A wood stove is magic.
Got mine set up last week and now this shelter’s finally a cabin. A few days ago I built a bed out of log and plywood. With heat, a cooking surface, and a place to sleep this shack is suddenly a home. A tiny home. A temporary one.
But a home.
And not a moment too soon the way the mercury’s been falling. Like the sun’s zenith. More each passing week. The shadows of spruce lengthening as the days shorten. Temperatures dipping below zero now and snow has blanketed the ground for over a month. Gradually getting deeper.
But not deep enough for snowmachines.
Not yet. Not that I think there’ll be too many out here, but you never know. I’ve heard that, since I used to live here year-round, there are more and more each winter. Either way, everything’s freezing up and, for this brief window of time, you can hike wherever you want in most parts of Alaska. I remember the years I lived in the Interior. Usually in November cross country travel was easy as long as you were dressed for it. Everything frozen. All the lakes, creeks, and swamps that were impassible in the summer. And still not enough snow piled up to make the going too rough.
Today I’m setting out across the bog west of my property. The one I haven’t been able to access. I’ve heard it opens up to a lake and wonder if it’s the same I’d hike to when I lived in this area way back when. That lake, at the time, felt like my own. Never saw anyone else there. Too remote back then. Or maybe they just hadn’t found it yet. I remember building quinzees if it got too late to turn around. Sleeping on the shoreline under all that snow. I used to access the lake from another direction back then and could never imagine I’d someday own property nearby.
Brutally cold today but if I keep moving I’m warm enough in all my layers. As I continue across the tussocks, weaving between spruce, making fresh tracks through six inches of powdery fluff, I think how all my needs are met out here.
The physical, spiritual, and psychological.
I have all the exercise I need. Hiking to and from my cabin. Splitting wood and hauling logs. I think back to last summer when I’d make the journey from town on foot; strap my chainsaw, sledge hammer, and pic axe to my backpack and mountain bike out here; or push a wheelbarrow full of building materials seven miles to the property. That got some laughs from the neighbors. I’m sure they thought I was crazy and probably still do. But it all whipped me into shape. Physically and mentally. The four wheelers and snowmachines are great but, like any technology, they can keep us lazy, out of shape, and insulated from the natural world.
Besides, I love a good challenge. Possibly to a fault.
I’ve felt more balanced and centered out here these past few months than I have in years. Maybe my whole life. All this time alone. Notching logs together. Hauling water from the creek. Exploring nearby terrain. It’s all forced a kind of deep meditation and reflection. Harder and harder to find in the modern world with our computers, cell phones, gadgets, and apps. Marketers effectively filling each gap, every possible silence, with bells and whistles. Clamor and buzz. Advertisements reminding us how inadequate we are. How we must buy this pill, that accessory, the latest status symbol.
Just to keep up.
No wonder we spend thousands of dollars on silent retreats and guided meditations. Paying others to force us into contemplation. We’re all over-stimulated. Addicted to distraction. All this technology forcing a kind of senility.
We’re forgetting how to be alone.
How important walking by ourselves can be. We all crave exercise, silence, and adventure. All those essential needs used to be met until the last few decades. Now we pay membership fees to exercise indoors. In gyms. Roller derby, bungy jumping, and sky diving growing more and more popular. And if none of that works, there’s always therapy. Or pills for depression and anxiety. Because in a life without exertion, reflection, or action, who the hell wouldn’t be depressed?
For so much of my adult life I haven’t had time to exercise enough. Or meditate. Never enough silence or solitude. But now, tasting this simple life again, I wonder why I had to go and make it so complicated. Why did I ever leave this place to begin with?
Must’ve been ego-driven. Like most mistakes. I think I thought I should be more than just a laborer. Because, for one thing, I wasn’t a talented carpenter back then, which would’ve been something in and of itself.
So I earned degrees. Travelled the world. Filled the voids and insecurities with a few obscure publications and awards. With worthless titles.
And now? All I want is to be a carpenter again. To hang out with my friends down at the VFW, or the Fairview, after a long day of working with my hands. To go back to my cabin at night and sleep under the northern lights.
So how do I transition back to this simple life for the long haul? Now. When, unlike before, I have bills and debt. How to let go of health insurance and retirement? To escape the golden cage, because even though it’s golden it’s still just that. A cage. And I am the inmate of my own comfort zone.
Safety—the most dangerous prison of all.
I have no answers. Other than being present. For now. And enjoying this fleeting paradise. Before the snowmachiners carve it up with their racing RPM’s, their explosive combustion, and their toxic exhaust. Time now to enjoy this beautiful hike across a frozen, ancient landscape. Through snow—the ultimate silencer, muffling everything. Softening all the hard edges.
As the bog opens up ahead a smile forms under my face mask. I am remembering now. This is it. My lake. Almost twenty years gone by. Almost a lifetime.
Out here I am a kid again. Still tromping through the backwoods of Virginia. This must be my center as that was back then. Separated by dozens of years and thousands of miles yet somehow the exact same place.
As I approach the lake I step out onto the ice, hesitantly. After feeling how solid it is I head toward the far shore, wondering if this lake is still a secret. Still mine. We’ll see what this winter brings. Maybe it’s one of the new recreational hotspots for enthusiasts from Wasilla and Anchorage.
But hopefully not.
Either way, for now, I have time. Time to watch ice crystals wink from the untracked snow. Time for solitude. And listening to what silence can teach me. Time to make fresh tracks.
Across lengthening shadows of spruce.