In his "Big Two-Hearted River," Hemingway wrote of his autobiographical Nick Adams: He was there, in the good place.
We went wheels-up for our "good place" when, in this dubious summer of our discontent, the ayatollahs and newsbunnies of video and print began gushing in orgasmic rapture about the first six months of the Bush-blaming Obama presidency and the heavenly service of a certain late Massachusetts senator. Time to get out of Dodge.
Our "good place" is a riverside cabin constructed of cedar logs and wrapped in a wilderness forest featuring birches and towering pines. It is reachable -- almost -- by driving 22 hours west and north. The final leg requires swimming because cars don't do rivers well, and the canoe -- used as a ferry while we're there -- sits unemployed in the cabin while we're not.
The nearest neighbor, possessing the nearest light bulb and plumbing, resides about 10 miles away. The four-legged inhabitants include bears, porcupines, beavers, and timber wolves, along with the coyotes that haunt the deeryards. Bass, salmon, sturgeon, and trout abound, particularly during the spring and autumn runs -- as do ducks, eagles, and herons. One evening we had a compelling conversation with an octet of owls tuning up for a sylvan serenade.
Against a picture of a family sitting around a twilight campfire, one of the insurance companies has an ad that reads (with but a marginal insurance message): "After planning a vacation without TV, it's the entertainment you find instead." Up there without TV -- beyond cities that have become human sinks, beyond sprawl, beyond even the clutter of recreational housing -- little happens. There's nothing much to do in terms of entertainment.
EXCEPT read books -- remember them? -- for instance Charles McCarry's "Second Sight" and William Young's "The Shack." And reject the prejudice against the thinking that is creative procrastination. And weigh utopian promises (can they possibly be real?) of hope and change and everything better every day. And wonder under a star-spangled sky how it is that a people who once viscerally understood its oneness with wilderness and the cosmos, now pulls back from manned exploration of the final (cosmic) frontier to pursue its dominant contemporary values -- amusement, power, and self.
And, lolling in one of the riverbank hammocks, watch autumn arrive -- a mottled leaf here, an early red there, bright gentians and cardinal flowers of life stitching into the tapestry of a dying season's yellows and browns. Oh, and cogitate the river of mysterious spirit flowing by.
Hemingway's real-world big two-hearted languishes along not far away. Likewise, this river -- there below the birches, knows no politics or ideology. It baptizes an occasional swimmer. It floats a canoe or kayak through the cathedraled forest, but slowly -- taking its time. It testifies that only in total aloneness is one truly free. It bears witness that there, in the solitude of the forest's majestic simplicity, the biblical bush still burns.
An annual sojourn in the electricity-free cabin allows one literally to unplug -- to escape for a while the civilizational squirrel-cage across the river and the follies of the self-important strutting the corridors of power. It allows for reflection, recalibration, and restoration before returning to Dodge and resuming the fight.
THE GOOD place....
Wrote the estimable naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch:
"How long will it be before...there is no quietness anywhere, no escape from the rumble and the crush, the clank and the screech...? Perhaps when the time comes that there is no more silence and no more aloneness, there will also be no longer anyone who wants to be alone."
And so wrote Thoreau:
"Alone in distant woods and fields,...I come to myself....In my case, (I suppose this) is equivalent to what others get by church-going and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful....It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him."
..Through the forest. Along the river. In the good place.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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