John Muir extolled the solitude of Yosemite. In 1899 he said, “Nearly all the park is a profound solitude.” That may have been true at the close of the 19th century. But if you want solitude today, stay away from Yosemite Valley on summer weekends.
One weekend in June, we were stopped by traffic in Fish Camp, a few miles from the park’s south entrance. We turned around and retreated to Fresno Dome, where we had the place to ourselves.
But Fresno Dome does not compare to the Yosemite wonderland. So on a more recent weekend, we got an earlier start. Precious few parking spots remained in Yosemite Valley. The busses were mobbed. The trails were crowded. Teeming throngs jostled to pose for pictures. So much for solitude.
Solitude is quickly becoming a relic of an older world.
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In Muir’s day only 1.5 million people lived in California. Thirty years ago, our population had not yet reached 28 million. Today, there are nearly 40 million of us. By 2035, there will be 45 million Californians.
The population issue is vexing. It quickly connects to questions about birth control, sex education and reproductive rights. These are contentious issues. In April, the United States cut funding to the UN Population Fund due to concerns about abortion.
But it is still worth asking: how many people are too many? At the turn of the 20th century the global population was 1.6 billion. The current global population is 7.6 billion. By 2050, we will near the 10 billion mark.
Yosemite on the weekend is a microcosm of our crowded future. Sometimes there is literally nowhere to park and no room on the bus. New parking lots and bigger busses could help. But making the Valley more accessible will not solve the fundamental problem, which is that crowds destroy solitude.
Solitude is quickly becoming a relic of an older world. How rarely we are alone. Our electronic devices keep us occupied and connected. Our lives are crammed, cramped, and congested. Our minds are as crowded as our streets.
The world’s spiritual traditions have often advocated solitude. Jesus spent 40 days praying in the desert. The Greek word for desert—also translated as wilderness—becomes the English word “hermit.”
Thomas Merton, an American Christian monk, explained that desert hermits sought to purge away the superficial self so that “the true, secret self” could emerge. He warned that without solitude, we lose our true humanity. He wrote, “When men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”
Solitude is connected to the experience of wonder. It inspires humility. And it opens the door to reflection and insight.
Go to Glacier Point at the crack of dawn, when no one else is there. Sitting alone on the edge of the world provides a revelation. That insight is lost when excited tourists pile out of buses and pose for selfies.
Preserving spiritual health in a crowded world is as much of a challenge as preserving wilderness.
Of course, the same kind of solitary wonder can be experienced at home. Take a walk in your neighborhood at dawn. Find a library or church. Or simply close your eyes and sit in silence.
Those moments of quiet aloneness are essential for spiritual hygiene. To be alone is to be “all one”—to find a sense of self, integrity and wholeness. We need silence and solitude as much as we need friendship and dance and song.
Sometimes “the more the merrier” is the right motto. We can even experience a shared sense of solitude in the company of others, as when good friends pause together in hushed admiration of nature’s wonders.
All of this is a matter of dosage and degree. Saints may find enlightenment in 40 days of solitude. The rest of us can only handle a moderate dose. But the same is true of crowds and congestion—a little goes a long way.
The long-term challenge of managing the masses will require ingenuity and care. Preserving spiritual health in a crowded world is as much of a challenge as preserving wilderness.
In the short term, we can still find solitude. Turn off the phone. Sit in silence. Greet the dawn. And go to Yosemite—but not on the weekend.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala