Howard Axelrod doesn’t own a cell phone. The author of The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age and director of Loyola University’s creative writing program does use email, but only after noon. “It’s helpful to begin the day in the spirit in which I want it to continue,” he told me. Which is to say: undisturbed.
At times, he takes the same approach to travel: Some parts of the world are better explored alone, and what we find there is better left kept to ourselves—felt, not discussed. “So much of experience is not translatable and benefits from not being translated,” said Axelrod on the phone—a landline—from his home just north of Chicago.
He did try to translate the experience of the two years he spent alone in Vermont, though, for his 2015 memoir, The Point of Vanishing. So, I wondered, could he translate it for us? What is the power of solitude, and why should we make room for traveling alone? Below is an edited version of our conversation.
How do you define solitude?
Solitude is when you take time deliberately for yourself. Just as we have a need to be social on a primal level, we also have the need for quiet, for time alone with ourselves. It’s deeply restorative.
How did people respond when you returned from your time in Vermont?
People were either enticed by the idea of so much time alone or it petrified them. For the people who were enticed, they said, “Oh, it must be so nice to be able to hear yourself think.” I suppose that’s true, but that’s not what’s really restorative. It’s not about hearing yourself think; it’s about hearing what’s around you when you stop thinking. Once I started to hear the birdsong and the wind and the rain against the windows, I was then able to hear a deeper part of myself that didn’t come from thinking.
When no one else is around, that often anxious narrator inside of you quiets down. That person trying to drive the car in your mind—“What about if we do this? Is it this turn or the next one? Where’s the next bathroom?”—goes quiet, and then you can tune more into your senses than that voice. That’s when you become aware of a much larger world, and that that larger world has a place for you. You belong in it.
Do you continue to travel alone?
Yes. When I travel alone, there’s this feeling that everything is possible. There’s an openness of choice, but also an openness to the unbidden. I can make a plan to go on a hike, and then something comes up and the day changes—and it’s all the better for changing. You don’t know what’s going to intrigue you or stimulate your curiosity, and you can just let it all unfold. It’s exciting.
It feels like a physical analog for writing. I’m working on a novel now, and I have a sense of who these characters are and where the conflict is, but also, when I sit down every day to write, if I force these characters, it doesn’t work. Things go well when I have some sense of where I’m going, but also when unexpected things arise.
What was your last solo trip?
I went to Vieques a year ago. I had just finished the second book and I wanted to lie on a beach and drool into the sand!
What else did you do there?
One of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world is there, and you can tour it at night by kayak. When you pick your paddle up out of the water, it looks like starlight is dripping off of it. It was beautiful and romantic, in a way.
I was in one boat with a guide and a young couple, I think on their honeymoon, was in another. They were nice people who were happy to be with each other and happy to be there. And I felt both things: I thought, on the one hand, this couple was having this lovely time. But I also felt the pleasure of being alone, and how a night like that can enter you really deeply if you’re by yourself.
There were stingrays and they looked like these great flaps of light in the dark water. Then, the guide would smack the side of the kayak and all these fish that looked like darts of light would shoot out from under the boat. It was like fireworks underwater. To be alone with that, there’s a kind of intimacy.
Can you expand on what you mean by “intimacy” in this context?
There’s a kind of intimacy you can have with an experience when it’s not for anything or anyone else. And there’s a way of—especially if you don’t have a phone—being faithful to that experience.
I don’t think I’ve described this to anyone this deeply in the year since it happened; it just stayed with me. It makes me think of this poem that Seamus Haney wrote, referencing Czesław Miłosz. It talks about a thing held true to; what happens when you don’t talk about things… Oh, I’ve found it:
“A dividend from ourselves…”
Yes, it makes me think about how, with the experiences that move us, there’s something in the moment, but there’s also a gestation period. If we don’t talk about them right away, if we don’t sell them on the cheap for social media or even storytelling points, they can open up in us over time. So there’s the unbidden in place, allowing deviation from a schedule, and also the unbidden in time. You can’t anticipate how, over time, an experience will open up and connect to more things than it otherwise would have. So if you can hold onto it without talking about it for its social value in the moment, then its spiritual value will generally increase. That’s one of the beauties of traveling alone, and the beauties of solitude.
So many experiences accumulated like that, for me. It wasn’t until years later that I wrote The Point of Vanishing, and those experiences were there waiting. I hadn’t kept a journal, I hadn’t been writing people letters about it, but I could see those experiences clearly because I had been true to them and then had expanded in me—and expanded me.
Julia Bainbridge is an editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit, and a James Beard Award-nominated writer whose stories have been published in Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. After building a career around why and how people gather, Bainbridge pivoted into why people don’t, launching The Lonely Hour podcast to explore social disconnection and other forms of loneliness. In the years since, the show has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Women’s Health, Bloomberg, the BBC, NPR, Calm, and more.