Tony Vagneur: The rare beauty of silence and solitude
It’s late September, the last of the golden, autumnal leaves hanging on, and 14-year-old Janette Riker looks out the back of the family Conestoga wagon, parked in a lush Montana territory valley, hoping for a glimpse of her father and two brothers. She would hope for that glimpse until spring.
They were on their way to Oregon and had stopped at this location on purpose, hoping to harvest some buffalo humps, add to their food supplies, and give their oxen a much-needed rest. The male members of the family had taken off on foot the day before to look for buffalo, deer or other game and hadn’t returned.
What are you gonna do, stuck in the middle of nowhere and suddenly finding yourself all alone? It’s not like you were camped somewhere along the Four Pass Loop, or at Difficult, knowing civilization was within hiking distance.
Janette spent the better part of a week going on search forays, hoping to solve the riddle of the disappearance of the menfolk, without avail. The grim reality was staring her in the face; her only hope of rescue would be another settler wagon happening by, or being noticed by one of the resident Indian tribes.
She was a very capable 14-year-old, and using the many farm tools carried within the wagon, managed to build a decent shelter against the coming winter; butchered one of the oxen and salted the meat to preserve it. She stuffed the cracks of the shelter with dried grass, moved the Conestoga top to be the roof of her structure and laid in a great supply of firewood. Fortunately, there was a small wood stove along with the rest of the belongings, and after a lot of back-breaking work, she was reasonably set for the winter.
That was the easy part, getting a semi-permanent camp set up. The toughest thing about being alone like that is dealing with the tricks your own mind can play on you. She’d hear a cough from outside, her heart beginning to race that maybe it was a brother or her father, only to realize it was a coyote or wolf, stalking her winter establishment. The canines arrived on an almost daily basis and she never knew if one night she might be torn to shreds as they breached her sanctuary. It likely was an almost full-time job just keeping the beasts at bay.
Much as you might try, it’s very difficult to find that much seclusion in this neighborhood. If you travel into the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness for more than a day, it might be possible, according to my friend, Brent Allred, who turned me onto that. Slab Park and Spruce Creek are good for short trips.
Not that many years ago, I’d spend two or three consecutive weeks alone at our cow camp in the mountains above Woody Creek. The occasional dirt biker would come by, but rarely stopped. About 30 years ago, unlike today, it was very quiet up there, and one stint in the 1980s, three weeks passed without my ever seeing another soul, other than Hereford cows and coyotes.
Such solace never made me feel lonely, but every once in a while, I’d take a look at myself in the antique mirror on the wall, just for reassurance that my mind and body were still connected. If you know me well, you might say I was kidding myself at the results, but nonetheless, it seemed to keep me centered.
In his book, “Wager with the Wind,” James Greiner writes briefly about airplane pilots back in the early days of Alaskan exploration, sent there by the government to reconnoiter the landscape. In those days before modern communication, it took a while to determine that if, and when, one of those single-pilot planes went down in the winter, the men were woefully unprepared on how to rescue themselves. The landscape was so vast and overwhelming, it seemed impossible to self-rescue. Suicide was the preferred option most of them chose.
Janette Riker was rescued by a group of Indians who happened upon her makeshift camp. They admired her spirit, her toughness and took her to the fort at Walla Walla. The government figured out the problem with single airplane crashes back in the day, and developed a comprehensive training program to help the pilots self-rescue.
And a long way from those two scenarios, some of us still hunt for the places we can find true solitude. Even for a day or two.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.