Sometimes, a man needs solitude.
So, last week I embarked on a solo three-day backpacking trip deep into the Bitterroots. I did this because I wanted to get in touch with my inner self, and because my 16-year-old son Mike, my usual fly-fishing companion, had previous obligations involving sleeping in late.
So, I went off alone, thinking this would be an excellent chance for me to hog all of the best fishing holes, snarf down an entire bag of M&Ms; without sharing, sprawl lazily over both sides of the tent and, last but not least, commune deeply with my soul. So, while out on the trail, one of the first things I did was get in touch with my inner self.
It did not go well.
“Hello, inner self?” I said. “This is me, your regular self. Do you have a minute? No? Well, when would be a good time?”
Frankly, I wasn’t too disappointed. My inner self is a pompous self-absorbed bore who makes a totally humorless backpacking companion. Who needed him?
So there I was, 12 miles from the nearest road, pulling in some of the biggest and fattest cutthroat trout I’ve ever hooked. I was in the middle of the stream, thinking how much I was enjoying this solitude business, when suddenly this idle thought came into my head:
What if a big old moose suddenly charged me and knocked me down in this stream and gave me a concussion? Would anyone ever find me?
A paranoid and silly thought, to be sure. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except possibly this fact: At that exact moment a big surly cow moose was standing on the streambank staring at me in disgust.
This moose was giving me the kind of intimidating look which, if given by a human, would cause that person to be nicknamed “Penitentiary Face.” It was a look of utter hostility, combined with a kind of ill-tempered revulsion for any pathetic human with the gall to disturb her meadow.
Being in the middle of a stream, I had nowhere to hide, although I briefly considered underwater as an option. Luckily for me, Old Penitentiary Face finally turned disgustedly and disappeared into the woods.
This episode made me realize that being all alone 12 miles up a creek, while enjoyable, can also be just plain stupid. I hadn’t seen anybody all day. What if I did get hurt? The possibility that a troupe of, I don’t know, emergency room nurses would come wading upstream just in time to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is a bit far-fetched. Not that this scenario doesn’t appeal to me, but it is far-fetched.
Anyway, I started thinking about all of the other things that could go wrong besides being stomped comatose by a peeved ungulate.
Since I was stumbling around on wet boulders at the time, my first thought was: How about a nice broken ankle? That would be trouble. All it would take would be one little pratfall to give me a foot that faced south while the rest of me was facing north. Let’s do the math: One hour to drag myself out of the creek, one hour to crawl through the willows, another hour to crawl back to the trail, and then approximately six hours per mile to crawl down the trail to civilization. I’d be in safe hands in a mere 75 hours.
Then there were the other obvious possibilities: snakebite, sunstroke, beaver fever, emergency appendicitis or getting caught in militia crossfire. Once I started worrying about those big things, I began to realize that even much smaller mishaps would mean major disaster.
For instance, I wouldn’t actually have to fall and break an ankle. All I would have to do is fall and lose my pickup keys in the river. Even those emergency-room nurses wouldn’t be able to help me there, unless they were trained locksmiths.
Yet, I refused to let these negative thoughts bother me. I was safe, I was sound, and if anything happened to me I was confident I could wave feebly to the rescue helicopter. With those more cheerful musings, I sat down on the stream bank to eat my birthday cake (I forgot to mention; it was my birthday and I had packed a slice of cake).
As I ate my cake, I hummed a little bit of “Happy Birthday” to myself. In my glorious solitude, I felt at peace with nature. For a brief moment, I thought I even heard a low voice humming along with me.
It was either my inner self, or Old Penitentiary Face, I’m not sure which.
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