by Laura Crum
This last series of posts that I’ve written about “My Life With Horses,” has focused on just that—my life with horses. I’ve deviated only enough to explain how and why my life with horses has changed over the years. But there is an aspect of my history that did not come into the story (as I told it) that has a big influence on how I see my future “life with horses.” So I thought I’d explain it now (for those readers, however few, that are interested in how my life with horses has evolved).
When I was twenty-two years old and in my third year of college as an English major, I became fascinated by Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. I read and re-read it and slowly I became determined to give his idea a try. (For those who haven’t read this classic, the book tells the story of how Thoreau spent a couple of years living alone in a cabin he built by Walden Pond, and the insights that came to him there.) I knew I wasn’t going to be able to build a cabin, or try Thoreau’s experiments in self-sufficiency, nor would I be able to live this way for years. But I came up with a concept that I thought was workable.
Those who have read this series of posts about my life will have figured out by now that I was a pretty determined person in my youth, and when I had a goal, I didn’t let go of it easily. And my goal became spending a summer living alone in a tent at a remote Sierra lake. My version of Walden.
Easier said than done, of course. But I persevered. My boyfriend at the time lived in the town of Sonora, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He knew a woman who was the daughter of one of the original forest rangers in that region. He told the woman of my goal. I needed a lake that was enough off the beaten path that I could be alone there, but it needed to be close enough that I could walk out and get supplies once in awhile. The lady said she knew of such a lake.
And one spring weekend the mountain lady hiked with me and my four month old Queensland Heeler pup, Joey, to Burgson Lake, near the Dardanelles, in the Clark Fork Wilderness. Getting to Burgson Lake involved five miles down a dirt road to the trail head, five miles hiking down a well marked trail and one mile off trail to the lake. Burgson Lake was sort of a well-kept secret. It was relatively easy to get to, and a little gem of a lake. It was marked on maps. But there was no trail that led to it and no signs, so very few people went there (at the time—this was thirty years ago).
I loved Burgson Lake at first sight. I can envision it perfectly all these years later, cradled in gray granite, rimmed with pine trees, poised on the rim of a great silvery canyon, with a view of the big volcanic cones called the Dardanelles. I found a campsite at the far end of the lake, protected by a little grove of pine trees, and made my plans.
One month later, I moved in. I had packed up enough food for three months (granola, nuts, dried fruit, beef jerky, trail mix…etc), to be augmented by weekly trips to town for fresh food. This load took one pack mule. I had enough books for three months of solitude, and following Thoreau’s guidance, I took the “greats”—no summer romances here. Plato, Aristotle, the Bhagavad-Gita, War and Peace…you get the point. This load of books took another pack mule. And I had an old African safari type canvas tent that I had borrowed from friends (thinking it was as close to a cabin as I was going to get), a folding cot, and all the usual camping gear. This took another mule.
And one early summer day, I rode a rented horse named Tex ahead of a packer and the three mules and guided the string into Burgson Lake (where the packer had never been before). And the packer unloaded my mules and helped me set up the big tent and left me there with my young dog. And so began what was perhaps the most interesting summer of my life. A time which is shaping my future to this day—or so I believe.
I still have the journals I wrote during the time I spent at the lake, and they begin with my impassioned desire to get away from the busyness and turmoil of every day life and have “the time and space to watch the sunset die out of the sky.” I envisioned many long hours sitting by the lake just watching whatever came to pass, reading, writing, thinking. Along with days of solitary hiking and swimming. And all these things happened, just as I planned. And yet it was nothing like what I had thought it would be.
To begin with I was very excited. I set up my camp, and I took a swim in the lake. Burgson Lake was a perfect swimming lake in the summer—cool, but not too cold. As evening drew in, I built a fire, had a glass of wine (or two) and some trail mix and beef jerky for dinner and watched the light die out of the sky, just as I’d hoped and planned. My young dog pressed himself close to me, not yet used to the big wild world where we now lived. And when it got dark, I crawled into my sleeping bag on the cot (quite comfortable) and went to sleep watching the orange-y shadows of the firelight flicker on the canvas walls of the tent. And I had a very odd dream. One that I remember to this day.
In the dream I was right where I was in reality, in my camp on the shore of Burgson Lake. I recognized the boulder strewn granite terrain instantly. Crossing the granite, in full view of me, was an animal that I immediately recognized as a snow leopard. And this was odd because I had never seen a snow leopard in my life, never even seen a photo of one. But somehow I knew it was a snow leopard, and in retrospect, since I have now seen many photos of this animal, I can say that it looked like a snow leopard. But how my brain created that image is beyond me. Anyway, this snow leopard paced along a granite ridge in the Sierras, where it certainly did not live in real life, looked back at me once and was gone. I have a vague notion that I tried to follow it. That was it.
Doesn’t seem very significant or memorable does it? But from the moment when I awoke the next morning to the present day, more than thirty years later, that dream remains vivid in my mind. I knew it meant something. I just didn’t know what.
It was only when many years had passed, maybe twenty years, that I read a book about totem animals and vision quests. And to my amazement, I recognized what had happened to me all those years ago. Because completely unknowingly, I had more or less fulfilled the criteria for a vision quest, moving heaven and earth in my determination to be alone at the lake. And as is said to happen, on the first night I spent alone there I dreamed of my totem animal. The fact that I had no idea what a vision quest was, or what a totem animal was, or even what a snow leopard was, makes this seem pretty magical to me. I couldn’t have projected these concepts—because I’d never heard of them. Judge for yourself.
Anyway, there I was, twenty-two years old, alone at Burgson Lake, having had a dream I knew had some spiritual significance, even if I didn’t know what it meant, and ready to begin my “Walden” experiment. And this is where I got my comeuppance.
Here I am with my dog, Joey, on the shore of Burgson Lake. Photo taken by a friend who hiked in to visit me.
(To be continued)
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