A Middle-of-Nowhere Retreat for Recovery From Societal Cluster Bombs

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Sep 09, 2010 12:01 AM
A Middle-of-Nowhere Retreat for Recovery From Societal Cluster Bombs

Steve McQueen, the quirky movie actor, said he'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on the planet. Roger that, bro'.

Cities used to have a compelling raison -- safety, commerce, the interchange of ideas. Now, modernity has rendered them unnecessary for commerce and ideas, and too often they offer far less personal security than the reputed badlands beyond urban walls. Think about it: How do you like your chances with citified goons out of "24" or the bar scene in "Star Wars," compared with happening upon a black bear browsing for berries in an alpine meadow?

It's funny -- odd funny -- that only after some time spent in a city does one discover that what he really was looking for is something he left behind, back where his heart is. On the water, in a canoe, on a mountainside, or -- as in our case -- in a river's-edge wilderness cabin.

THE RIVER is 50 yards wide and not particularly distinguished for its beauty or strength. But it is the barrier, or moat, that has to be traversed -- by swimming -- to retrieve the canoe stashed in the cabin. The canoe serves as a ferry between cabin and car while we're in residence. Then one hauls it up the bank and stows it in the cabin, and -- with the Labrador puppy, of course -- swims back across to the car and the long road home to "the social rumble" that "ain't restful" (as Satchel Paige reminded).

Made of cedar logs cut and milled on site about 80 years ago, the cabin boasts zero electricity (the nearest electron is about 10 miles away) and no well. We haul drinking water and run lights, refrigeration, and a cook stove on propane. For those who don't want to encounter late-night berry-picking bears, there's also a propane toilet.

Set on the riverbank against a backdrop of birches, maples, and white pines, the cabin is where we long have put everything back together after crises and societal cluster bombs scatter our tidy piles across the landscape. There, in this wilderness idyll, the coercive urgency of our daily lives yields to the laid-back majesty of simplicity.

NEITHER the forest nor the river knows anything of politics or ideology. Nothing of leftist anger and malign idiocy. Nothing of cosmic catastrophes such as unaffordable pensions for everyone or $20 trillion in accumulated debt. Nothing of ObamaCare or illegal immigration, of Iran or the Ground Zero mosque. Nothing of Obamian, Pelosian, or Sharptonian pipsqueak arrogance. Nothing of that ersatz master called public (or world) opinion.

We spend our days hiking, canoeing, reading, lolling in the river. Or glomming eagles as they work the updrafts, or watching distinct greens mute into late summer's single dull shade before autumn's color-burst. Wind soughing in the pines and hemlocks is our surf.

Our theme is together (yes, there's the cliched maxim -- we may not have everything together, but together we have everything). We try to become the people our dogs think we are.

Halfway through each brilliant, breath-catching morning we inwardly exclaim, Hey, more days like this one! And at night, under a star-splashed sky, we ask Big Questions such as: Was that a beaver smacking the water with his tail? and Were those coyotes? and Did you hear the owls and the whippoorwills? and Is that Sagittarius or Cassiopeia?

OTHERS have described living in nature with particular insight....

Primate researcher Jane Goodall: "I get (a) deep satisfaction when I am alone in the forest, in the dim green and brown world beneath the great trees. A sense of timelessness....Lying under a great tree, looking up at the tiny stars whose light shines down through the rustling leaves, or lying on the beach and gazing up at the moon, puts everything in perspective, gives meaning to my life."

The great Crowfoot hunter, Blackfoot: "What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset."

Robert Traver, the noted Upper Michigan novelist ("Anatomy of a Murder") and teller of fishing and woodland yarns: "I fish because...I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly. Because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape. Because in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing what they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion. Because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed, or impressed by power...Because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness. (And) because I suspect that men are going this way for the last time, and I for one don't want to waste the trip..."

Thoreau, who wrote the book on going to the woods, said he went there "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach -- and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

What the wilderness forest has to teach, we re-learn during each sojourn there, are the broader dimensions only nature can provide: humility, simplicity, and rededication to the eternal verities. Oh, and the fortifying reassurance that there will be no deathbed lament about wishing one had spent more time in a city.