“I’ll be OK,” I reassured her. “I have plenty of bear spray. But I can’t leave the cats alone. It’s freezing up there at night already.”
“But I’ll be so worried about you. Isn’t Chris worried?”
“No,” I replied, “because there’s nothing to worry about.”
OK, maybe that’s a stretch. I suppose there’s plenty that can go awry out here, it’s true. And maybe Chris was worried about me some, even though that’s not really his nature. But my fears weren’t as much about calamity as boredom. How was I going to occupy myself for nearly ninety waking hours while my co-neopioneer was back in Chicago? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived alone for most of my adult life, so I’m fine with some solitude—just maybe not in the middle of the wilderness, where sometimes the only sound you can hear is the ringing in your ears.
The first twenty-four hours were the most difficult, mainly because of my expectation of idleness and having no one to talk to but the cats. (Yes, I talked to them plenty; no, they didn’t reply.) The specter of isolation reminded me of an article I’d read recently about a woman who’s manned a fire tower in the Scapegoat Wilderness Area for sixteen years, four months at a time. Her only source of company is a dog and a dispatch radio that hums with chatter from lonely watchtower fire spotters. During her first few weeks on the job, she had a difficult time fighting cabin fever (or the “shack-nasties,” as they call it around here). But she soon realized that the only way to escape her dis-ease was to welcome it, to sit with it and let it be. So she tuned out the radio and picked up her journal to write. And then she began to get lost in watching wildlife and just listening to the wind. Accepting her own circadian rhythm was like standing up to the scary monster in a bad dream. Soon she began to feel comforted rather than upended by her freedom and aloneness. The shadow was gone.
At the top of Whitefish Range, just a few miles southwest of the yurt, there’s a fire watchtower called Cyclone Lookout. One time we made the one-hour climb to the 6,000-foot summit in the hopes of meeting Francis. Locals say she’s the young ranger who watches over us from her perch, a 50-foot-tall fort held in place with massive concrete footings and cable as thick as my wrists. If you bring her cookies she’ll invite you up through the trap door for a tour, says a neighbor. But when we called up to her, our hands cupped around our mouths to boost our voices against the wind, she simply yelled hello back and went on about her business. Foolishly, we had neglected to bring cookies. Nonetheless, I suppose it makes sense that once you get used to being alone, it’s the being around others that’s difficult. Yesterday, as I was wandering through our meadows, I looked up to the tower and wondered if Francis could see me, a light-blue dot in the middle of a golden sea of tall common timothy. Here we were, the both of us alone in this expanse of wildness. How was she spending her time? How would I spend mine?
After Chris left for the airport I put together a list of projects, including canning some tomatoes from the farmer’s market, studying Italian, writing a blog post, making chicken and sausage gumbo in the slow cooker, knitting a pair of slippers, catching up on reading, and harvesting the onions from the garden. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps I feared that if I got bored my inner nihilist would emerge from the darkness and engulf me in a suffocating shroud of ennui. I’ve seen it happen to poor Henri the Cat on YouTube (a must-see), and it looks like a dark, somber journey through soul-crushing nothingness.
Surprisingly, after a while I found myself not caring much about my to-do list. I was more interested in sitting on the deck or wandering on foot through our property, where I resonated with everything I could see and feel: the aspen trees shivering with the wind and glittering in the sun; the charred-out pine trees killed by lightning, a reminder of Mother Nature’s power and caprice right in our own backyard; the gray wolf trotting down our lane, always on the make; the sun-crisped meadows that have now turned the very color of the deer who populate it; and the red-tailed hawk that glides between stands of trees in the east, slowly spiraling up air currents and then plunging to the ground to grab a deer mouse for dinner.
Observing nature in such an intense way has made me hyper aware that where there is life there is death, which then supports more life. When I came across our resident wolf’s fully digested meal yesterday, I was deflated to see the bone shards and fur of what was likely the little fawn Chris and I had known since it was barely big enough to stand on its own. How many adjectives are there to describe the cuteness of Bambi? But the wolf has to eat too, and there are just as many adjectives to describe the beauty of such a mysterious predator. It’s disturbing and humbling to think that one can be electrifyingly full of life one moment and a pile of scat on a two-track a few days later; but I do believe that there is purpose—ancient and complex and probably mostly unknown to humans—to how Nature works.
Nothing goes to waste out here. Fallen trees decay and turn into soil, which then houses the ground squirrel, whose scat feeds beetles and maggots and other bugs, who then become energy snacks for the birds, whose own carcasses are eventually devoured by scavengers, who subsequently leave droppings that contain fur, which can later be used to line other birds’ nests, which are couched in the branches of the trees that haven’t yet returned to the soil. And on and on it goes. Concentric circles abound (we’re even living in one), and it’s difficult not to consider one’s own mortality in such an existential puzzle. Some may find it macabre, but I find it reassuring. Having never really known for sure what happens to us after we die, I am happy to let the mystery be. To trust in it, whatever it is. In the meantime, though, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to sit through my discomfort rather than chase it away with mindless distractions. As the saying goes: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
Not a bad way to spend five days home alone. I’m sure my mom is much relieved.