Solo Survivors

Adapted from Chapter Fifteen of Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude

by author Lionel Fisher*

THRIVEnet Story of the Month - July 2001

In the waning days of 1991, Paul Theroux's literary agent asked him which French personality he would most like to meet; "d'Aboville," the author replied.

"He is my hero," Theroux told Gerard d'Aboville's wife Cornelia when the two were introduced soon after. "Mine, too," she replied.

"And mine," millions around the world would have echoed warmly, myself included.

A decade later, though, most people have to be reminded that d'Aboville was the forty-seven-year-old Frenchman who rowed across the Pacific Ocean alone in his 26' boat, Sector. Paddling ten to twelve hours per day, he battled hundred-mile-per-hour winds, and towering waves that capsized his boat more than thirty times during the crossing, once trapping him upside-down in his hermetic cabin for nearly two hours before he managed to right the boat again. Then he kept on rowing.

"Endurance for one moment more" is how men of the Caucasus Mountains define heroism. One moment more. For as long as it takes. When the moments are endured alone, the act exceeds heroism, extending into unimaginable courage and glory.

On the evening of November 21, 1991, 134 grueling days after leaving Choshi, Japan, weighing thirty-seven pounds less than when he embarked on his impossible journey, d'Aboville stepped ashore at the port of Ilwaco, a fishing village fourteen miles from where I now live on Washington's North Beach Peninsula.

I remember my excitement, driving with two friends from Portland to Astoria, Oregon, on that frigid November morning, hoping for a glimpse of the heroic figure who had captured the world's imagination with his solo conquest of the mighty Pacific. d'Aboville had already departed by the time we arrived, but the anticipation of seeing such a man made the trip worthwhile.

"Why," English explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard asked himself on one of his own solitary adventures, "do some human beings desire with such urgency to do such things, regardless of the consequences, voluntarily, conscripted by no one but themselves?" Theroux asked the same question of d'Aboville when the two men finally met.

"Only an animal does useful things," d'Aboville answered. "An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful--not like an animal at all. Something only a human being would do."

And do alone, if only to achieve that rare benediction bestowed singly on those who dare brave incredible hardships with only their reserves of courage and spirit to sustain them.

In 1933, with his Antarctic expedition bivouacked between Little America and the South Pole, Admiral Richard E. Byrd decided to spend the winter alone at the Bolling Advance Weather Base. "Now, I wanted something more than just privacy in the geographical sense," Byrd later wrote in his book, Alone.

"Out there in the South Polar barrier, in cold and darkness as complete as that of the Pleistocene, I should have time to catch up, to study and think and listen to the phonograph; and, for maybe seven months, remote from all but the simplest distractions, I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man's laws but my own."

In his own book, Seul (French for "alone"), written in 1992 about his Pacific crossing, d'Aboville explains why he attempted such a desolating excursion. Ten days after setting off from Choshi, Japan, in ideal weather with a brisk wind at his back and the churning terrors of 40' troughs still ahead, he enjoyed one of his most successful days, rowing twelve hours and covering thirty knots toward his distant destination. That evening, d'Aboville wrote in his journal:

"I am a resistance fighter in a war I invented for myself. The enemy is me, with all my physical shortcomings, my temptation to give up. That temptation, by the way, does not consist of sending up my distress signal and throwing in the towel, as one might think.

"It is the thousand and one little daily temptations that lie in wait for us all: to get out of bed five minutes later than usual; to stop one minute before the bell rings signaling the end of the working day; to pull a trifle less vigorously on the oar next time; even to stop shaving.

"These are the kinds of minor abandonments, the easings off just a little here and there, which in and of themselves are insignificant but which, taken together, ineluctably lead to the ultimate surrender. And it is these same minor, ridiculous battles, these repetitive, fastidious, inglorious battles that, if I persist, will eventually lead me to victory."

Robert Bogucki decided he needed to isolate himself for a long period of time. He chose to do it beginning on July 12, 1999, in Australia's Great Sandy Desert. After telling a friend that he planned to rely solely on his spiritual resources during his four-hundred-mile trek through the desert, the thirty-three-year-old volunteer fireman from Fairbanks, Alaska disappeared into the brutally inhospitable terrain, setting off a massive search that was subsequently depicted in an hour-long segment of Dateline NBC.

Rescuers who followed Bogucki deep into the 160,000-square-mile wasteland--terrain so harsh even Aborigines don't live there--marveled at how he was able to keep going for so long. They knew he couldn't possibly carry enough food and water to sustain him the whole way, and with every 90-degree day that passed, hope dimmed for the man the Australian media had dubbed "the desert vagabond."

Finally, after several hundred miles, his footsteps disappeared. The search was officially declared at an end. Bogucki's parents, however, hired a professional team to sustain the effort. Trackers and dogs in trucks and helicopters were deployed and miraculously picked up his trail again. Then they found his camping gear.

By then he'd been alone in the desert for six weeks with no known supplies. Searchers in a helicopter finally came across his backpack, tarpaulin, water bottle, and his most-prized possession--the Bible he was never without. And the tracks leading on, resolutely straight until now, seemed confused. Also, his footfalls weren't as strong, and his rest periods came much too often.

Where initially he had averaged twenty-five miles a day, he was now covering less than three. What's more, revealed the Dateline narrator, Bogucki's girlfriend had disclosed his intention, if he decided that he wasn't going to make it, to secrete himself somewhere in the vast wilderness to die. Then, with the hope of finding him dwindling with each passing hour, the searchers suddenly came across him, "just strolling along, head down, oblivious to the roar of the helicopter," according to one rescuer.

Weak, gaunt, his skin hanging loosely on a now-skeletal frame, Bogucki was flown to a nearby hospital. He had lost forty-four pounds, roughly a third of his former body weight. Otherwise, he was fine.

Meanwhile, people around the world were asking, "Is the man crazy?" "Why did he do such a thing?" "What was he looking for, anyway?" Bogucki's answers came four months later in a filmed interview. He said he'd dreamed of making such a journey for ten years, that he did it because he needed to know that God exists, otherwise his life would be pointless.

He had originally planned to ride his bicycle across the desert, he said, but the terrain was so sandy that walking was easier. As his strength withered he forced himself to keep going, felt he'd eventually come to the place where he'd be "tested." He once went three days without water, got desperate and dug six feet with his bare hands and found water. He ate desert flowers.

As he walked, he spent the time thinking, he said, thinking and crying. He thought of his life; how much love God has for people. And he kept walking. He walked for weeks with no food to sustain him and barely any water. He tried not to lose his mind, he said, and had left the bible behind because he didn't need it anymore.

Then he spelled out "HELP" with rocks on a stretch of open ground. And he kept walking. "Ready to die, at peace," he said later.

Bogucki found water barely minutes before the helicopter came upon him--forty days after he'd set out into the desert. He had walked 240 miles without food, surviving by eating plants and flowers and drinking muddy water. The number forty was no coincidence, he claimed, because both God and Moses were in the desert exactly forty days. "God did that," he said.

The most important thing to him, Bogucki disclosed at the end of the Dateline interview, was that he'd found his relationship to God. He also said that he had married his girlfriend of the past eleven years, that he'd become more of the person he wanted to be and could be close to someone else now, and that he didn't need to go without food and water to find God anymore.

"Better," he said, "to show compassion and kindness."

Gerard d'Aboville is a hero for everyone whose unspectacular successes rely on a modicum of inspiration and a maximum of effort, particularly for those who have only themselves to count on.

People such as d'Aboville--those rare, indomitable men and women who set off alone to transcend incredible hardships and danger--awe us with the same dread and fascination that we hold for solitude.

Why do they do it? And why alone? It's one thing to be tagged by destiny to survive a solitary ordeal. Choosing it is another.

Steven Callahan, a naval architect cast adrift for seventy-six days on a 5 1/2' inflatable raft in the Atlantic, weathered mental, physical, and psychological challenges equal to d'Aboville's. But disaster-survivors such as Callahan are spared the doubt, second-guessing, and self-recrimination that perhaps bedevil solo adventurers in their darkest hours, for the latter have no one to blame but themselves, not even fate, for thrusting them in harm's way.

Why, then, do men and women such as d'Aboville embark on their perilous journeys alone? Why is singlehandedness such a crucial element of their exploits? Would their psychic rewards be diminished--or different somehow--if they shared their adventures with others?

I searched for answers in d'Aboville's book. I found it interesting that, to the Frenchman, the most significant aspect of his incredible feat was that he had accomplished it alone (and thus had titled his book Seul). Searching the text for words that might divulge his feelings about the need to test himself utterly alone, the closest thing to an explanation I found came in a notation he made after his fantastic voyage:

"When I set out from Choshi, my goal had not been altruistic. I'm not a guru by any means. I have no message to deliver. No light to shine upon the world. And yet, as I read on, day after day [the letters he received after his adventure], I realized that despite myself I had given hope to all kinds of people: prisoners, the unemployed, the downtrodden, the homeless. I had touched the lives of people who, for whatever reason, were depressed and discouraged.

"And, I also saw, I had brought a ray of hope and sunshine into the lives of the aged, those who so often were, as I had been, distressingly alone."

The azure day had slipped away. The sun was about to plunge its crimson glow into the Pacific as I asked Don Smith what he regretted most about dying at the age of fifty-eight.

"The nervous years," replied the man from Idaho, fighting to stay alive on the Oregon coast. He had used the words once before in telling me about his life before the onslaught of cancer. I asked him what he was like back then, in the "nervous" years.

"Controlling," he answered abruptly, almost irritably, as if the memory pained him.

"I was self-centered, constantly competitive, totally driven. My egocentric characteristics dominated my life. I felt I could talk anyone under the table, overwhelm them with my experiences, and I tried every chance I got.

"I was always trying to prove my worth, usually at the expense of those closest to me. I always had to show how dynamic, how talented, how fascinating, and successful I was. I know the need came from a lack of belief in myself. Because I didn't have it, I had to get it from others."

Smith was becoming angry now, not at me, I sensed, but at himself for the waste of all those driven years. His voice had been sad when he talked about the wife he divorced after twenty-one years and their two sons and a daughter now in their thirties and living in different parts of the country. He hadn't seen any of them in close to eight years.

"I didn't support or comfort her," he said of their mother. "All she needed was approval from me. It's my most terrible regret, never having told her she was doing good--only bad, always the bad."

Smith laughed humorlessly. "I suffered from migraine headaches my whole life," he said, "and now that I'm dying they've gone away along with the colon ulcers I used to get." He shook his head. "That was the only good that came from all the bad."

Time was short now. I told him I needed to get started on my long drive home. "What have you learned from living so close to dying these past few years?" I asked him finally. "What would you say to help others make their lives and deaths better?"

This is what he told me in our last few minutes together.

  • "Learn to forgive. First others, then yourself--mostly yourself. But you have to forgive.
  • "Get rid of the negativity. So much of your life can go down this dark drain if you let it. Every negative feeling makes you sicker. Every positive feeling makes you better.
  • "Take life one day at a time. It's good advice, believe me. I go one better now--I take it one minute at a time, one second at a time. Every moment of life is precious.
  • "Cherish your health while you have it. A few years ago, my closest friend was diagnosed with cancer and heart disease from smoking. He'd been told many years ago to quit. At the time I said I was going to quit too, but I didn't and neither did he. Now I have extreme disdain for people with intelligence who deliberately poison themselves when everything I do is desperately aimed at keeping myself alive.
  • "Write down all the things you want to do and do the best thing first. You can wind up doing nothing if all you do is consider the possibilities. So just concentrate on one thing--and do it. Then move on to the next.
  • "Be grateful for what you have, for one good reason: You may not have it much longer. Trust me on this.
  • "Enjoy life! So much becomes unimportant when you're dying. Don't live in denial about death. It really won't happen to somebody else--to everyone but you.
  • "Make peace with yourself. It's wonderful to feel you no longer have to dominate everyone and everything in your life. It's such a relief not trying to be the constant center of your universe.
  • "Believe in something other than yourself: God, Buddha, the pyramids, whatever will help your internal healing and growth.
  • "Accept the reality that is you and work from there. Don't fool yourself with false hope. If you do, it will be more painful in the end.
  • "Get the clutter out of your life. Keep only what's important and concentrate on it fully.
  • "Don't give up. If you can be useful to yourself and helpful to others, that's enough reason for living."

I thanked Don Smith and said goodbye. I never saw him again. I hope he's still somewhere beside the Pacific, watching the sunsets he loved. I hope the man from Iowa, facing death alone by the sea, has become the hero he was meant to be.

Seven years after moving to the beach--lock, stock, barrel, fax, modem, computer, and WordPerfectTM--I've begun a tally of what I know about solitude.

I've learned, for one thing, that it's best taken in large doses, as anyone knows who's tried to shake an addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, sex--or people. A jealous mistress, solitude demands but gratefully rewards uncompromising devotion.

I've come to believe that there's an overworked, undervalued god of solitude up there, relatively low in the divine pecking order, with a full and varied job description that includes making sure whatever goes around comes around.

She's also in charge of rewarding risk and commitment: giving everyone exactly what they deserve, even though she usually takes her sweet time about doing it because she's so busy. It's because of her that the guy who won't quit his day job never achieves his dream. She's why nothing of real value happens to us until we believe in ourselves.

What the god of solitude teaches is that anything not worth the risk is not worth attaining. That the greater the gamble, the dearer the prize. That failure, loss, and rejection won't kill you, but not trying surely will, because it breeds regret, and enough regrets are lethal.

It's because of her that I've learned to ask myself, "Who are you trying to impress anyway?" And to hear my exultant reply, "Not a blessed soul!"

But myself, of course.

It's because of her that I'm finally in a time and place where my self-affirmation, my self-fulfillment, my self-esteem have little to do with what other people think of me and everything to do with what I think of myself.

How sad, the god of solitude teaches, that we spend our entire lives auditioning for others--parents, teachers, employers, suitors, spouses, lovers, strangers, friends--only to realize that we should have put ourselves at the head of the line, earned our own love, respect, and affection first. And everything else would have taken care of itself.

How tragic, she whispers mournfully, that we wait so long to free ourselves from other people's expectations, to find our true worth in our own eyes instead of in the eyes of others.

Look in the mirror, the god of solitude teaches. You will see the only eyes that matter, the only eyes that truly appreciate and understand you. In them, you will find all the respect and approval, all the love and esteem that you desire.

Then everything you receive from others will come as a gift, not a need.

And you will know, at last, that far from the price, solitude is the prize that time alone can give you.

* Reprinted here with permission. For more information on the book, , please visit its page at

© 2001, Lionel Fisher


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