A couple of years ago, I woke to three birds circling over my body, barking. I’d been sleeping in a bivouac, a kind of raincoat for a sleeping bag, camped in the tundra of Alaska’s Kantishna Hills. I unzipped the bivouac and popped my head out, peering up as the eerie silhouetted birds swooped toward me. The moon was a low and yellow sliver in the eastern sky; clouds to the northwest stacked in electric oranges and dark purples.
The birds' bodies stretched wide, their faces were flat. I could see faint stripes on the undersides of their extended wings. One of them landed on my food canister nearby and hissed. The other two circled about fifteen feet above the ground. They rose, then dove toward me, then rose and circled once more. They kept a rhythm: every few circles, one of them plunged toward me again. They eyed me from above, barking all the while like angry watchdogs. When one came close enough to claw at me, I flung my arms overhead and screamed, “Stop! What’s wrong! Go away! Please!”
I was terrified. I wasn’t just scared because I feared the birds might claw through my skin or poke out my eyes, which I did, but also because I felt so disoriented. They weren’t acting like other wild animals I’d encountered. These birds knew where I was and weren’t running away. They were coming closer. I felt like prey.
The attack didn’t abate. The birds kept circling, barking, hissing. The moon rose and whitened. Stars emerged. At some point, I zipped myself back into my bivouac and listened to the strange sounds from inside it—feeling awake, thinking about sleep, anticipating violence.
More in this series
Some time later, I woke to an empty sky and a risen sun. It was silent, still, and hot. There was no one to ask about what I’d seen the night before. The memory melted away into some far-off image I puzzled at and hardly believed. No one could tell me if those birds had been carnivorous falcons on the hunt for human flesh or nightmarish ravens carrying some omen of imminent doom. No one could tell me if what I’d seen was a dream, or if this world was less predictable than I’d thought.
My first steps out of my sleeping bag were tentative. The earth was soft and damp. The dew stuck red leaves and smashed blueberries to my bare feet.
I was camping alone in that tundra because of a different kind of fear. I was scared of wasting days, of getting bored, of living an empty life. I first went to Alaska during a college summer. Although the scale of the landscape often made me feel tiny and insignificant as a willow, its beauty and bigness also made its way into my own life. Just living and walking and feeding on that land became a way to participate in its grandeur.
I kept going back. More than once, I considered dropping out of college to stay. After graduation, the idea of moving to a city and getting an office job scared me much more than, say, bears. I could see the days soaring by there: a fluorescent-lit routine repeating itself for years.
So I rented a small cabin on a hill, where I was planning to live some version of the American dream, following a template laid out by Thoreau. He’d gone to the woods, as he put it, 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.” He’d gone there to “suck out all the marrow of life.” That’s what solitude in the wilderness was all about: living life close to the bone, where it’s sweetest. In my own cabin, I imagined, I’d think in sentences, notice the breeze, leave behind the frivolities of society and technology—everything that wasn’t life raw and vivid and real.
My cabin was near Denali National Park, and I occasionally hitchhiked south to that huge park, trading in my cabin shelter for the bivouac. A few days after encountering the barking birds, I hiked back to the park road, rode the camper bus to the highway, and then hitchhiked and walked back to mile marker 253 on the George Parks Highway in the Alaskan interior.
John and Joyce Elmore, my landlords, had homesteaded the property there some 40 years before. They’d walked its perimeter in snowshoes one February, and in the months that followed, they’d built the one-room A-frame cabin that became their home. Eventually, they’d upgraded to a house John built with a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, a spiral staircase, a porch, running water, electricity, wi-fi. They rented me their old cabin because, Joyce told me, they didn’t want it to collapse into the earth, as many vacated cabins in the north do.
When I returned to their ridge after my camping trip with the owls, I sat in the Elmores’ “big house,” using their wifi to listen to birdcall after birdcall on allaboutbirds.org. I eventually found the cry that had woken me in the wild. It belonged to the short-eared owl. It turns out they hunt day and night and kill their prey with a bite at the back of the skull. They swallow these prey whole. Also, they show aggressive behavior toward anyone who invades their nesting territory. I possessed pictures, videos, facts, a Latin name. But the sense of mystery stayed with me. I closed my computer, walked outside, and reached my hands over my head, still hearing the distant echo of that strange bark.
It didn’t take long for that strange intensity to fade. Deliberate living wasn’t coming easily. I rarely knew what to do. Much of the time, I slept through the three alarms I set each morning, then put a pot of hot water for oatmeal and coffee on the propane stove. I ate a leisurely breakfast, read magazines dated from months before, watched branches sway through the windows.
It was challenging even to read, or enjoy the view. The mosquitos were bad. Outside, they were intolerable. Walking in the woods was no good: running, full speed, was my only option. Inside, they could be just as oppressive. Especially at night. It took only one little sneak to fill the room where I slept and ate and read with a boisterous, twangy buzz. At such times, no thought other than one about the death of that insect could survive. I’d always thought I was a calm person. I’d always thought I could overcome such fleeting and insignificant distractions. I’d always thought I enjoyed being in nature.
In June, the days were hot, too. I walked around the cabin in my underwear and a t-shirt murdering skeeters with the swatter John had given me as a welcome-to-Alaska present. I relied only on myself to fill days, and with nothing siphoning those twenty-four hours into tame, comprehensible pieces, each day grew into a wild expanse of time—unruly, long, and quiet.
It wasn’t all bugs and heat. I sometimes helped John cut, chop, and stack wood, and always tried to keep the cabin clean. When the weather was warm and the breeze kept the bugs at bay, I walked down to the creek to wash, or sat naked in a sunny patch of the hill with a bucket of cold water, a bottle of soap, and a mug I used as a showerhead, pouring cup after cup over my head.
The Elmores’ big house was a short walk along the ridge from my little cabin. I sometimes walked there to visit them: filling jugs of water from their hose, checking my email and looking up bird names with their wi-fi, catching a ride in the bucket of John’s tractor. The trips yielded chatter about the weather or the bugs or the roadwork or John's diabetes. Sometimes, I had visitors in the little cabin: the man I was dating who lived in California, backpackers I’d met while hiking a nearby trail. Most of the time, though, I lived alone. My outhouse had no door, my view had no roads, my faucet had no water, and my power outlets had no electricity.
The nearest “town” (the metropolitan area, in this case, referring to a gas station, post office, diner, brewery, and coal mine) was seven miles away. Since all the transport I owned at the time was my legs, it was a far trek. Grocery trips (to “Miner’s Market,” the gas station) required fourteen-mile walks before I began hitchhiking the highway portion of the trip. Most of the time, I played the game, “how long can I live off of flour, oats, powdered milk, cabbage, onions, and potatoes?” to avoid wasting a day that way. Denali National Park was ten miles beyond Miner’s Market, and I took vacations there with my bivouac, a stack of books I was too distracted to read in the cabin, and a desire for something more exciting than my day-to-day existence of taking short walks, sweeping the floor, and washing dishes in a bucket.
A whole crew of our men have chased reality in cabins, tents, trailers, abandoned buses: Thoreau in Walden Pond, Join Muir in the Sierras, Aldo Leopold in Sand County, Edward Abbey in the Utah Desert, Chris McCandless in Alaska. In my cabin, I read their stories, and the stories, too, of the few women like them: Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, Cheryl Strayed.
I lined the windowsill of the little cabin with these books, and looked at them as often as I did the landscape the window framed. The words urged me to get a sense for life before I got too comfortable in it. The writers told me to wake up, to see.
As much as I loved the books, there were times when these stories made me question my own project. Was I living a cliché? Walking a trail others had walked before me, giving this whole solitude thing a superficial and stereotyped trial? My friend Ray called me one afternoon from Sitka, a town in southeast Alaska. (I didn’t have electricity or water in the cabin, sure, but I did have cell service—3G, in fact.) She was working as an environmental activist, at the same organization where I’d met her the year before. She pressed me: “What good are you doing for the world from there? Why do you want to be alone?”
It was selfish in some ways, I knew. But I justified it to myself in lofty terms: I was living out an old and familiar American ritual, enacting some secular rite of passage, awaiting some insight about the world we live in and this one life I’ve got to spend.
But then I’d hang up, and remember how, before arriving, I’d dreamed of the insights, of the days I’d spend watching woodchucks and waterbugs, of the wind sweeping me up in its warm embrace and the whole world breathing into my ear alone air full of secrets. Then I’d look around. It was still hot and buggy, windier some days than I could believe, and a lot of the time, I was bored. I had no idea how to spend a day.
Things got better in July, though. My days had a straightforward trajectory, as my main task became obvious: picking berries. By then, I was much happier being outside than in. The mosquitoes were retreating and the blueberries were ripening. After all those days subsisting on powdered milk and potatoes, I was gripped by a feverish need to be out on the land, in the light, seeing and harvesting what I could, while I still could. Some mornings, before I’d left the cabin, I’d get impatient, restless, hungry. When it happened, I turned wild: I knew what to do. I took off my shoes, threw on my coat, and sprinted out the door and through the pathless woods—past black spruce and paper birch, past stray boulders and soft ground, toward the tip of the ridge where I could see into the valley or clamber down to the creek. My bare feet brushed over moss, rocks, roots; I collapsed face-first into a swath of crusty reindeer lichen. I’d crawl over to a patch of spongy moss, and dig my nose into the dirt. The ground smelled like spearmint. On one of these excursions, I passed by John, with his white beard, faded cap, and limp. He’d just seen a bear in the nearby woods, and he yelled after me in his gruff voice, “Ya better learn ta run fast!”
Days after John’s warning, I followed a game trail along the ridge and at some point, looked up from the ground to see a cow moose and her calf some twenty feet in front of me. I locked eyes with the mama for what felt like days. Her back was toward me, but she bent her neck around so that her head faced me behind bony hips—her eyes dark and her baby close. When the two of them burst away into the trees, struck, it seemed, by the sudden realization of my unfamiliar presence, they disappeared, as wild animals do, into the trees and very suddenly nowhere to be seen or found. The fear I felt arrived after they were out of sight and reach. I was scared of losing moments like that — moments when my legs twitched and my heart beat in my ribcage and beauty and terror got all muddled together at once.
With no parliament of owls to wake me and no pair of moose to bring me into the present, my mind got busy. It whirled around from thing to thing, full of to do lists, doubts, other places, other people, other lives I might one day live. I wanted to find that thing I couldn’t anticipate or prepare for: an animal, maybe, or a storm, or a view from the top of a ridge where you can see so far the earth rounds at the edges of the horizon. Part of what rendered those encounters vivid and exciting and good was the all-consuming attention that took over. I’d be nowhere else. In the absence of such encounters, I sat alone in the cabin and walked alone in the woods trying to relinquish control and open myself up to the unknown. I was looking for some mandate to be exuberantly and unequivocally alive.
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt that yearning. A few years before, I’d been on a road trip with my then-boyfriend, Jonathan, through interior Alaska. We’d been traveling together for weeks when I began suffering from a need to be away from him and closer to something I didn’t know the name for. So I asked him to drop me off at a trailhead for the Resurrection Trail on the side of the road of the Kenai Peninsula, and told him to pick me up in the afternoon where the trail ends—forty miles to the north. There’d be no opportunities to peel off or give up between the start and the end point. I don’t know why I thought I could do it. I’d never run a distance longer than a marathon, and I hadn’t run a marathon in years. The longest run I’d gone on in the past several months was 16 miles, and that was once. But longing is seldom tempered by math, so I put on my runners and packed a bag of snacks and told Jonathan I’d see him later.
My snack bag was a small backpack. I stuffed it with some extra layers, plus water. This backpack, it turned out, was not quite suited to the jostles and rhythms of running. After about ten hours, I could barely rally myself to make any movement that would make the straps move. The straps had rubbed my shoulder skin down to raw swaths of bloody skin. Nothing would help: not the duct tape off my water bottle, not any layer I tried to put between my skin and the straps. Running felt impossible, even as blue shadows coated the valleys. I had no sleeping bag or shelter. The night would be cold.
Over the course of the next four hours, I managed to convince myself to keep moving. (I whispered under my breath a kind of battle cry—a ditty from none other than Finding Nemo: just keep swimming, just keep swimming...) I eventually crossed over the territory the trail traverses. I hobbled—limping and bleeding—toward Jonathan, who was whistling, wandering along the trail in my direction, wondering what had taken me so long. I leaned on him those last steps to the parking lot, where he coaxed me into dipping my legs into the nearby glacial river, telling me it would ease the pain. He went to set up our tent and I went to sit in our car, where I shivered and listened to a Chopin cassette tape as musty heat pushed full-blast out of the vents.
Some people court suffering in the hopes that their struggle will bring them closer to a fundamental aspect of reality. In many ways, my life had been light on suffering and grief. I was grateful for that. But I still wanted to get closer to the edge of experience. In the days that followed that run, I took a kind of pleasure in the scrapes at the curve between my neck and shoulders: They proved, even more than some photograph I’d taken of a snow-covered mountain along the way, what I’d done. The cuts were evidence that I’d been there, that my feet had treaded over that topography, that I’d started somewhere and ended somewhere else. It was no question of perception: You could touch the scabs. They hurt.
Moving to an isolated cabin came from the same tendency to court suffering. I cut myself off from electricity and running water and a social life in the hopes that the experience would leave me the wiser. I often wondered, though, if my hunt for immediacy and intensity was really just a hunt for a certain aesthetic. Remote cabins in the woods do, after all, occupy an important place in the American imagination. Nowhere is that more obvious these days than reality television. In Alaska alone, there’s Alaska: The Last Frontier, Ultimate Survival Alaska, Yukon Men, and Life Below Zero, and The Last Alaskans. Coming soon is Land Rush, a show chronicling the efforts of four “modern-day pioneers” building homesteads, living off the land, and “looking for freedom” in the wild frontier of Alaska.
After that run along Resurrection Trail, my cuts healed without leaving any scar. I look back on that day with a certain skepticism, as though whatever I was chasing was just a facsimile, and the thing itself remained as far away as it had ever been.
Most moments—in my life, at least—do not involve terror or euphoria. Most moments do not bring extreme pain or some unforgettable lesson about this weird world where we all live. All of them pass somehow or other, though. They make up minutes, and then days, and then a life. Some are shared, some are solitary. In some you’re running late and in others you’re out of breath and in others your back hurts and you’re trying to subtly stretch it in public. In a few you’re wondering if swimming in water this cold can harden and freeze your lungs as you, for some reason, keep kicking away from the shore, your cheeks hurting from laughter or hypothermia. All of these moments, you survive.
And then there are more: You’re thinking of what to say as your “fun fact” in a circle of strangers or you’re wishing you could chop carrots really fast or you’re looking up at bare branches rattling in the breeze. Once in a while, maybe you notice that the mist in the air is coating your hair and clothes with diamonds: thousands of tiny beads of water stuck to the fuzzed stitches of your sweater. You smile. You close your eyes. It’s not quite crying but it’s close.
So: How to live? Just filling a day, I learned in my little cabin, is a tricky but essential business. I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour. Lives are fun to play with: I’ll be a writer! An astronaut! A world traveler! It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. In the cabin, there were too many options, and none of them very exciting. Read, write, walk, run, split wood, bake bread, pick berries, call my mom, hunt the mosquitos that had snuck into the cabin? Most of what I did in that cabin was mundane. There aren’t many stories worth telling. There aren’t many moments I remember.
Every once in a while, some unexpected thing would sneak up on me. I’d have a moment that would later stand out as traumatic or funny or odd, as electric or vivid or lovely. Watching fall’s first northern lights swivel on my long walk home along the highway after a potluck, seeing the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range absorb the pale pinks and oranges of a midnight sunset, stumbling into an abandoned mining camp near the little cabin with a surreal collection of century-old cameras and eagle-embossed stoves wedged in the moss. Standing still as the moose and her calf bolted into the trees. Waking to the barking owls.
One ordinary morning toward the end of the summer, I poured my coffee into a mug and carried it outside. I sat on a patch of lichen and brushed my hands over clumps of crowberries. I breathed deep. The air carried the bite of autumn, of the cold that was soon to come. I looked up. The longer I sat there, the more I discovered that just the breeze could bring me into the right here and now. I pressed the warm mug against my collarbone, and stared at the mountains, which were grey-blue in the distance. The wind whipped and bent. The aspen and birch leaves, now more yellow than green, shimmied and shook. After I looked long enough, I began to connect sound with space. I could see which mosquito circled where, which gust hit which leaves, which branches creaked with which breeze. Soon, I could see it, right there in my front-yard: the world alive with so much dance.
Light shifted; the winds rose and fell. The day unfurled until dusk eventually arrived with its warm light and long shadows. I wandered around the woods as the landscape blued. I walked over sticks and through berry bushes, their leaves turning a deep red, their fruit dark and soft. My hands smelled of spruce sap.
I eventually opened the creaky door of my cabin, pulled off my rubber boots in the Arctic entry, and lit a propane lamp inside. I sat on the floor of the empty room and looked through the giant window at the navy sky, the black earth. My eyes darted between the expanding night and the tiny golden light next to me.
Much of the time, that’s all there is: some movement, and some light, and we call it a day.