"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone"
― Blaise Pascal, Pensées
It's 3:35am in the morning. I am standing in an open doorway, peering into a dark wood, wearing only a pair of thermal long johns. Snow is drifting onto my face from a moonlit sky. My heart is pounding. And I am holding an axe.
Was it a falling tree branch that caused the noise that woke me? Or is there something out there, watching from the shadows? I strain to listen, but can hear nothing except my own breath and the slow whistle of the wind-whipped trees.
I go back inside the hut, wedge a broom under the handle of the lockless door and put the axe by my bed. I lie down. I close my eyes. I add it up again: 62 hours, 35 minutes since I last saw or spoke to another human being.
What is human history, if not the story of man slowly becoming less alone?
We began as disparate tribes, scattered across a giant and unfathomable earth, unaware each other even existed. We settled and built communities. We explored, and merged civilisations. As the population grew, we invented new ways to communicate with each other — always quicker and from greater distances than before – the pinnacle of which is in your pocket or your hand right now.
Along the way, solitude was part of the average human experience. Today, it has been all but eradicated from our lives. It's not just deeply unfashionable, but entirely antithetical to the technological and social changes thrust upon us by the digital age. As social media and tech companies wrestle for our attention, they all fundamentally promise the same thing: wherever we are, whatever we're doing, we never have to be on our own again.
Pondering all of this about a year ago led me to a question that I'll put to you now: when was the last time you were truly alone? By which I mean physically and mentally separated from everyone else in the world, for any significant length of time?
The answer I came to was troubling. Never. Not as a child, growing up in a big family. Or a teenager, sending text messages late into the night. Or a student, part of the first generation to let Facebook run our social lives.
And certainly not now, as a 30-year-old adult, who wakes in a house shared by three other people because I can't afford to live on my own, and stands on a train so close to other people I can count the follicles on their necks as we zoom into the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world, where I sit in a crowded office and chat to colleagues and strangers on my computer, often at the same time, often for nine hours in a row.
Nor, really, am I alone in the moments that bridge these moments – the strolls from room to room, office to carriage – when I am usually staring down at the palm of my hand as I walk, neck craned toward an email or Facebook or Twitter message, or else, in moments when dystopian visions of us slowly morphing into robots feel horribly prescient, staring dumbly at a screen trying to remember whether I had any reason to look at it other than to bask for a moment in its warm, comforting glow.
Not only am I never truly on my own, I realised, but the prospect actually fills me with a sort of dread, a vague fear of being "disconnected" or "left out" echoed in the panic you feel when your phone battery is on its knees, or when you see photos being posted online from a great night out you're missing, a modern sensation so prevalent it has been given its own internet acronym: FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out.
And yet at the very same time, like most men, I am drawn to the idea of solitude. Why wouldn't I be? The story of man on his own – unlimited by society, discovering greater truths about life and nature – can be found everywhere. It's in the founding religious texts and the epic poems of the ancient world. It's in Wordsworth's hermit and Thoreau's cabin. It's in Hemingway's noble fishermen and Clint Eastwood's stoic cowboys and in Batman the tortured outsider, and all the other lone superheroes we cheer on.
For modern man, pulled this way and that by family and work and their expanding carousel of demanding screens, what could be more romantic than standing somewhere, alone, and taking a deep breath?
I consider all of this, and begin to hatch a plan. To leave. To cut myself off. To go cold turkey from the constant presence – physical or digital – of other people. To see what happens to my mind and test my lifelong, secret suspicion that I can't really stand my own company. And that is how I find myself driving to the Scottish Highlands one cold February morning.
Inshriach bothy in the Cairngorms mountain range, Scotland where the author spent 156 hours 23 minutes in isolation
The hut – or bothy – is in a field by a wood near a river in the Cairngorm National Park. It is completely isolated. The nearest building is the farmhouse, which is a couple of miles away; you need to walk over several fields before you can even see it.
Inside the bothy there is 1.5m x 2m of floor space. There is a bunk bed, a writing desk, a wood-burning stove and three lamps powered by – of all things in this part of the world – a solar panel built among the bushes outside.
The day I arrive, it is snowing fiercely. Walter, the farmer who owns the land, offers me a lift in his Land Rover. We tumble over stark fields, churning clumps of mud that cling to us through the windowless doors, squinting as the small wipers struggle to beat back the snow. I am worried about my pile of supermarket grocery bags – what if they fall out the back? – as we struggle up the hill to my new home.
Walter, a cheerful soul, helps me unload my cargo, explains where I chop the wood on a stump outside and points out the toilet, which is a hole behind a partial wooden frame further up the hill.
"Come down to the farm for a beer if you get bored," he offers as he leaves, a touch sooner than I would like.
"Solitude is overrated."
These are the last words I hear from anyone for several days.
Left alone, I stand rooted to the spot for a moment, then start pacing back and forth. It is a strange situation and I don't know what do with myself. Instinctively, I reach for my phone – this is mad! Tell someone! Put it on Facebook! – but my phone isn't there, it's turned off in my bag, and it wouldn't work here anyway.
So I start manically chopping wood. Even though Walter has left plenty to last the night, I line up the logs and hack away. I am rubbish at it: missing the logs altogether or sending useless shavings spiralling into the snow.
Defeated, I stop and go back inside and try to sit down for a moment. A horrible sense of panic makes me stand back up. I try to read, but the silence is unbearably loud. There is a guitar in the bothy so I take it from the wall and start strumming some chords, singing gibberish to myself at the top of my voice. I stand up again. I sit. I reach for the wine I've brought.
I get drunk as hell.
That night, I have a nightmare that wakes me with a start. I am running through a huge, busy city trying to find my way back to the bothy. None of the street signs make sense, and at every turn people try to attack me: crazy homeless people and drug addicts and prostitutes and gangs of angry men and drunks. I run and run until finally I get my phone out and ring someone for help.
The voice on the other ends asks: "How do we know you are who you say you are?"
"Google me," I say over and over. "Just Google me."
The advice offered to me by people when I explain I am going to live by myself in the woods for a week varies from the sensible ("Develop a routine") to the frankly awful ("Take some weed!").
But it is Michael Harris, the Canadian author who published a book in 2014 called The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection, who I pay most attention to.
"Remind yourself going into it that the extreme discomfort you're going to feel is a withdrawal symptom, and it's not necessarily going to stay," he tells me over the phone a few days before I leave.
Harris's book is an attempt to discover how we can push back against the constant distractions of digital life and rediscover the benefits of being on our own.
"We're the first generation in history that has had more encounters with avatars than with real people, right? And I think we've become terrified of solitude," he says. "Terrified of absences or daydreaming."
Like me, Harris decided to try and face his fears. He gave up the internet and his phone for an entire month, though not, it must be said, human contact altogether. Nevertheless, "crushing loneliness," is how he describes the initial effects of his experiment.
"You have to remember, people who design our online experiences have devoted enormous resources toward making them as addictive as possible," Harris says. "Walking away from it makes you feel like shit, because suddenly all your magic powers are gone."
He is talking about the way email alerts and social media notifications are rewiring us by triggering endorphins in our brains.
"You have to burrow through that discomfort before you start to see the rewards on the other side. When you're living online, there is a certain apparatus of approval. What you do, what you think and what you believe is governed by certain corporate interests and the interests of your friends – something becomes worthy if it gets 12 retweets, say.
"When you cut yourself off from the internet," he says, "you're forced to construct a personal approval system – something that is not beholden to the opinions of others.
"People go online out of a selfish desire to have their own brand or ego promoted, but the paradox is that when you walk away from all that, you actually start to develop a rich interior life. You become a more interesting person."
The first 24 hours at the bothy are miserable. It's cold and there's no running water, so I have to collect wood, build a fire, take rainwater harvested from the roof and heat it on top of the stove before I can clean or cook. Meeting basic needs – warmth, hunger, thirst – requires a level of planning and effort I'm not used to, so I keep timing things wrong. I wake shivering before 6am and it takes me until eight to make a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs.
Later, I go for a walk. The snow has melted overnight to reveal a stunning landscape of purples and greens that seem to shift in shape and hue with each passing hour of sunlight. But my thoughts and observations are all accompanied by a nagging impulse to share them – in a pithy line on Twitter, a sincere muse on Facebook, a #nofilter picture on Instagram – and not being able to do so makes me feel agitated and distracted.
An irrational fear keeps flaring inside of me. I feel muzzled, like I am walking in a vacuum. I console myself taking photos on my signal-less phone that I can show the world when this is over. It feels a bit like cheating.
Time slows to an infuriating pace. Like a cartoon prisoner scratching lines into his cell wall, I begin to keep a mental tally of the hours that have elapsed, and the hours I have left on my own. As night sets in, my loneliness intensifies. Sitting in the midst of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen, I feel daunted and depressed.
In an interview with The Boston Globe in 2011, Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University, argued that, "There is so much cultural anxiety about isolation… we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude. There is something very liberating for people about being on their own. They're able to establish some control over the way they spend their time."
In 2015, it certainly feels like "control" over our time is something we've surrendered. At the beck and call of our computers and devices – or rather, the friends and strangers we communicate with through them – we are either being reactive ("Wait a sec, I just have to reply to this message"), or proactively repackaging our experiences the moment they happen, sending them out for the approval of our online audiences through social media.
Flitting back and forth between these two opposing settings – reactive and proactive, forwards and backwards – what we rarely seem to do anymore is be still or contemplative, neither responding to nor eliciting the views of others. Rarely, in other words, are we simply alone.
In that same Boston Globe article – titled 'The Power of Lonely' – journalist Tim Gabor refers to Harvard studies that indicate "people form more lasting and accurate memories when they're alone," while others suggest they become "more capable of empathy towards others".
PHOTO: Sam Parker
On the second day I see the sheep.
They're waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, two gangs of 10 or so, standing at either end of the path; an ambush. I freeze and look from side to side. They look back, perfectly still except for their bottom jaws, which grind side to side with a sort of pitying nonchalance.
I am reminded of a friend's prediction for my trip – "It'll be like Withnail and I, only without 'I'!" – and worry for a moment they might charge at me.
Don't be silly, sheep don't charge. But what about Highland sheep? With big horns? How do I know? I venture a step in their direction over the morning's fresh layer of snow and they scatter and I remember sheep are just woolly cowards.
The next day, I pass the sheep again, this time roaming as one big gang. I stop and stare. They stop and stare back, all in a row. This time I talk to them.
"Hello, sheep," I say, surprised at hearing my own voice for the first time in days. It sounds low and silly.
"What's happening?" I ask.
The sheep don't respond. I try again, only in sheep language.
"Baaa," I shout at them, getting the accent down pretty well.
A touch of desperation is creeping into my voice. The sheep don't respond. The sheep get bored and walk off. The sheep think I'm a dick.
In May 2014, the author Ruth Thomas published an article in the New Statesman called 'The Importance of Being Lonely'.
In it, she describes travelling to a pretty cottage in Warwickshire to spend a fortnight working on her next novel and discovering, to her horror, that she couldn't work out how to connect to the internet.
"What followed, frankly, was one of the loneliest and most panicky episodes of my life," she wrote.
"Not needing to even speak for hours – days! – felt extremely strange. And when there's no-one else around to see what you're doing, even something like sitting on a chair or switching on a kettle or deciding to go outdoors for a bit all took on an existential kind of enormity."
She described her thought process over the fortnight as going like this:
- "a) Oh God, I'm really lonely
- b) This reminds me of my childhood
- c) Will my family ever forgive me?
- d) I have to start writing something
- e) Oh! I'm beginning to enjoy myself"
On the fourth day the electricity runs out at the bothy. It means no lamplight for the evening. This spurs me into a satisfying frenzy of tidying and wood chopping so that I can cook at dusk, which I do: watching the sun fade through the windows and night draw slowly across sky like a blanket.
I load the fire, and light what feels like a hundred candles, bracing myself for the difficult night ahead. Exhausted, I sit and read to pass the time, leaning the pages of my book towards the flickering lanterns and stretching my toes to the edge of the fire as the flames crack and pop.
For some reason, the incredible silence that to this point has felt so overwhelming starts to feel enticing. Without thinking, I begin to read out loud – quietly at first, then at the top of my voice. I stand and open up my chest and slowly and luxuriously enunciate a novel I'd always struggled to finish, but that I now find captivating (The Great Gatsby – ironically a tale of endless parties and excess), repeating passages I like, giving the characters voices.
I go on like that for hours, stopping only to thumb morsels of stilton into my cheeks or sip a little whisky over the roof of my tongue. It feels strangely thrilling, being there in the still night talking to myself, like I'm shedding off an inhibition I didn't know I had. From time to time, I glance out of the windows of the bothy, where the shadows no longer seem to curdle with malice but yield beneath the stars which are gathered fat and low in the sky, like a festival crowd.
The next day I wake in high spirits. The snow has melted again. Spring sunshine squints through the trees. I leave my camera behind and go looking for the sheep, who have vanished. So I walk on, through fields and woodland, past felled trunks and shivering saplings and over mounds of moss that collapse like sand beneath your feet.
I come to the edge of a lake. There's a path that goes a long way around it but I want to stay close to the water's edge, so instead climb through patches of spiky bushes and push through clutches of pine trees, tracing the sooty bank over rocks and brooks until I reach the opposite end of the lake, where I stand, and breathe, and close my eyes.
It occurs to me that for the first time, I don't wish anyone else was there with me. I don't want my girlfriend or my mates or – God forbid – my Twitter "followers" infringing on this moment. I don't want to have to worry about what they think. I am happier on my own, just looking and listening, drawing the cool air slowly into my lungs.
I walk a little further and lie down on the pine-scattered floor. I dislodge a few cones from my back. I look up at the peaks of the trees as they sway in the wind, and laugh out loud at nothing in particular.
The final days pass the same as the first: I chop, I build fires, I eat, I sleep, I rest. Only I am thinking differently: my mind has clicked into a gear it has never used before. I begin to take pleasure in cutting the wood, getting better at it until I am dicing the logs like they're onions. Instead of counting down the hours like a prison sentence, I am content to let them drift by.
I sit and write like I did when I was a teenager – sloppily but freely – trying to describe the view outside the front door of the bothy, the way the reds and purples mingle with the greens and browns, the way turquoise fur quivers on the branches of the trees.
I start to think of others fondly, rather than panic because they're not there.
I start to enjoy my own company.
I stop sleeping with the axe.
On the last day, Sophie the photographer arrives. She knows Scotland well, and teaches me about the wildlife. We share my last tin of soup. I am glad of her company.
At the end of our day together, my solitude already broken, I ask her to drop me off at the nearest pub, where I prop up the bar and eat a trout and sink a few beers and enjoy the chaos of the crowds, marvelling at the way the same set of features — nose, eyes, mouth — can produce such wildly different faces.
At the break of dawn on the final day, I wake up, leave the bothy with my bags and set off over the hills to catch my train back home to London.
I stop several times to try and absorb every last detail: how the water flows in the river, how the fields and trees look in the early light, how the white-topped mountains peer imperiously from the horizon.
As I reach the final field, I see something in the corner of my eye. Twenty or so cotton buds bumbling on the breeze: the sheep, running towards me. I stop and stare. They stop and stare back. I nod goodbye. They say nothing. I get on my way.
Travel provided by virgintrainseastcoast.com.