I just got off the Main Salmon River, which was a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life and the constant bombardment of bad news I can’t seem to avoid when I have access to my phone or computer. Floating down a river takes you away from all that, but I realize it does something else for me as well.
I recently picked up the book “The 5 Love Languages.” It’s kind of a hokey, older self-help book designed to improve marital communication. Despite its terrible cover (my copy has an incredibly cheesy image of a couple dancing on a beach silhouetted by the sun), the book gave me some interesting insights into why exercising with my partner, my friends and family is so important to me. It turns out I speak the language of “quality time.”
Those of us who “speak” this language are buoyed by shared experiences. We feel loved, supported and seen when we spend quality time with the people we care about. It’s more important for us to do things with others than to have them tell us they love us or for them to shower us with gifts. What that shared time involves depends on the individual, of course, but for me it seems to be time spent in the mountains, on the rivers or in the canyons with members of my community.
Discovering my love language — ridiculous as that sounds — made a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about my own choices over the years. I have never taken a solo trip. I rarely choose to be alone when I am exercising, and I don’t remember any successful romantic relationships that didn’t involve adventures with my partner. It’s just the way I operate, but lots of people choose different paths.
A few years ago a woman I know spent roughly 70 days paddling solo down the Yukon River. She came back excited, exhausted, exhilarated and full of a sense of achievement. That solo time — overcoming obstacles, fighting through challenges, pushing herself physically and mentally — filled her tank in a way that sustained her for months afterward. And there are plenty of people like her. Lots of our best local mountain athletes are known for their epic solo adventures in the high peaks, and we’ve all read about or know bicyclists who have set records on long-distance rides that involve hours, days or even weeks in the saddle by themselves.
None of these endeavors have any appeal to me, nor have they ever. I think I’d be bored hanging out with myself for any extended length of time, and I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable tackling risky or challenging feats without a teammate. But I sometimes feel as if I should want to do things alone — that I should be pulled to test myself on a solo excursion to see what I’m made of. That pressure seems to come from a strange idea I have, that being able to do something alone is better. But why would it be better? Where does that notion come from?
Americans are independent. We value that quality in others and hold up the people who’ve achieved great things on their own as heroes. It’s hard to remember the names of the individuals who make up a medal-winning team. Maybe there’s one star who stands out, but most of the time those teams are remembered for the year of their achievement, not for their individual identities. On the flip side, I bet all of us can come up with a list of icons who have gained individual greatness over the years. The first sports star I remember was Jean Claude Killy from the Olympics back when I was a child. Then there was Olga Korbet, Mark Spitz, and so on up to today’s renowned athletes.
And while I’ll never forget the 1980 Miracle on Ice, I don’t know any of the people who helped win that game, which suddenly seems strange to me. I’ve always valued teamwork, but you could argue that the fact that I can’t come up with a single name from a team that achieved a so-called miracle says something about me and our society. We pay lip service to teamwork, but when it comes down to it the bright stars garner most of our attention and acclaim, which may explain why I have a lingering feeling that I should want to go solo sometimes.
It seems to me now — especially after I’ve learned my personal love language — that my feeling that solo activity is superior to group adventures is an outgrowth of our tendency as Americans to idolize individual achievement, and that it undervalues, or at least ignores, the good things that come from doing things with someone else.
When I go out solo for exercise it’s usually just for that, exercise. It’s because I can’t find anyone to go with me and I want to move for a while. Sometimes that solo experience can be quite soothing. I tend to notice the natural world a little more and to be more cognizant of the way my body is moving or how it feels. But in terms of fun and enjoyment? I’d much prefer company. I feel as if sharing the joy of a moment with another person actually illuminates it a little more for me. Plus, I am often more confident and courageous when I’m in something with a partner, and I always tend to push myself harder in a group.
That is definitely true in the canoe. I’ve never been much of a boater, and I came to the sport late, so being in a canoe with another person allows me to achieve a level of proficiency I don’t think I’m capable of on my own. Furthermore, it helps me feel close to my husband as we share the ups and downs of our adventures.
Of course, it’s not always smooth to be out there together, and we’ve definitely yelled at each other when we find ourselves moving at ramming speed toward a rock or hole, but even then, after the adrenaline has passed and we are flush from the excitement of the rapid, the shared experience becomes a bond that brings us closer. And it’s a bond I feel with friends too. For me it’s clear that the adventure is as much about spending quality time with others as it is about the specific endeavor or objective. Solo time doesn’t fill that need for me, and I guess that’s OK.