In February 2023, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers entered a Hobbit-worthy dwelling in rural Oregon for a darkness retreat, inciting frenzied chatter. Maybe it was because fans suspected the retreat would inform whether he retires, changes teams, or stays a Packer for another season. Maybe it was the unorthodox, and to some, ridiculous, prospect of spending four days in complete darkness. But Rodgers, famous and controversial though he is, was simply doing something humans have done for millennia: using isolation retreats as a tool for self-knowledge, spiritual awakening, or personal growth.
In July 2002, somewhere north of Lake Superior, I did something similar. I stood on a rocky point overlooking a large pine-ringed lake, watching the boat that had left me there shrink into the distance. Thus began my “solo”: 24 hours of uninterrupted solitude in nature that I hoped would transform me. It didn’t go as planned.
The wilderness solo, an ancient rite of passage repopularized by outdoor education programs like Outward Bound, was a tradition at the wilderness camp I attended that summer. My expectations were high. I was 14 and painfully self-conscious. I longed to be more confident, charismatic, and comfortable with myself—ideally before starting ninth grade at a new school that fall. But I didn’t believe in my capacity to change myself. Instead, I yearned to be altered by external events like my solo.
I reviewed my supplies: two full Nalgenes, water purification tablets, sleeping bag, raincoat, Swiss Army knife, pen, notepad, trail mix, twine, and a yoga mat–sized tarp. I inspected the mostly empty Ziploc bag of trail mix. Outward Bound’s website recommends “a small packet of food … that equals the level of little-to-no-exertion that occurs on Solo.” My Spartan rations seemed more appropriate for a toddler, or a bird.
I could eat a pathetic micro-handful every several hours or save it until I was starving. Or … I could eat it all now. I was going to be hungry no matter what. With gusto, I applied the leave-no-trace ethos to the trail mix.
Having exhausted my food supply, it was time to do something responsible like set up my shelter. I walked into a fragrant grove of pine and found a flattish patch of earth clear of rocks and roots. With twine, I tied the tarp’s corners taut to nearby trees and rolled out my sleeping bag beneath it. Shelter complete.
I ambled along the shore, hoping to determine whether I was on a deserted island or merely a deserted peninsula. My curiosity was more than academic, because a peninsula would render me accessible to bears. After a couple of minutes I still couldn’t tell, but I hesitated to venture farther. The counselors’ instructions were clear: Don’t wander off your site. Don’t swim. Don’t make noise or communicate with anyone. I returned to the point. I still had over 23 hours to engineer my renaissance, but nine or 10 would be sleeping, and I didn’t want to leave all the life-changing for the morning.
Against a uniformly gray sky, I tried to conjure inspiration. I sang Smashing Pumpkins songs. I wrote the heavy-handed poetry one would expect of an adolescent Smashing Pumpkins fan with several unrequited crushes who I was sure would reciprocate my feelings if only they truly understood me. I gave myself pep talks in a British accent. I vowed to work toward doing 100 consecutive pushups so I could be jacked and stoic like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. I wrote more poetry. I urinated betwixt the pines. I wondered how my fellow campers were spending their solos, and whether they were wondering how I was spending mine. The afternoon was evaporating, and I was still hopelessly the same.
Maybe I needed to connect to something more primitive than 1990s rock bands and middle-school crushes. What would an early human do in this situation? For the first time in my life, I decided to whittle.
A chipmunk-hunting stick! I giggled aloud. I found a foot-long stick and started sharpening the end with my knife. I’d never thought about hunting chipmunks previously, nor did I intend to hunt any I might encounter on this island/peninsula. But it made it more rewarding to whittle what was essentially a girthy kebab skewer. It symbolized ironic wildness, as though 24 hours with insufficient trail mix was enough to turn me into a grizzled rodent impaler.
While whittling away, I noticed a boat approaching.
I have to hide, I thought. Human interaction was forbidden, and I didn’t want to invite unwanted attention.
I descended out of sight to the wave-lapped rocks, experiencing a strange reversal. Now I was a wild creature and human civilization was disrupting me. I was a chipmunk, hunted.
The fear of compromising the integrity of the solo consumed me. How could the solo have the desired effects without the prescribed experience of complete seclusion? A competing fear surfaced: It would be mortifying to be discovered crouching on a wet rock in an obvious but futile attempt at concealment. I climbed back onto the point.
The boat’s sole occupant was a sturdy fiftysomething woman in jean shorts. She waved. Maybe she just wanted to make sure I was all right. I waved back, hoping this would satisfy her.
“Hi there,” she called, puncturing the solitude.
I didn’t want to answer.
“Hi,” I said finally, imagining the magic of my solo whooshing out like air from a deflating balloon.
“Are you from the camp up the road?”
“I think so.”
“Do you need a snack?”
“Oh, thanks, but—”
“I’ve got an apple and a peanut butter sandwich.” She held out a brown paper bag as her boat sidled up to the rocks.
Reeling from the non-consensual conversation, I couldn’t resist her generosity. Several hours had passed since I had wolfed down my laughable allotment of trail mix. A peanut butter sandwich sounded pretty good.
I accepted the bag and thanked her. We exchanged names.
When she was gone, I exhaled relief and inhaled the sandwich, feeling the adhesive mixture of soft white bread and peanut butter against the roof of my mouth, cheeks, and tongue. Belly now full of illicit provisions, I tried to justify my violations of the solo code. Yes, I spoke with a stranger. Yes, I accepted extra food. But I didn’t seek it out. I was just living in my habitat, which happened to include the woman in the boat and her bag of snacks.
The sky opened up in time for sunset. Long rays of light painted receding cumulus forts orange and gold and illuminated the lake in blinding patches. If conditions remained clear, I could admire the cosmos later from my rocky point. Maybe shooting stars would trigger the desired insights and epiphanies. I watched the sun slip below the treeline.
In the twilight, cloud caravans rolled in on a firm breeze, canceling tonight’s entertainment. I retreated to my sleeping bag. Hopefully inspiration would strike in the morning.
My sleeping bag was too hot. I unzipped it. Rain announced itself with a soft tapping on the tarp and then swelled to a confrontational rapping. I entered a mild but inescapable hell. The narrow tarp couldn’t protect me from the wind-blown slant of the rain. The island/peninsula’s entire mosquito population gathered under the tarp to seek refuge and my blood. Any body part I extended from my smothering cocoon became an all-you-can-eat buffet.
For hours I alternated between retreating inside my hot, wet sleeping bag to escape the mosquitoes and sticking my head or limbs out to cool off and serve the mosquitoes their next course. I got wetter, sweatier, itchier, and more frustrated. Fresh thunder rumbled with unmistakable proximity.
Years later, I’d understand why Aaron Rodgers left his retreat early—halfway through the planned four days. Maybe he found it intolerable or overwhelming, as many people do. Accounts of unpleasant retreat experiences abound, ranging from bad roommates to mental health issues to the agony of sitting still and silent for 8 to 10 hours of daily meditation while being subjected to S.N. Goenka’s video lectures. Some stick it out. Others leave early (always justified if mental health issues arise). At Aaron Rodgers’ darkness retreat, there’s an emergency light and the door is always unlocked. You can leave anytime. I, on the other hand, could not. Or so I thought.
Around the time of night that feels farthest from the light on either side, there was a sharp slap of sound and my tarp was suddenly ripped away.
Blurry figures loomed over me in the pouring rain. Bears?
“Let’s go!” One hollered.
People. My counselors. Was this part of the solo? I was immobilized by incomprehension.
“Get your stuff. We’re going back to camp.”
I gathered my belongings and clambered into the boat in disbelief. Lightning was approaching the lake, my counselors explained, so they were cutting our solos short and bringing us back to camp.
I didn’t make it 24 hours. I didn’t even last the night. My solo would be haunted by an unshakeable asterisk. I’d imagined the solo as a mechanized process that would sculpt, stamp, temper, and purify me in a predetermined way. All I had to do was make it through each step of the assembly line to emerge as the final product I hoped to become. But I’d been plucked from the process prematurely, dooming me to the terrible fate of remaining unchanged. I stewed in disappointment as we navigated the black, rain-spattered lake.
Despite his early departure, Aaron Rodgers glowed about his darkness retreat on The Aubrey Marcus Podcast. “There was a lot of great contemplation the first day and a lot of lessons … and things … that I was able to sit with and heal,” he said. “All the answers are right inside me.” Maybe he found what he was looking for. Decades after my failed solo, I realized I did, too.
In January 2023, my partner and I tried our hands at kintsugi: the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics, painting the cracks with metallic lacquer. Imperfection is thought to make the repaired object more beautiful. I loved the symbolism. But I envisioned a clean, elegant imperfection. What we got instead was mundane imperfection. Our bowl broke into more fragments than we could epoxy back together. Untidy smears of gold paint covered our partial bowl. It was meant to be a fun bonding activity, but I couldn’t conceal my frustration—even though the irony of being frustrated by imperfection in this situation wasn’t lost on me. I recalled my solo, as I often do when I suffer from rigid or unrealistic expectations.
The appeal of acute transformational experiences is undeniable, especially in an era of dwindling attention spans, on-demand conveniences, and productivity hacks. We want the four-hour body, the one-week enlightenment, the 10 years of therapy in one night (as some describe ayahuasca ceremonies.) Profound spiritual or personal epiphanies are possible, as is disappointment—especially when poorly managed expectations coincide with a lack of preparation before, openness during, and integration after the experience.
My solo did not cure me of Icarus-high hopes. But it’s an amulet I carry with me, helping me notice when I’ve been expecting too much. Twenty years later, I probably think of my severed solo more often than I would if I’d had a full 24 hours of uninterrupted solitude, or what might have passed for an epiphany at age 14.
“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness,” Eckhart Tolle wrote. In other words, I didn’t have the solo I wanted to have; I had the one I needed. I wish the same for all voyagers, even Rodgers. Especially if that includes the revelation that he should get vaccinated.