Here is my official statement on why I do most things alone: I am a lone wolf. I am comfortable with myself. Here is another explanation: There is something about me that is fundamentally unlikeable.
Please don’t let this be one of those times
I remembered the first bar I’d ever been to in my life, a place that didn’t card in New York City. A guy came over to hit on my sister while I stood next to her, itchy in my too-short Forever 21 dress, smiling without teeth, trying to convey approachability. The guy jerked his thumb toward me and asked my sister, What’s her deal? I smiled bigger, as if a different facial expression could make them believe I belonged. My sister said, Oh, she’s just bad at being around people.
I thought of the karate lessons I’d taken at thirteen, the room with benches where we’d gathered before class. I sat alone while everyone else chatted together. I could never figure out how to enter the conversation. What are the first questions you ask people? And where do you go after you get the answers? One day, the head instructor, a guy with a mustache who we called Mr. G, brought me into a little office. Dust and trophies. He put on his camp-counselor face.
I just wanted to check on you, he said. You seem unhappy.
I’m not, I told him.
Well, he said. You’re not fitting in.
He waited for me to say something else, and when I didn’t, he dismissed me, disappointed. It annoyed him that I stood apart from everyone else, I realized. It bothered him more than it bothered me.
Abby the blonde business major would repeat her always around but no one wants you there point several times during college. She brought it up at parties, like it was a silly joke we were both in on, and I faked a laugh every time. Since then, other people have said versions of this to me: You make a strange first impression. You’re hard to get to know.
At a certain point, you start to realize it’s easier to not be around at all.
And there’s pleasure in being alone.
A sunrise hike in Anza-Borrego, bighorn sheep eating bright yellow desert dandelions beside the trail. Afterward, a big greasy cheeseburger at a diner, looking like shit and not giving a fuck.
A red-eye flight to El Paso. A two-hour drive through the Chihuahuan Desert. Climbing the tallest mountain in Texas, making it back to the car just as the sky cracks open with purple lightning.
A canyon in Death Valley. Limestone polished smooth by last year’s floods. Afraid of falling but deciding to climb anyway. Face pressed against the rock, heart beating, hands trembling. Making it to the top. The sandstone orange, warm in the sun.
After college, I moved to Boulder, Colorado.
I arrived after midnight when the town was quiet, descended the stairs to the basement apartment I’d rented, and fell asleep on the floor. When I woke I went outside and realized how little the sunbaked foothills resembled the snowy mountains on the Coors Light can. There was also something else that occurred to me: I had no one to talk to.
Despite the lousy first impression I’d made as an undergraduate, I’d ended up with a very close group of friends. Senior year of college, we’d lived together in a duplex house—girls on one side, guys on the other—always leaving the door unlocked so we could go back and forth. We cooked meals together, fell asleep in each others’ beds, biked to a nearby bridge and dove into the Lamprey River, climbed the hill behind our house to dance to live bluegrass at a bar in an old stone church. When my friend’s boyfriend broke up with her, I got down on the hardwood floor and held her, instinctively. I thought I hated touching other people. I forgot, during those years, how rare that kind of closeness is—at least for me.
Boulder was also a college town, but it was not my college town. I got a job at Dairy Queen. My coworkers were high school burnouts who asked me to buy them liquor. I wanted them to like me, so I pedaled to the liquor store on my break and returned with Cuervo. I got another job at a bakery that stayed open until two in the morning. I did prep work, scooping frozen spoonfuls of sugar-cookie dough onto baking trays while drunken college students ordered gluten-free cupcakes from the counter, their eyes glossy and cheeks red, their arms around each other as they took photos, collapsing in laughter. How was it possible that my own nights out with friends—cold, clear Fridays, shots of Goldschläger on someone’s deck, greasy pizza slices beneath fluorescent lights, arms linked on the walk home—were gone? I wanted to climb back into a top bunk in a dorm room somewhere, gossiping with a roommate until her snores rose up from the bed beneath me.
At a certain point, you start to realize it’s easier to not be around at all.
I tried. I put myself in places where I might meet people: coffee shops, bars, the college campus. Close relationships were all around me—friends eating tacos on sunny patios, floating in tubes down the river—but I couldn’t ingratiate myself. I retreated to my basement apartment, where the only window was at eye level with the parking lot. I studied people’s feet as they came and went, came and went, came and went. I sat on the floor and watched sitcom reruns on Netflix, walked to Chipotle and got a chicken burrito, returned home and watched more sitcom reruns, realizing that all sitcoms were the same premise: a group of friends in a coffee shop or a bar, recounting the adventures they’d had together, new adventures they would have together occurring later in the episode.
When the sun went down, the window facing the parking lot went dark, and I made cocktails using alcohol the previous tenant had left behind: blue curaçao, Sour Apple Pucker, cheap vodka. It would have been funny and a little bit ironic with friends—cocktail hour, we would have joked, tossing back neon-colored shots.
On days off, I went to the library and sat there alone. On nights I worked, I rode my bike home from the Dairy Queen or the bakery, all the way downhill, a stolen cup of soft serve or box of cookies in my basket.
It hurt to look at the people I passed by, to hear them laugh, to stand outside of the jokes they shared with each other. When I couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t take the sitcom laugh tracks, the foil-wrapped burrito dinners on my used mattress, the sneakers and high heels and ballet flats and hiking boots coming and going, the constant ache that I was alone, alone, alone, I opened up my computer. I typed in Craigslist. I placed an ad.
22-YEAR-OLD WOMAN SEEKS FRIENDS
Hi! I’m a recent college graduate from the East Coast who doesn’t know anyone in Boulder. I am looking for female friends for nights out, hiking, and other adventures.
I imagined what someone—anyone—would have said if someone/anyone would have been there: Craigslist, really? Hope you like dick pics. People are going to start offering you money for your used panties or ask if they can clean your apartment naked. You’re going to get murdered.
These were the kinds of Craigslist ads my friends and I had laughed over in college. Who were these sad people, we wondered, who wrote about missed connections at Dunkin’ Donuts, begged strangers to come over so they could watch Lord of the Rings and hug?
But my desperation had become a tangible thing. My loneliness, a balloon inside of me, slowly inflating.
The emails came in quickly.
I never respond to ads on Craigslist but yours seemed cool
21 and transferred to CU Boulder and don’t know ppl
I know you said female friends but if you want a platonic male friend I would like to be friends
Would love to hit up happy hour or go for a hike sometime
Each email another person, just as isolated as me. I imagined us all, in our separate apartments, in the dark with our computers, scrolling the internet in search of each other.
I met up with a few of them. A girl named Melanie who liked mani-pedis, her fiancé, and the breadsticks at Olive Garden. A girl named Julia who was renting a room at a sorority but wasn’t actually in the sorority, which caused the girls in the house to ignore her. We were nervous around each other, trying to fit the puzzle pieces together, trying to skip to the part where we would text when we saw things that reminded us of each other, where we would want to watch bad movies on hungover Sunday mornings. It made me uneasy—this circling around each other, trying to figure out if we could be friends. I wasn’t sure what possibility scared me more: rejection or intimacy.
I felt better when I was alone on my bicycle, flying down Twenty-Eighth Street on a warm July evening, hitting green lights all the way to Canyon Boulevard. Camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, elk bugling in the meadow at dawn.
How long does it take to become friends with someone, I asked the internet. The answer was about fifty hours for a casual friendship and at least two hundred hours for a close friendship.
The emails were still coming in, but I deleted the Craigslist ad. I moved to California.
I just didn’t like Boulder, I tell myself now. I didn’t fit in with the people there.
The truth is, I couldn’t put in the time.
California is where I began working seasonal gigs, mostly in the national parks. Death Valley. Yellowstone. Back to Death Valley. Glacier. Back to Death Valley again. A ski resort in Telluride. Big Bend. Back to Glacier. The lifestyle encourages you to be alone: When you move around a lot, you need to be able to fit all of your belongings into your car. Another person’s shit complicates that.
In the national parks, they tell you never to hike alone. And by “you” I mean you. As in you, the visitor.
Me, I hiked alone all the time. Unlike the tourists who climbed up mountains they couldn’t get down from or wandered barefoot with no water into vast expanses of burning sand dunes, I knew what I was doing. I knew to yell hey bear hey bear hey bear every ten minutes in Glacier to avoid surprising grizzlies. I knew to tread lightly around steam escaping from the ground in Yellowstone, because that park is one big fucking supervolcano. I knew where to safely cross the Rio Grande in Big Bend. I knew where to find water in Death Valley.
But still, when I hiked alone and encountered other groups of people, they expressed concern. Not for my safety, but for my lack of company.
There’s pleasure in being alone.
One Thanksgiving in Big Bend, I hiked a sixteen-mile loop in the Chisos Mountains alone. I trekked through a forest of juniper trees, stepping over tarantulas along the way, skirting cliffs that plunged down into Mexico. I climbed to the summit of Emory Peak, sloshed through arroyos in Boot Canyon.
Each group I passed said some version of the same thing:
All by yourself, huh?
Have a little lunch with us. We’ve got an extra sandwich.
Come and join us. You don’t have to hike alone.
No, thanks, I told them again and again. I said it quickly over my shoulder, hiking three miles per hour—no, faster—avoiding their eyes. I never considered that if I stopped and had lunch with them or slowed down and met their pace I might get to know them. Not like two hundred-hours get to know them, not even fifty. But something. Something that I might look back on and think, That was the day I met the nice family from Houston, that was the recently engaged couple who told me how they got together, that was the woman who gave me her email address and said if you’re ever in Brooklyn you’ve got a place to stay.
But no. I said no thanks and kept moving.
At the parking lot in Montana on the Canadian border, the July sun burns off the fog. I can see the cows in the road now, headed north in silence.
I think you and I have the same idea, the hiker says.
He is tall and nondescript like all people are nondescript when you refuse to commit them to memory. Twenty-five or maybe thirty-five. Trekking poles and a decent backpack.
He asks me where I’m hiking to, and I tell him that I’m taking the Belly River Trail to Bear Mountain Overlook. He says he’s taking that same trail to Elizabeth Lake, asks me if I want to hike together until our paths diverge. He’s caught me when I’m standing still, without an excuse, so I say sure, hoping I can hike fast enough to lose him, but we move at the same speed.
Small talk at first. Where we’re from, what we do for work. But you run through that shit fast when it’s just you and one other person in the wilderness. He is going through a breakup, he tells me. He still loves her and he’s hopeful they’ll be together again soon. This trip to Glacier is a way to consider what he might do differently if they try again. Or maybe it’s a distraction from accepting that it’s really over. He doesn’t know.
I walk in front of him, and even though he is just behind me, we rarely turn to face each other, rarely make eye contact. It makes it easier to tell him everything I end up telling him. That I’m a fraud. That I am not a lone wolf, but merely someone who can’t connect with people. That sometimes I am so lonely I can actually feel my heart physically hurting, like it’s made of something solid that is cracking. Like it’s made of water that is expanding, not because it is full but because it is freezing.
When we reach the junction that’s supposed to separate us, he decides instead to keep going with me.
We take the spur trail to the overlook, and at the top, we sit, eating potato chips, almonds, carrots, looking at the valley below. This part of the park is special to me, I tell him, because there are no roads going in or out. There are no hotels or restaurants.
No people, he adds.
Right, I say.
He asks me why that’s special to me and I shrug, say I don’t know, even though I think we both know what the answer is.
We talk less on the way back, hiking in comfortable silence. It’s dusk when we arrive back at the parking lot. He tells me where he’s staying, says he’s going to the bar at his hotel to see live music later tonight. We’ve spent like seven hours together; it only makes sense to keep hanging out.
I fumble around for my keys in the bottom of my backpack.
I’ll try to make it, I tell him.
I drive home and shower, eat a cold slice of pizza from the minifridge in my room. For a moment, I consider going, wonder what it would be like if I did. But what comes next? Do we stay in touch? Do we become best friends? When he gets back together with his ex-girlfriend? Do I go to his wedding? If I get married, does he come to mine? Or does he get to know me a little better and discover something so repellent it invalidates the experience of hiking those seventeen miles together?
Not knowing is easier, I decide.
Later, I will post a photo on Instagram of me smiling in my teal North Face jacket, the rippling surface of Cosley Lake behind and below me. I will caption it some guy took this and I will wish that I had written his name instead, because I will not remember it. I do not remember it. And I will wish that I had at least written something less dismissive, because when you go on a seventeen-mile hike in the Montana wilderness with a stranger, how can he be some guy?Some guy is the person who bumps your grocery cart with his grocery cart. Some guy is not the person who tells you about the love of his life as you part the hip-deep grass of a meadow together. Some guy is not the person standing beside you beneath the perfectly square face of Chief Mountain, listening and nodding as you tell him that the first time you saw that mountain, you cried. You cried because this is the most spiritual part of Glacier National Park, and you are not a spiritual person, but the quivering leaves of the aspen trees and the darting white-tailed deer make you very much wish you had a religion.
On the next hike, a mystic white mountain goat appears, a phantom on a cliffside. Marble-black eyes fixed on me. Face like a wizard. It’s there and then it’s not.
I feel a desire to tell someone about it. I feel the absence of another person, just for a second.
Krista Diamond's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Narratively, Electric Literature, Joyland, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by Bread Loaf, Tin House, and the Nevada Arts Council. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.