dusk after dusk
long dirt road
Before you get envious, idealizing Montana and Big Sky Country and the West, wishing for this dusk and this dirt and this cold, crisp refreshment, please recognize that I’m drinking crappy Coors, that my ration for the entire month is a thirty-pack (ten days and seven brews left!), and that this vast landscape can generate a mighty thirst in a fellow. Furthermore, recognize that being alone — no car, no Internet, no respite from the personal brain box — doesn’t exactly help the situation. And neither does the fact that I came here directly from my apartment in San Francisco: six roommates sharing a bathroom, ambulance sirens 24-7, a reassuringly familiar (albeit infuriating and exhausting) baseline of bodies and noise, crowds and distraction. All that said, the evening walk is ridiculously powerful: Endless brown grass. Infinite stillness. The possibility of wolves.
But I’m jumping ahead. Because this cabin was offered to me with zero strings attached — I’m supposed to write when the muse strikes and otherwise chill — and because aimless freedom can be challenging, I established a routine on the very first morning. At 5:30 AM, I throw off the heavy quilts, start the coffee percolating, and step outside to check the early signs of light and the temperature (bare feet are the thermometer). Once the coffee’s ready, I pace the deck, gazing, listening, sipping, waiting. The coyotes yip and yap. The sandhill cranes purr and rattle. I’m not waiting for. I’m merely waiting.
Can you imagine the frost in this massive grassland-wetland, the sun angling low, silvering millions upon millions of stems, miles and miles of silver? And the black cattle with silvery frost on their whiskers, backlit, floating before you like hallucinations? And the frosted barbs on the frosted barbed-wire fences? And the marsh wrens that perch on those fences, clutching the frosty wires with their tiny toes? And the moose families? And the families of racing clouds that occasionally resemble moose?
Following a second fat mug of coffee, I cross the flats to a shallow pond, roughly an hour’s hike, bear spray clipped to my belt, binoculars slung over my shoulder. Sitting by the rippled water, hands crammed into my pants for warmth, I count trumpeter swans (usually between fifty-nine and sixty-four of them), then scan for eared grebes, lesser scaups, cinnamon teals. Today a dozen white pelicans swam among the swans, feathers blending with feathers, white with white.
i could watch
a swan’s neck forever
and i might
Sessions at the pond stretch, time doing whatever time does when we cease caring, when we allow time some time to itself. I eat peanut butter from the jar, scribble dinky poems in my notebook, space out, wander in circles. Realize that I’ve lost my notebook while wandering, that it’s escaped my breast pocket. Realize (postpanic, with a chuckle) that tomorrow will arrive plenty soon — I can hunt for the notebook then — and, hey, dawn’s fleeting frost just may make the poems read better, sparklier.
Back at the cabin a small library hijacks the afternoon. I’m currently learning about the “last of the mountain men,” a twentieth-century Idaho backcountry hermit who hunted, trapped, fished, farmed, blacksmithed, built a gun from scratch, ditto the bullets, etc. Next I’ll try a scholarly volume about pollinators and ecological restoration; then it’ll be The Worst Hard Time, a nonfiction Dust Bowl epic. After devouring The Grapes of Wrath this past winter, I’m game for absolutely anything having to do with the earthy American people — their misery, their glory, their grit.
A dinner bell rings in my belly at 6 PM sharp, concluding the lazybones siesta. My feasts are variations on the same delicious theme: onions and jalapeños and pinto beans and tortillas; canned tomatoes and frozen spinach; eggs and cheddar; Fig Newtons for dessert. I eat alfresco, grab the binoculars and bear spray and precious Coors, and finally gather my courage for the day’s big decision: stroll east, toward the middle of nowhere, or west, toward the middle of nowhere? East typically wins, probably because each pebble on the road (19 bazillion and counting) casts a greenish-purplish shadow, and that’s the direction the shadows slant. Wherever I go, there’s a decent chance of finding an intimidating mound of scat.
walking with only
my fear of grizzlies
Yesterday was an exception to the rule: A truck approached, slowed, stopped, and I got to chatting with this elderly couple, the first words I’d spoken in approximately seventy-two hours. Curious to see a young man milling around this far down the road, they said. Yeah, milling around, that’s what I’ve been doing, I replied. Retired, from Seattle, they had traveled through the valley twenty years ago and told me that the scene looked unchanged: cattle, grass, wind, barbed-wire fences, birds, stillness, repeat. A mesmerizing snake of dust kicked up as they drove away, and immediately, effortlessly, I slipped into the not-all-there stare.
This stare, which is habit-forming and rather delightful, had me wondering about my stressed, busy, screen-dazed San Francisco roommates; about “normal” people deprived of contact with wild nature and gargantuan silences and how they would handle this monthlong isolation. Rank it high on the list of Life’s Weirdest Months, I suspect. I’m tempted to rank it high on my own list, and I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Take my solo backpacking trip on the Colorado Trail at nineteen. Damn, I was driven then, reckless and strong and so eager to experiment, to toss my psyche into the deep end and force it to swim. I wanted to know what it’s like to pare off the excess and enter the Rockies, the Sawatch Range, without a tent, a book, or even a spoon — nothing much besides boots, sleeping bag, and food. After two edgy weeks (a grand total of five hikers passed me, each going the opposite way), I found a rhythm, a confidence, and began bushwhacking, scheming routes, lounging atop summits with marmots, butterflies, shaggy mountain goats, Clark’s nutcrackers. At the close of the third week, buzzing with independence and awe, I set my bed in the crook of a burbling forest creek, figuring I’d hitch back to civilization in the morning, celebrate my success with a gallon of ice cream. A few hours later, sheesh — I woke up screaming from the scariest nightmare on record, some malevolent demonic energy compressing my chest, ripping the air from my lungs. Woke up choking, afraid I was dying.
This Montana valley echoes that trip and others. There’s a similar quality of plunging into an alternate reality, saturating myself with a place: full immersion and full uncertainty. Since adolescence I’ve believed that this saturation, this soaking, is the greatest adventure available to modern humans. And I guess that’s why I’m here, talking to spiders and chipmunks, walking and sitting, wandering, experimenting once again. In a cabin without a phone this time. A cabin where the sky is your phone and it’s constantly calling you onto the deck to answer, but there’s nobody on the line, just weather. Like the faint whisper of a stranger’s breathing.
so quiet in the cabin
can’t bear to crack loose
an ice cube
Honestly it’s tough to open the fridge or clear my throat, especially with the day done, the dark descending. I don’t mean the quiet is too perfect, too pristine, and breaking it would be inappropriate. I mean it’s spooky, and disappearing seems safest. Is the quiet animate? Is the quiet prowling? Last night I had trouble with the sound of a knife against the wooden cutting board. Maybe the quiet is less a predator than a puppeteer, a choreographer commanding my footsteps, my fingertips, ordering me to move deliberately, consciously. I relish smoking my tobacco pipe on the deck, beneath the stars and swooping owls, when it becomes overwhelming.
Why do I prefer the outdoor quiet at midnight to the indoor version? Quiet’s quiet, right? Apparently not. I’ve noticed that the sad lonely periods of my life are associated with being sealed in a room (blank walls, laptop, ticking clock, saggy couch), whereas the happy lonely periods, the rich lonely periods, are associated with pine trees, monolithic granite cliffs, alpenglow snowfields, a chickadee flitting through camp: pausing, eyeing me, departing. I don’t recall indoor loneliness ever making me weep — it’s merely made me feel shitty. Outdoor loneliness, though, can conjure grateful tears, perhaps because an ancient animal piece of me intuits that the world is home, is habitat, and ultimately there’s no such thing as alone.
Enough blather. Post offices are scarce in these parts, but this letter has nevertheless been fun to write, a nice diversion from the old personal brain box. As I said, don’t get envious. Despite the hopeful fantasies spread by Hallmark and Disney and the rest, it’s untrue that beauty and solitude and solid ground underfoot together create a kind of gentle peace — or, at least, it isn’t a sure bet. In an interview, the novelist John Berger describes relocating to rural France and struggling to understand how the peasants, his new neighbors, spoke about a pig they’d raised for meat. “We loved the pig, but we ate him”: that’s Berger’s sentence. “We loved the pig, and we ate him”: that’s the peasants’ sentence.
The point is that this sojourn has been stirring and gorgeous and remarkable and unique, yet also bland and boring, difficult and uncomfortable. Both. The whole kit and caboodle. And, and, and, and, and.