For the last 16 years, Nick Fahey has been living on an island in the San Juan 1)archipelago north of 2)Puget Sound, in Washington State, where his only full-time companion is a 26-year-old3)quarter horse. Mr. Fahey, 67, lives in a cabin on 100 wooded acres; it has no refrigerator, but there is electricity generated by solar panels, so he has light and can 4)charge his cell phone. There are few 5)amenities of the material kind, but his days are his own. 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.
Getting away from it all: it’s a common fantasy. But for some people, fantasizing isn’t enough. For whatever reason, perhaps the desire for peace and quiet in an increasingly 6)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 psychologist Elaine N. Aron. Some people might “really need their 7)downtime,” Dr. Aron said, and may seek out “isolation that avoids all social intercourse.” Others may have developed an “8)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 9)pathologize that.”
In Mr. Fahey’s case, he moved to the island full time in 1994, several years after he divorced. Not because he was 10)traumatized, he said, but because he liked the “feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself. You don’t have to answer to anybody.” Once a week, though, he goes 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.’”
For Roger Lextrait, 63, living in 11)seclusion seemed like an appealing change after a 12)harried life as a restaurateur in Portland, Oregon.
Mr. Lextrait was the sole inhabitant of the remote tropical 13)atoll of Palmyra, in an island chain in the Northern Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, from 1992 to 2000. He 14)wound up there in his mid-40s, after nearly a dozen years of sailing around the world on his yacht, 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 15)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 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 16)dinghy, 17)manta ray would escort me, dolphins.” 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. 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, ‘18)Oh my, if I think like that, I’ll never do anything.’”
Others choose a 19)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.
Living deep in a Swedish forest, he had to take 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. He had a cell phone, which he charged with a small solar generator and used to call his family and his girlfriend. His diet was not for the fainthearted. Along with 20)perch and 21)pike from nearby lakes, he ate wild plants like 22)nettles, berries and 23)tubers, as well as mice and rats. He couldn’t hunt larger 24)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 25)fletch arrows. Every aspect of his daily routine was essential to his survival.
David Glasheen, 66, likened his experience of living alone to “going to the moon.” He lives on Restoration Island, off the northern coast of Australia, with his mixed-breed dog, and has been there since 1996.
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. He and his girlfriend set up residence there, but she left after six months. “We had a baby, we had no hot water, we had no washing machine,” he said. “Things are not easy here for a woman.”
Mr. Glasheen had built a farm on the island. Along with native foods like 26)lemon grass and 27)capers, he raises 28)bok choy, tomatoes and corn. He also makes home-brewed beer that he trades for 29)prawns from30)trawlers that sometimes 31)anchor off shore.
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.”