The Peculiar Case of a Modern-Day Hermit
Does solitude destroy the human psyche, or does it allow us to see the world clearly?
Years ago, I lived in a house in New York with roommates who all seemed to have emigrated to the city with the same goal in mind: to get as trashed as possible every night. They ingested any drug they could lay their hands on, went through women like a baby goes through diapers, and turned our Brooklyn brownstone into a place of such unrivaled squalor that it was hard to tell where the sidewalk ended and the house began. Though I liked my housemates, living in that place was a nightmare. It wasn't so much the 24/7 eurodisco that bothered me, but the total inability to escape it.
Since then, I've learned to appreciate solitude. At one point I even started writing a book about it, for which I wanted to study hermits—people who had committed to total solitude, away from others, to live their life in peace. The longer I stayed in the party house, the more appealing the possibility of going off into nature to find one became.
And so it came to pass that one winter, I arrived at JFK Airport with a one-way ticket to Arizona and a wistful image in my head of a hilltop encounter with a wizened old guru. I had chosen Arizona specifically because it would be a relatively warm reprieve from New York's winter, and because the state had a history of hermits, who had settled in the ghost towns that Arizona's copper rush had left behind.
A historian in Phoenix had told me stories of these hermits, and suggested I look around the hills and canyons of central Arizona. He led me to a town called Cleator, which wasn't more than a handful of tin-roofed cabins an hour west of the I-17. It was dark when I got there and I'd have missed the place altogether if it hadn't been for the supernatural glow of the television coming from the open doorway of the town's singular bar.
The barman, a heavyset man with a pale face, was watching Lost. He set a beer in front of me and pointed to the place on the label where it said the ingredients were all natural. "Don't forget: arsenic's natural," he said.
I drank my beer and ordered another. At some point I worked up the courage to tell him why I was there. In the course of my trip I had asked several other people if they knew of any hermits living locally and each time I had seen them look at me like I was an absolute idiot. What was I doing, they must've wondered. Wasn't the point of a hermit that they wanted to be left alone? But after a pause, the barman began to tell me about an old man who lived alone in a ramshackle hut a few miles out of town. The hut was on the land of an old silver mine and the man, whose name was Virgil Snyder, had been caretaking the mine for the past 20 years.
The barman showed me his photo. If someone had asked me to draw a picture of a hermit, I would surely have come up with an approximation of the man in the photo. He was small—"No more than 100 pounds drippin' wet," the barman said—with a long white beard and he was holding the pelt of a snake in his hand.
"Take him beer if you're goin' up there," the barman told me on my way out. "And if he don't like ya, he'll soon let ya know."
For as long as there's been civilization, there have been people wanting to get away from it. In Christianity, the hermit tradition began with the Desert Fathers, a movement of ascetics who went out in to the deserts of Egypt starting in the third century as a reaction against the wealth and excess of the early church.
This idea of fleeing a corrupt society for a simpler, better life in nature has also inspired many artists and thinkers throughout the years. In 1845, Henry Thoreau famously set out to live alone in a hut by Walden Pond in Massachusetts, in order to "reverse the biblical injunction and labor for one day only, saving the other six for 'free time.'" During his stay, which Thoreau immortalized in the book Walden (the veracity of which is debated), he was arrested and put in jail for a night for refusing to pay his poll tax. At the time, he wrote in his journal: "The only highwayman I ever met was the State itself... I love mankind. I hate the institution of their forefathers."
This vision of the hermit as a noble rebel—not so much above the law, but answering to a higher one—has a seductive appeal. But it can also have disastrous consequences. In 1990, Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man, cut off all contact with his parents and gave away his $25,000 college fund to charity before embarking on a journey of self-discovery across the US. A fan of Thoreau, McCandless sought out further extremes of solitude, eventually heading out into the Alaskan wilderness with only ten pounds of rice and a rifle to shoot game. His body was later found inside an abandoned bus after he had apparently either starved to death, or accidentally poisoned himself.
Besides the physical dangers, there's also the question of whether solitude is psychologically healthy. Most research suggests it's not. Professor Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California who evaluated over a hundred inmates held at high-security supermax prisons in the United States, once wrote that "many of those subjected to [solitary confinement] are at risk of long-term emotional and even physical damage." Other research, also based on prisoners in solitary confinement (human isolation studies outside of prison are rare, mainly because of research ethics), has suggested that extreme solitude can make people delirious, paranoid, depressed, and actively suicidal.
"What you see when reading these studies is the same constellation of symptoms coming up in different cases, and they're simply too common not to be a pathology arising from the isolation," said Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University who has represented a number of solitary confinement inmates.
These symptoms include agitated and self-destructive behavior, anxiety and hypersensitivity, auditory and visual hallucinations, and, in some cases, a permanent intolerance to being around others.
Yet, while all this may be true, it's also the case that some people not only thrive in solitude, they discover meaning from being alone that they may not have found in ordinary life. Richard E. Byrd, for example, was a British naval officer who manned an advanced weather base alone in the Antarctic during the winter of 1934. During the long polar winter he developed an intense feeling of oneness with the universe. In his memoir, Alone, he wrote: "It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of man's despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night."
So which is it: Does solitude destroy the human psyche, or does it allow us to see the world clearly? These contrasting views are perhaps best illustrated by the story of two competitors in a 1968 yacht race to become the first solo sailor to go non-stop around the world. The first of them, Frenchman Bernard Moitissier, fell so in love with the solitude he abandoned the race altogether to sail through the Southern Ocean and on to Tahiti. For him, being alone was its own prize.
The other competitor, Donald Crowhurst, had a profoundly different reaction to all the alone time. He encountered problems with his boat not long into the race, and drifted aimlessly in the Atlantic for months, concocting false reports of his position. After he disappeared from radio contact, his boat was eventually found abandoned in the Sargossa Sea, with no sign of Crowhurst on board. What was found, however, was a 25,000-word diary that documented the English sailor's slide into madness. The solitude had, apparently, driven him out of his mind.
With the barman's directions, I went to the mine to find Virgil. It was about two miles from the road at the end of a steep rutted track. An abandoned cabin stood by the track above an embankment packed with excavated rock. Behind the shack, the front half of a rusted truck sat at a tilt in front of a mine entrance, its bodywork riddled with bullet holes.
Beyond the cabin, the track looped up behind the mine until it met a fork in the road. Nearing it, I saw a shadow of something cross a Juniper plant by the roadside. I walked on a little until I could see, along the path that led to my right, a man standing in profile holding a wheelbarrow. It was Virgil.
His beard was shorter than in the photo and he wore a grey pullover that hung limp over his sleight frame. He wanted to know if I had brought him beer and when I told him I had, he said he knew he liked me from the moment he saw me. I told him about a woman I met in Cleator, who had told me she thought Virgil was more free than anyone she knew. He shrugged and said he couldn't care less what others thought.
"I didn't come here to prove a point," he said. "Most those folks've never seen me sober. No joke. I'm the village idiot."
He invited me to stay and talk, and over the coming weeks, I pieced together what I could of his story. He grew up in a working class neighborhood in Phoenix, the eldest of six brothers, the son of a truck driver of German descent and a Cherokee woman. He married young, had two kids, cars, dogs—"the whole bullshit," as he put it. Then, at the height of the Reagan years, this first life ended. His wife kicked him out and his children disowned him. He wouldn't say what had caused this rupture but denied it was his drinking. Still, he stayed drunk on the streets for two years.
It was his father who found him, broken and destitute, and brought him to live with him at the mine, where he was caretaker. Later, Virgil would watch his father drink himself to death. After that, he decided to stay here alone.
It had been 27 years since he had seen his children. They would be in their 40s now. I asked if he ever thought of trying to find them.
"That's what you'd do, I suppose," he replied. "Not me."
I sensed a deep well of anger in him. It boiled up sometimes, especially when he drank. During a discussion about politics, for example, he exploded into an uncontrollable rage, upsetting beer cans and stamping his feet.
But the strongest impression he left me with was of someone whose emotional life was incredibly close to the surface. Once he broke down crying without explanation when I asked what seemed an innocuous question about a set of straw hats hung on the wall in his cabin. I wondered if this hypersensitivity was a symptom of the solitude, as in the case of solitary confinement prisoners, or whether it was part of his nature and perhaps what had caused him to retreat from the world in the first place.
There's a line in the 80s cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, when the eponymous hero notes, "Wherever you go, there you are." In other words, you might be able to hide out from the world but you can't hide from yourself. Similarly, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived for years as a hermit and published several books on solitude in his lifetime, once wrote: "If you go into the desert merely to escape from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils."
On Motherboard: The Case for Solitude in Science
The last time I saw Virgil, we drank beer and sat on a ridge facing some mountains. It was March by then, and we watched a woodpecker perched nearby on a rusted billycan. Virgil asked me if I knew how the bird knew where to look for food.
"I used to wonder about that," he said. "One day I was watching this motherfucker and he'd keep looking off to the side like he was watching out for something. Then I figured it out: He had his head turned to listen for grubs scratching under the bark. I guess there's smart people who know that 'cause they read it or seen it in a documentary. But how many of 'em learnt it 'cause they seen it with their eyes?"
I nodded. In the rush to fill our days with pseudo-important stuff, most of us overlook the simple truth. Up there on his Arizona hilltop, Virgil might've been tormented by his tribe of devils, but he also knew that one way or another, it's all the same.
"You can burn yourself up thinking," he told me once. "I prefer to keep my feet on the ground, live a day at a time. I mean, you don't see a dog sitting around takin' itself serious and shit."
Follow Paul Willis on Twitter.