Solitude can lead to madness or God. For mountain climber Paul Hawker, it was God. But others aren't so blessed. Prolonged and enforced solitude for José Padilla, the only American citizen to be openly tried as an "enemy combatant,"; for instance, has resulted in insanity. After he was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, Padilla was kept in a tiny cell at a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina, shackled for 1,307 consecutive days, without natural light or a clock or a calendar, wearing heavy goggles and headphones.

In the process of defending their client, who now has a personality "like a piece of furniture,"; in a Miami courtroom, Padilla's attorneys are forcing mainstream American media to consider how and why the CIA has routinely approved sensory deprivation, sensory overload and isolation techniques in prisons at Guantánamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan to induce extreme anxiety, hallucinations and "significant psychological distress.";

The case of Sydney-based Paul Hawker, a New Zealand-born television writer and producer, is radically different. In his memoir Soul Quest: A Spiritual Odyssey through 40 Days and 40 Nights of Mountain Solitude (Northstone $22.95), Hawker describes 37 days in the proverbial wilderness, ascending Mount Arete in New Zealand, surviving frostbite after climbing closer to God.

"I welcomed my first night in the wilderness totally alone,"; he writes. "I felt no apprehension and had no fears for my safety. Away from all other humans, there was no one who could do me any harm.";

Although Hawker began his adventure unfit and overweight, struggling to carry his 40-kilo pack, his self-induced isolation from society in the centre of the Tararua range, near the country's capital of Wellington, ultimately allowed him to hear the voice of God, overcoming what is typically referred to as a mid-life crisis.

Forty climbers had died in that wind-swept Tararua range. Hawker recalls how he almost became fatality number forty-one. On Day 35, with the snow-capped mountains stretching for dozens of kilometres in both directions, with only a rat named Rattles for a companion in his mountain-top hut, Hawker felt his inner voice beseeching him like a lover-so he sang.

"A deluge of song lines tumbled out as I clumsily tried to express my total awe and appreciation,"; he writes, "... After dinner, I danced outside the hut, stamping my feet as I sang Moondance, Blue Moon and any other song with moon in it, including Silent Night and other snowy Christmas carols. I was intoxicated. I was in love with life, God, the universe, everything.";

Hawker felt he was experiencing a perfect day with a perfect God in a perfect place. Trouble was, Hawker remained outside too long. He could stick a needle into his big toes and feel nothing. Having made a film about two men who had their frostbitten feet amputated just below the knee, the ecstatic seeker found himself derailed by frostbite, fear and panic.

So worried he couldn't eat or sleep for two days, Hawker used his emergency radio to get some medical advice. With winds gusting at 150 kilometres-per-hour, he half-walked, half-slid down the rocky mountainside. On what would have been the 40th night of his journey, New Zealand was deluged by its worst storm of the year.

"So, were my frostnipped toes good luck or bad luck? Who knows? We are sensible to leave such conclusions to God... On the mountain I found my true home. It is with The Creator, The Source, who wants nothing more than to spoil me with blessings galore.";

Hawker's reward for survival was learning not to shut the Divine out of his life. Upon his return to his family, he was so full of love for everyone it was almost embarrassing for them. "It was as if a long-lost love button deep within me was now on an external console ready to be triggered by any passing word, scene, or thought."; 978-1-55145-44-0

[BCBW 2007]