Sometimes you fall off the proverbial horse. Sometimes instead of getting up you just lay on your back in the desert wondering how the hell you got here. You stare at the sky, at constellations you do not know, and let your eyes focus on the giant clouded strip that is the Milky Way. You look for space trash burning up as it enters the atmosphere. You wait for something to happen, for some light to burst forth.
Some people quickly roll over, dust off their jeans and find humor in the state they’re in: down. They find strength in the challenge of taming the damn beast. Not me. My first instinct is to get angry. I flail, sputter, and burn out with exhaustion before pausing to rethink my strategy. Then I am forced to backtrack and try to figure out where I went off trail. I begin looking for familiar signs. I go for long runs because that is what I do when things are good, when things are not so good, and when they are downright awful.
For me, the move to Texas has been somewhere on the latter end of the scale. I don’t like admitting it, but I’ve had a difficult time adjusting to my new surroundings. In Utah, I learned to run up long, rocky climbs at altitude. Grinding out four-mile stretches uphill was normal. Texas is a different kind of hard. In a way, running up mountains is easier than navigating flats. You see a mountain and know what to do: you go up. It’s easier to get lost when there are no peaks to guide you.
Initially to prepare for my move to Utah I read survival manuals. They helped me in ways I never anticipated. While my plan to erect a lean-to in the backyard died on arrival, I did learn a little about survival psychology and how to cope when emergencies happen to people you love. During the three years D and I lived there, I visited a used bookstore a few blocks from our house. I never left empty-handed.
One of my last acquisitions was Alone – Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s account of the five months he spent in Antarctica in 1934 during the polar darkness. I bought it because I was attracted to the title. I bought it because I was feeling rather sorry for myself. For much of January, temperatures in Logan barely crested 10 degrees, and the air quality in the valley carried the lofty honor of the worst in the nation, according to the EPA. I needed something to remind me how good I had it.
Byrd was an adventurer, credited with navigating the first flight over the North Pole and leading several scientific expeditions to Antarctica. His decision to occupy Advance Base alone boiled down to a desire to learn what solitude really is—and to be obedient to no man’s laws but his own.
“It was all that simple,” he wrote. “And it is something, I believe, that people beset by the complexities of modern life will understand instinctively. We are caught up in the winds that blow every which way. And in the hullabaloo the thinking man is driven to ponder where he is being blown and to long desperately for some quiet place where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory.”
Mind you this book was first published in 1938. I feel the sentiment more than applies today. This is partially why I love camping out of range and flying on airplanes. For that lovely period I am in the air, (or until the FCC approves a proposed plan to allow cell phone use on planes) I am unreachable by email, text or tweet. For the duration of the flight I am free to just stare out the window and wonder.
Byrd used meteorological records from the weather station and portions of the diary he kept during his isolation to write Alone. He described how he overcame severe frostbite, survived temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, carbon monoxide poisoning, sustained darkness and perhaps the most difficult—loneliness.
He came to the southernmost place on the planet armed with weather instruments and the basics for survival: food, fuel, cooking equipment, toilet paper, clothing and books. Byrd had enough room in his shack to pace four steps and aimed to devote the time to think without the pesky interruptions of day-to-day living. He detailed the few evening walks he took before the polar winter set in and night was all he knew. He described the sky and the stars that seemed to hang overhead just for him.
“It occurred to me then that half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need,” he wrote.
Byrd confessed he missed companionship and attempted to control his thoughts so he wouldn’t fall to pieces. He broke each day into small tasks such as completing a bookshelf and erecting an escape route from his bunker. He performed these tasks slowly so he could see progress over time. He did so because he needed to manufacture meaning into his days.
“Without that or the equivalent, the days would have been without purpose; and without purpose they would have ended, as such days always end, in disintegration,” he wrote.
I am not sure what I expected from Alone when I bought it. From the preface I knew Byrd survived the experience. I think I just wanted to know how. I didn’t anticipate underlining so many passages in pencil. And I will admit I was comforted that even Byrd succumbed to doubt and emotional meltdowns. Other people just weren’t around to witness it.
The first time I read Alone I realized I do not know what cold is. Cold is being able to hear your breath freeze. It is observing a flame being snuffed out on its wick from lack of heat at its fuel source. I also learned that I whine too much. I am reading Alone again to remind myself to buck up. It’s time to find wherever my horse has wandered off to and get back on the course I set for myself. Even if it involves bushwhacking.