Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Further Adventures of a Hermit

                                                by Laura Crum

            I had gone to live alone at Burgson Lake when I was twenty-two years old, envisioning a mystical communion with nature, and in some ways that did happen (see my previous post here), but a lot else happened that I didn’t expect. For one thing, I was often scared.
            I hadn’t expected to be scared. It had never, in fact, occurred to me that I might be scared. I wasn’t prone to being nervous; I didn’t mind being alone. And in the daytime I was fine. Not scared at all. But…
            Almost every evening, as it began to grow dark, the nervous feeling would creep upon me, spoiling my peace. I would hear rustles in the brush, and wonder if it might be bears, or worse yet, men who meant me harm. It didn’t matter that my logical mind knew it was deer. Something about the dark rendered my logical mind useless.
            Or rather, my logical mind was only useful for pointing out stuff that made my fear worse. You are miles from anyone who might help you, it said. If something happens to you here, you are on your own. No one will come to your aid. There is no calling 911.
            This was true. It was long before the era of cell phones (around 1980), and cell phones didn’t work from that spot the last time I was there (five years ago). Even if you could have called for help, it would take at least two or three hours for anyone to get there, if they could have found their way. Even if someone else, unknown to me, was camped in my area, the only likely spots for them to be were all a few miles away. Yelling for help would avail nothing. I really was on my own, dependent on my own resources.
            It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected this. I had sought it, after all. I just hadn’t had any idea what it would feel like to be completely on my own, cut off from all other humans. My mortality, something that at twenty-two I had been reasonably able to ignore, was thrown right in my face. I mean, I realized I could DIE out here. Of course, I could die anywhere. But in the safe-seeming realm of civilization, it was easy to forget this fact. It was impossible to forget it alone here in the wilderness at night (or so I found). Bull frogs would croak and I’d imagine intruders. I would think about how vulnerable I was with no weapon and plan to run into the dark and hide. I’d listen and stare into the night and feel anxious. I also felt pissed. This wasn’t what I had hoped to experience, for God’s sake. I’d hoped to feel mystical oneness with nature, not scared of the dark. I built the fire up and drank wine and at last I would fall asleep.
            Every morning I awoke with the sun and felt fine; the night’s fears seemed silly in the bright light of a mountain dawn. I ate granola and dried fruit for breakfast and bathed in the lake. Some days I hiked, some days I stayed at the lake and read and swam. But fear didn’t really leave me; it returned at dusk right on schedule. And after a week of this I hiked to my truck at the trailhead, drove an hour to town, and borrowed a pistol from my boyfriend. After that I slept with the pistol under my pillow and the nights were better.
            I hiked with the pistol on my hip and I kept the pistol next to me day and night. I felt a LOT less vulnerable (and I got some funny looks from hikers that I met on the trail). But the bottom line remained the same. Some days I would swim across the lake, and almost always, when I got to the middle, it would occur to me that I could drown out here—no one would save me. The pistol wasn’t going to help with that. I’d float on my back and remind myself that I could float like this endlessly and there was no need to drown. And then I’d swim the rest of the way across the lake to be greeted enthusiastically my dog, who seemed to worry that I would drown quite a bit more than I did.
            Since I am writing this, it is evident that I did not perish during my summer at Burgson Lake. In fact, I didn’t even have a truly negative experience. I never got close to drowning. I never saw a bear, though I saw fresh bear scat. I saw three rattlesnakes, but none were a problem. I was never threatened by a human, though I had a few odd encounters.
            Occasionally people would camp at my lake. Sometimes they would want to be social. One young guy was determined to have a drink with me, but he didn’t give me any grief (I had the gun on my hip the whole time). One Saturday, however, three guys who were obviously very drunk at noon came riding in on horses, singing and hollering. I heard them coming from my camp and watched them through binoculars. My tent was hidden in the trees and I knew they didn’t know I was there. There were three of them. And I made a quick choice. I packed a few essentials and slipped out the back way. They never even saw me. I hiked out to my truck and spent that weekend in town. When I returned on Monday, my camp was undisturbed. But I still think I made the right call.
            So, truly the only thing I actually had to fear was fear itself. That and the very real truth of my own mortality. But, of course, I could have faced/found that truth in many ways. This just happened to be the way I stumbled upon it. However, there is one thing worth mentioning. And it is this. It is different to be alone. Really alone.

(To be continued.)

For those who are wondering what in the world this post has to do with horses, it is a postscript to a fairly long (twelve post) saga I wrote about my life with horses. That saga begins here. And many of the insights and observations I made in my journals during my time at Burgson Lake found their way into my fifth book, Slickrock. This book is based mostly on the horse packing trips I did in my thirties, but much of the writing about solitude in the mountains comes from my early journals at Burgson Lake. Click on the title to find the Kindle edition of this book (which is just $2.99).


Anonymous said...

That darned mortality thing is a bummer. I lost another friend a week ago, the second one this year. I was never a big party person, I've always had just a handful of very close friends, now 2 are gone. I'm not moving to the woods though, surviving alone in your twenties is one thing, at 60 it's got to be very scary.

Laura Crum said...

redhorse--I wouldn't wish to do what I did then now, either. In my 20's it was a grand adventure. Now, I would find it overwhelming. Being a hermit here on my small horse property is far more appealing.

So sorry to hear about your friend.

Dom said...

I don't know that I could do it alone. I'm brave as hell, but that would probably be the line. Mike and I could go do it together though...

Laura Crum said...

Dom--Yeah, I was brave as hell, too, in my 20's. I SO did not expect to be scared. But I was. It would be a total blast doing it with a boyfriend. But not the same experience. Still, not to say a better or worse experience. Just different. It would surely be less scary. And probably much more fun.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about that - I certainly would have been nervous as a woman by myself in the wilderness, even in my 20s - maybe particularly in my 20s.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I never imagined it beforehand, but my fear was definitely about men. Bears made me a little nervous, rattlesnakes also, but I could handle that fear. Strange, possibly dangerous men, however, became my bogeyman. I have no idea how realistic this fear was; I only know what I experienced, which I have written down in the post, pretty much exactly as it happened.

lytha said...

*LOL* "no need to drown" - that is awesome. i love this story! if only i could share this with my colleague - we've been talking about gun laws in germany (haha) vs america. the fact that you just went and borrowed a gun - germans cannot grasp that concept.

what i find odd about the story is you had a dog but you didn't see the dog as your protector. but then, i guess he was a puppy?

since i'm scared at night on my own property (boars are the only dangerous thing here really), i cannot imagine having the guts to be completely alone and stranded.

a game i used to play in the woods: my friend and i would split up and see how far we could walk alone into the darkness before chickening out and coming back. it's actually really fun: )

now you've got me thinking about pitching a tent on my property and sleeping out there with the animals. ok i'm gonna go look for the tent!

Laura Crum said...

lytha--Well, I'm pretty sure it wasn't technically "legal" for me to borrow the gun, but I didn't care much about that, given the circumstances. My boyfriend gave me a lesson shooting tin cans in his backyard (this was a very rural county) and that was that. I never once fired the gun while I was living at the lake.

As for Joey, my dog, yes, he was a puppy. I did not see him as protection, rather as something I had to protect. He would growl and bark at noises in the night, which only made things worse, actually. I would just be more convinced something dire was out there.

Have fun camping in your tent! I have "camped" on my own property many times and I think its very special to wake up and see the horses munching in the moonlight.

Alison said...

Great post and fun comments! Your story made me think back to my 20s.

I went alone to Norway when the friend I was supposed to go with got engaged instead. Technically, I was never alone since I stayed at hostels, but I was definitely alone among strangers. And yes, like your experience, it taught me a lot!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--My husband's coming of age experience was traveling through Europe for a year all alone. In some ways I envy both him and you. I loved being in Europe as an adult--it would have been so exciting to be their on my own in my 20's.

14.1hands said...

I could never camp by myself like that either now or when I was in my 20's. I wouldn''t mind camping with my husband though and horses. I absolutely loved your book Slickrock. Made me want to go on a pack ride.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, 14.1 hands. I'm so glad that you enjoyed Slickrock.

Many people told me at the time (and later) that they could never do what I did. I think we're all different. I wouldn't want to do it now, so I recognize that feeling. I did want to do it then. But I felt (then and now) that I could never live in a big city, which very many people take for granted. It would both terrify me and overwhelm me to live in a city, and if I had to choose, right now today, I would go back to the lake alone over the city (I honestly believe the lake would actually be safer). But anyway, we all have our stuff, and our strengths and weaknesses. I'm pretty good at being alone. But as i said in the post, that degree of solitude and isolation was very different (and more scary) than I had imagined.