The Psychology of Solo Trips

During the past year, I have been fortunate enough to go on quite a few photography trips.  Some were with friends, others were solo trips.  My first solo trip was in February.  I planned a 2 week trip to the Colorado Plateau to visit some of my favorite locations in addition to some new ones. I knew that this would be a challenge because it was my first solo trip to a very lonely corner of the Southwest.

I was uncertain how I would react to this amount of solitude.  It was new to me.

On the Colorado Plateau, the nights are cold, and the days are short. As I drove up to my campsite in a deserted campground, the sun was beginning to set.  I wanted to start a campfire the first night, so I built up some wood, and retrieved my flint and steel from the back of my truck.  After a couple strikes, the flint separated from the holder, and shot out of my hand.  I heard a distant “ping” but I had no clue where it went.  It was getting dark, the temperature was below freezing, and I was starting to panic.

I spent an hour sifting through ashes, dirt, and around rocks trying to find the piece of flint.  Without that one important piece of equipment, I would need to drive back to Kanab, and find a lighter from a convenience store to light my camp stove.  I didn’t have a backup.  Live and learn.

With freezing fingers, I regrouped and tried to think about the trajectory of the flint as it flew away from my hand.  I tried my best to recall the duration between the flint taking flight, and the ping sound upon landing.  This allowed me to think clearly, and guided me precisely to its location some 5 feet away from the fire pit.  The night was saved.

This started the trip on an uncertain note. However, I had a task ahead of me for the next few days.  I visited Coyote Buttes North,  Buckskin Gulch, and felt confident in the images that I captured.

My next destination was a place called White Pocket.  I visited this location 8 months prior with my girlfriend Lyuba.  The contrast between our visit in June and my solo trip in February was profound. The location was cold and quiet.  I had the location to myself, and did not run into any other people for my two days.  The first day was spent exploring.  By the second day, the solitude of the location started to get to me.  While setting up for an evening shot, a cable release malfunctioned, and ruined my shot.  It was dark, and I was  a mile or so away from my car. During the moon-lit walk back to my truck, my mind began to play tricks on me.  I felt as though someone was watching me, but I knew I was alone. In my peripheral vision, I saw what looked like a large animal staring at me.  It was just a log.  My mind was playing with me.

When I reached my truck, I turned on the radio, and was able to pull in some AM stations from Los Angeles.  It was great to hear voices, and what was going on in the world.  After a good night sleep in my warm sleeping bag, I was in a better mood as the sun spread its warm rays over the cold, barren land. It was time to head to my next location, Coyote Buttes South. Maybe a drive, and a new location would make me feel at ease.

It didn’t take me long to reach my destination. It’s less than 10 miles away.

Much like White pocket, Coyote Buttes South is also a very secluded location.  I set up camp, then hiked into Coyote Buttes South to scout the location.  I formulated a plan on what to shoot and when.  With a plan in place, the solitude did not get to me. I was on a mission.  I had 3 or 4 photos that I needed to take, then I would be done.

As soon as the sun set and darkness fell on the land, my mind began to race. There was a force tugging at my soul, wishing I had someone to talk to.  The radio helped, but the force could not be overpowered.  The psychology of no human contact for nearly a week was starting to wear me thin. I felt like I needed to escape, but I still had several shots to take.

That evening, I heard on the radio that a strong storm was approaching from the West.  If I was still around, the roads would become impassible.  The dirt roads become slick with thick, tire tread filling red clay. I still had another day before the storm would arrive.  It should provide some nice clouds in the morning.

The next morning, I felt better, but I still had a lingering feeling of loneliness.  The vastness of the desert seems only to amplify the solitude.  I took 2 planned photos the following morning, then came to a breaking point.  I had lost my motivation to take photos for the trip.  I remember folding up my tripod after the second shot, and saying outloud “I quit this bitch.”   I didn’t want to spend another night in the desert.

After completing only a week in the desert, I was very confident in the images that I shot. Maybe that is why I wanted it get back to civilization?  I felt as though my job was done, but I still had time remaining on the trip.

As soon as I reached the main highway, angry clouds began to drop large amounts of rain.  I made it out just in time.

Rather than drive home in one stretch, I grabbed a hotel in Springdale.  I was able to watch television, and get some dinner.  Oh, the luxuries.

Don’t get me wrong, this was a very productive trip.  Many of my favorite shots from this year were taken during this one week span.  However, I also learned that I needed to do something different for my next solo trip.  I needed some degree of human contact.  I enjoyed my experience, but the silence can be deafening.

In March of the same year, I headed on a trip to Death Valley.  My weapon of choice was an ipod filled with podcasts.  If I ever began to feel that solitude was weighing down on me, I would play some of the podcasts.  It worked very well.

I have found that I can tolerate only a week of solitude.  If I do not keep my mind occupied, the solitude of the desert can wreak havoc on me, especially if things are not going as planned. Shooting large format requires a keen awareness of camera settings, and the situation around me.  Any distractions that cause me to get out of the “zone” will certainly make my task more difficult.

After a week in the wilderness,  I need to grab a hotel room to get a warm shower, a warm meal, and make some phone calls.

I’m heading back to the desolate Colorado Plateau for a 2 week trip in less than a month.  I plan on spending about a week in the wilderness, then taking a break at a hotel before heading back out again. Between that and plenty of podcasts, I should be able to keep my mind at bay.  We shall see.

4 Responses to “The Psychology of Solo Trips”

  1. David Patterson Says:

    Ben… awesome description of what it feels like to be out there on your own. While I have made a few solo trips, none to the extent you have. I am currently preparing for a return trip to Death Valley… and this time am bringing my teenage son out there for his first taste of the vastness and power of such an area. Good luck on your trip, and will look forward to seeing your images when you return.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      That sounds like a fantastic trip that you have planned with your son! I plan on heading to Death Valley as soon as I’m done with Arizona/Utah, so I should be in that area in the second week of February. My schedule is quite loose since it all depends on the weather when I’m in Arizona. Death Valley sure is an amazing location. The vastness is unparalleled.

  2. Sharon Van Lieu Says:

    Another great article, Ben. I think these times of being truly alone can provoke some energy that will translate into awesome shots. Can’t wait to see your Death Valley work.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Sharon. The solitude definitely translates into good photos. When there are no distractions, it is easier to focus on the job at hand. Plus, being out there solo means that photography is my primary goal. I like to do everything I can to ensure that I walk away with at least one good shot. I’m really looking forward to Death Valley. It should be fun!

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