderness in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” And like every supercilious teenager who watched the movie, what I took away was not a healthy fear of no man’s land but a bewitching desire to brave it myself. 

Since then, equipped with either my mountain bike or my hiking boots, I’ve traveled most of the “uncharted” (doesn’t appear on Google Maps) territory in the greater Shoreview area. Maybe not that impressive of a feat, and I’m not claiming it to be, but the amount of practically untouched land in the area may surprise you. I traveled alone, not necessarily because I preferred it that way, but it surely fueled my Walden fantasy. 

By the headline, you can likely infer my opinion on solitary expeditions. But there is something to be said for the therapeutic quality of spending time alone in nature, the transcendent experience of sitting alone with one’s thoughts while lying near a stream or shaded by willows. But my solo hikes, which never last far beyond sunset, are incomparable to McCandless’ 113-day trek through Alaska. 

Soon before he passed alone at age 24, McCandless wrote above a “Doctor Zhivago” passage: “Happiness only real when shared.” Over the years, fans and critics have interpreted this note in different ways. But I see this realization as the ultimate tragedy of McCandless and Ruess and the like. 

Upon recently rewatching “Into the Wild” and diving further into the story of McCandless, I realized the true beauty of the story comes from the connections he makes with others during his trip to Alaska — or, if I may be more cliche, the friends he made along the way — more so than the expedition itself. And towards the end of his life, I think he understood that, no matter how much comfort the solitude of the wilderness brought him, it would never be as deep or meaningful as the joy shared with other people. Hearing the stories and perspectives of others while sharing your own is such an inextricable part of being human that it’s (ironically) unnatural to neglect it entirely. 

This doesn’t mean I’ve given up my Cheryl Strayed thru-hiking dream. On the contrary, my deep dives into the legendary solo hikers of the U.S. have only inflamed my ambition to partake in a relatively legendary trek — I’ve got my eyes on a summer trip along the Superior Hiking Trail. But I will definitely be bringing a buddy or two along with. Not only because my parents would never allow me to camp alone or because I need a designated photographer — again, for my Instagram — but also because there’s no point in experiencing the wonder of the wilderness without someone to share it with. 

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About the Contributor
Maya Gjelhaug, Print Editor-in-Chief
My name is Maya, and I'm excited to be one of your print Editors-in-Chief this year. When I'm not editing articles, you can find me mountain biking and watching Band of Brothers with my dad. Awards: Best of SNO - Mounds View Theater casting sparks controversy Best of SNO - The downfall of ELA education Best of SNO - Pro-life activists rally against Minnesota abortion legislation Best of SNO - Prince of Peace Church combats homelessness with tiny home settlement Best of SNO - Should legacy admissions still exist? 2nd-Place Gold Medallion Spread - Youth sports culture SNO Site Excellence Design Award SNO Page Excellence Award
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