Why I moved to Washington (friends, this one's long)

Over the past few days, I devoured the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. The book’s been around for about thirteen years, and there was even a movie made this past year about the story, but somehow it missed me until now.

A surprising number of my friends are acquainted with the tale, but for those who aren’t, I’ll recap: a young man strikes into the heart of Alaska with no money, few provisions and insufficient survival gear, in order to live out his dream of being one with the land. He starves. If he hadn’t starved, and had instead wandered out the way he came in—which he almost successfully did—his story would be confined to whichever of his drinking buddies cared to hear it. But he did starve and thus became a posthumous celebrity.

I haven’t been able to shake this story. It has somehow returned me to the interior place I myself was, ten years ago, when I crossed the country to live in a remote cabin with my two brothers.

From time to time I’ll tell people I moved to Washington to live in a cabin, and I get the idea that this conjures fleeting images of a cozy place with gingham curtains and maybe a horse grazing outside the window. Not quite. The cabin I lived in was rough, constructed by the deft hands of my brothers, covered in tarp paper. It was tight against the rain and snow, but bare inside, a man’s cabin. The décor, as such, was a collection of more than a dozen types of rifles hung from vinyl hooks. No gingham curtains here—but I was beside myself with bliss.

The cabin was deep in the Eastern Washington forest, miles into a rutted and washed-out road studded with basalt stones sharp as ax blades. The land smelled powerfully of hot pine. Douglas squirrels chattered in the trees and Stellar’s jays imitated our voices. It was a dry summer, and a fine dust rose at every step, until in a short time the land itself had worked into my skin. I had time, so much time. I studied a dog-eared Western field guide with zeal. Fireweed, penstemones, pearly everlasting; douglas squirrel, bobcat, coyote; ponderosa, alder, mountain ash.

I learned how to shoot a variety of rifles, and became a fair enough shot with a scoped .22, although I did develop a strange stance while I shoot. I learned I can’t hit a barn with a handgun. I learned to fish with a spinner, and how to walk down creekbeds and across beaver dams to find trout pools. I learned to climb cliffs of tottering talus. There were a few brushes with disaster—just enough to keep things spicy. Randy hauled me out of one river by my wader straps and Greg pushed me against a cliff just before a loose boulder cracked open my head. That kind of thing.

But mostly there was just the experience of being outside. Day in, day out. We drove the sixty-odd rutty miles once a week to restock supplies, so I won’t say this was the same experience as Chris McCandless had. But it was my experience. We hauled our water up from the creek in five-gallon water jugs. I washed my clothes in a plastic bin, heated dish water on the woodstove, learned to clean small animals, learned to make baskets from the bark of mountain ash. And after a while I grew into that place the way lichen settles into rock. It’s still inside me: the Manastash.

So when I read about Chris McCandless and his wilderness adventure, it only relights a smoldering flame within me that I hope never goes out. I, too, wished to go to the woods in order to live deliberately. And I came out different than I went in.

1 comment:

Jess said...

Robin! you never told me you lived in a cabin when you first moved out here. What a great story.