Embracing a Life of Solitude
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
Stuart Isett for The New York Times
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
Published: April 14, 2010
FOR the last 16 years, Nick Fahey has been living on an island in the San Juan archipelago north of Puget Sound, in Washington state, where his only full-time companion is a 26-year-old quarter horse called Ig. Mr. Fahey, 67, lives in a cabin on 100 wooded acres that has been in his family since 1930; it has no refrigerator, but there is electricity generated by solar panels, so he has light and can charge his cellphone.
There are few amenities of the material kind, but his days are his own. Time, he said, is “one of the real luxuries of living out here.” With the exception of cutting wood for fuel and to support himself — occasionally he makes a trek to neighboring islands or the mainland, to sell the wood or buy groceries — he is free to do as he pleases. Most days are spent rambling around the rocky island and drinking coffee, his favorite French Market brand with chicory.
“I don’t worry about whether I am clothed or not,” Mr. Fahey said. “But the weather is such that it’s a good idea to wear some clothes.”
Getting away from it all: it’s a common fantasy. But for some people, fantasizing isn’t enough. For whatever reason — the desire for peace and quiet in an increasingly frenetic world, an attempt to escape the intrusiveness of technology or the need for an isolated place to recover from heartbreak — they feel compelled to act out the fantasy, seeking the kind of solitude found only in the remotest locations.
The compulsion to live in isolation can be attributed to any number of factors, said Elaine N. Aron, a psychologist and the author of “The Undervalued Self” and “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.”
Some people might “really need their downtime,” Dr. Aron said, and seek out “isolation that avoids all social intercourse.” Others may have developed an “avoidant attachment style” in childhood, resulting in “a need to prove to themselves that they don’t need anybody,” she said.
For many people, though, the desire for extreme solitude may have simpler roots, she noted: “It could be because they want a mystical experience. You can’t pathologize that.”
When it comes to striking out alone in the wilderness, however, men may be more inclined to do that than women, said John T. Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “In our culture, there is this mythic individualism that we cherish,” said Dr. Cacioppo, who studies the biological and cognitive effects of isolation. “That’s particularly true for men — they are supposed to be an island unto themselves. They take that myth more seriously and try to pursue it.”
For some, he added, a divorce later in life or another equally jarring event may trigger that impulse. “Losing connections during that period of your life becomes very traumatizing,” he said. “One way to deal with that is to prove that you don’t need anyone.”
In Mr. Fahey’s case, he moved to the island full time in 1994, several years after he divorced, not because he was traumatized, he said, but because he liked the “feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself. You don’t have to answer to anybody.”
His daughter, Anna, 36, now visits about once a month, and his son, Joe, 39, who lives in France, comes once a year. There are a handful of other residents on the other side of the island, but Mr. Fahey prefers not to socialize with them.
“I’m not a misanthropic recluse sort of guy,” he said. “I just know that I’d rather be here by myself.”
Once a week, though, he does venture to Anacortes, a town on the mainland, 10 miles away by boat, to visit his 99-year-old father in an assisted-living home and to see his girlfriend, Deborah Martin, whom he has been dating for 15 years.
Ms. Martin, 56, explained: “We are both pretty independent, and I imagine that’s partly why it works. We don’t have the same expectations that other couples might, like, ‘I need you to be here every night.’ ”
When they met, she said, she was raising two children on her own and not looking for a father figure for them. But now that the children are grown, she said, she is considering moving to the island to be with Mr. Fahey.
“I think he probably does get lonely,” she said. “But he loves that place and he gets a lot of sustenance from it. He doesn’t want to forsake it.”
FOR Roger Lextrait, 63, living in seclusion seemed like an appealing change, after a harried life as a restaurateur in Portland, Ore.
Mr. Lextrait was the sole inhabitant of the remote tropical atoll of Palmyra, in an island chain administered by the United States in the Northern Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, from 1992 to 2000. He wound up there in his mid-40s, after nearly a dozen years of sailing around the world on his yacht, the Cous Cous, following his divorce and the sale of two restaurants in the early 1980s. Exhausted by his years on the boat, he agreed to take a job as the island’s caretaker, warning ships off the reefs and discouraging vandals. The post was supposed to last a few months, but Mr. Lextrait stayed for eight years.
Part of the draw of living on the island, which is now owned by the Nature Conservancy, was that “time did not matter — sometimes I would lose track of the year,” he said. “It was so magical, millions of birds, turtles. When I’d go out with the dinghy, manta ray would escort me, dolphins.”
When he arrived, he said, he brought a boat stocked with canned goods, 300 pounds of flour, 30 gallons of olive oil and several cases of wine. After two years, he had achieved a near-subsistence lifestyle, eating fish from the lagoons and lobster hidden in the reefs.
Still, island life took its toll. “I got attacked by loneliness,” said Mr. Lextrait, who came to depend on the company of his German shepherd mix, TouTou. He would often forgo shaving and dressing, he said, and “I started talking to myself. Sometimes I felt like an animal.”
His infrequent visitors would ask things like “What are you going to do if a coconut falls on your head?” — given that the nearest doctor was hundreds of miles away. “I said, ‘Oh my, if I think like that, I’ll never do anything.’ ”
Mr. Lextrait, who now lives in Thailand with his wife, Jayne, an American he met in Hawaii after leaving Palmyra, said he returned from seclusion to find the world a changed place.
“I had no idea that the cellular phone existed, I was so lost,” he said. “I came back with different eyes — I was a different person.”
OTHERS choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. Edward Griffith-Jones, a 27-year-old British man, spent the last year living in a hut he built in a national park in Sweden. It was his way of being environmentally responsible, he said.
“It’s a very interesting time to find another way of life,” he said. “People use the word ‘sustainable’ a lot, especially if they are in business, and it means nothing.”
In England, he had been working in nightclubs and bars, he said, when he met a group of people who squatted in abandoned buildings. He found he shared their green, anti-establishment values, and eventually became a squatter himself. And after attending a gathering of like-minded people held in a Polish forest, he decided to take that lifestyle to its logical extreme.
For him, that meant living deep in a Swedish forest, an hour and a half walk from the nearest train station — a trip that could take four hours during the winter, when the snow was deep — with a couple of other similarly inclined individuals who would come and go. He had a cellphone, which he charged with a small solar generator and used to call his family and his girlfriend, a college student who visited him every few weeks.
His diet was not for the fainthearted. Along with perch and pike from nearby lakes, he ate wild plants like nettles, berries and tubers, as well as mice and rats. He couldn’t hunt larger game because he didn’t have a gun — to purchase one, he would have had to provide an address — but he began studying how to make a bow and fletch arrows. On infrequent trips to town, he would scavenge for unspoiled food in the trash.
“We live in a world where everything is so specialized, now people don’t know how to make anything, they don’t know how to survive,” he said, speaking by cellphone from the forest. “I’m not completely self-sufficient, but I’m learning.”
Every aspect of his daily routine was essential to his survival. “I have to collect firewood, rather than do some job that I have no idea what is the point, which I hate, and from which I am completely alienated,” he said. “Everything in my life feels full of meaning.”
Recently, though, Mr. Griffith-Jones left the forest, having decided that the lifestyle was not as sustainable as he had hoped, mostly because “women weren’t willing to live there,” he said, “or raise up children in the forest.” He is now trying to start an ecologically minded commune on a farm nearby.
DAVID GLASHEEN, 66, likened his experience of living alone to “going to the moon.”
“Everything you’ve ever learned means nothing till you come to a place like this,” said Mr. Glasheen, who lives on Restoration Island, off the northern coast of Australia, with his mixed-breed dog, Quasi, and has been there since 1996. “It’s the pinnacle of privacy.”
An entrepreneur who said he has worked in a number of fields — including mineral exploration, food services and toys — he had suffered a series of financial losses and divorce when a girlfriend suggested escaping to an island in the early 1990s.
“I just wanted the idea of a less stressful life,” he said. “I figured there had to be something better than this out there.”
Mr. Glasheen was living in Sydney at the time and found the island, an uninhabited national park, through a real estate agent. His company, Longboat Investments, leased the land for $20,000 a year, in Australian dollars. He and his girlfriend set up permanent residence there, but she left after six months; their son, now 11, spends some school holidays on the island with Mr. Glasheen.
“We had a baby, we had no hot water, we had no washing machine,” he said. “Things are not easy here for a woman.”
In the city, he said, when you need something, “you pick up the phone and everyone comes running. This is an environment where you have to be independent. Most men can’t handle it either.”
Mr. Glasheen intended to build a resort on the island with a partner, he said, but eventually he scaled back his plans, and is now leasing just 30 acres, which he has turned into a farm.
Along with native foods like lemon grass and capers, he raises bok choy, tomatoes and corn, sometimes with the help of volunteers who come to work for a month or so in return for food and lodging. (His farm is listed with an online network called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.) He also makes home-brewed beer that he trades for prawns from trawlers that sometimes anchor off shore.
A few times a year he makes a trip to Cairns, a city nearly 500 miles away, for “condiments and other special things,” he said, but mostly he lives a subsistence lifestyle that requires immense amounts of labor and planning. The wind turbine he used to generate electricity was damaged during a storm three years ago and still hasn’t been repaired, so he uses a solar panel to power his computer and lights. He does not have a refrigerator, but has a gas-powered freezer.
Several years ago, Mr. Glasheen became something of a media sensation after a dating profile he had posted on the Australian site RSVP.com was picked up by newspapers around the world. “The beautiful coral island I live on is a castaway’s dream,” he wrote in the profile.
When the National Enquirer published an article about him in February 2009, he said, he received messages from hundreds of women, but only a few piqued his interest: “There’s a lot of crazies out there.”
He made contact with six women in Australia, but after explaining the reality of his situation, he never heard from any of them again. “A lot of people liked the idea of having visits,” he said, “but not being able to go to the shops every month, that would be very hard for a lot of women.”
Though he would like to find a life partner, he knows he may have to lower his expectations. “There’s nothing wrong with having half a dozen very good female friends who see me as the most important man in their life when they come to this part of the world,” he said.
There is an inherent conflict between the peace of total solitude and the pleasures of companionship, he admitted. “It’s literally like living in heaven on Earth,” he said of the island, but “I guess I could say I’m desperately lonely sometimes.”