Andersen: Fifteen minutes in the real world |

Andersen: Fifteen minutes in the real world

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The nursing mother cradled her 9-week-old infant in her arms beneath the spreading boughs of a spruce tree. Together they settled in on the bank of Castle Creek.

“Enjoy your 15 minutes in the real world,” I told her, and she beamed back a huge smile.

Michele was the last of 20 hikers I put out on solos last week. They came to Aspen from around the world for the Aspen Seminar, which harks to the roots of Aspen’s cultural renaissance when the Aspen Institute was founded in 1950. On these hikes, I get to share what I love with bright, engaging, receptive leaders.

Many are educators who work with charter schools taking the lead in programming and curricula for children across the country. Many are heads of nonprofits advocating for health, sustainable food, environmental quality and experiential learning. Some are policymakers and government officials. All are in Aspen to explore the values of enlightened leadership in a rapidly changing world.

My job as their hiking guide is to share what I know about nature — first as a context for their Aspen experience, second as a context to their lives through an exploration of self and spirit.

The solos are short — just 15 minutes alone on a quiet trail with the murmuring creek, birds, insects and what Thoreau called “the Aeolian voice of nature.” This voice comes in the whisper of a breeze through quaking aspens or in the deep-throated rumble of thunder booming amid the high peaks.

Ideally, 15 minutes on Castle Creek opens a window to a blissful sense of solitude they rarely, if ever, attain in their normally hectic lives. I preface the solos by reciting a poem by Wordsworth.

“In a grove I sat reclined / In that sweet mood where pleasant thoughts bring sad thoughts to mind / To her fair works did nature link / The human soul that through me ran / And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

A solo is an opportunity for reflection, introspection, soul-searching. In today’s world, where our time is stolen or, more likely, given away to the nagging demands of commercial and social media, we risk losing contact with ourselves.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote about his sojourn at Walden Pond, “to front only the essential facts of life and see if I cannot learn what is has to teach. And not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”

Some cannot handle 15 minutes alone. They cling to me, frightened of the “other” that defines their unconscious lives. For them, living is in the doing, not the being, so they forgo the solos and take comfort with aimless chatter of the variety that fills the insatiable void of social media.

For those who get it, for those who can dial out the static arcing through their brains, who can find rest in solitary musing, who can achieve perspective without interference, who can find rest and peace with their own thoughts — they come out of their solos in a relaxed, easy, grateful manner.

Fifteen minutes in the real world uncovers a hidden resource that has gone unnoticed, often for years. For some, the solos on Castle Creek become the most powerful experience they have in Aspen — a sensory reset that touches them holistically and with lasting value.

Several years ago, a man came out of his solo and vowed that he would set aside time in his life to be alone. When next I saw him, he told of commuting home in Washington, D.C., stopping at a park along the Potomac, finding a quiet place and being still for 15 minutes.

“It’s made a huge difference in my life,” he said.

As I collected my hikers last week some were surprised and disappointed that their 15 minutes were up. “So soon?” one asked. “Do I have to leave?” another pleaded.

When I reached Michele and her baby, it was I who regretted the call back to the trail, back to the demands of the world. Her smile was my comfort.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached at when he’s not out on solo.