“I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
― Primo Levi
Nine months into my stay in Bozeman, Montana, I found myself economically penniless and spiritually hungry.
Life felt authentic, probably because there was so much wide open space between the “real world” and me. At that point in time, I was also about as close to the earth as one could get, living in a tent in the middle of the mountains.
My job as a dishwasher had become mind-numbing and I had no luck finding anything better. Competition for jobs was fierce because everyone was flocking to beautiful Bozeman. It seemed to me that I was out of options. In sheer frustration, and out of a desire to do something real, I rebelliously moved twenty miles west into the Tobacco Root Mountains, just beyond an old mining village called Pony. This was perhaps the wisest and most foolish decision I’ve ever made.
The tent was fairly roomy, the spring weather gorgeous, and I enjoyed living far from civilization. I had set up shop in a lush valley surrounded by stunning snowcapped peaks and it seemed as if I had this amazing place to myself. I spent time hiking and enjoying the streams, lakes, and wildlife. I soaked myself for hours a natural hot spring in the middle of a meadow while reading Thoreau and Emerson. I watched the sun and moon rise and set, witnessed a triple rainbow and listened to the coyotes howl. At night, I glimpsed shooting stars, gazed at the Milky Way, warmed myself by campfires, stared at the snowy moonlit mountain peaks and wrote in my journal. In many ways, it was the best of times. I felt extraordinarily present in the world and unusually comfortable in my own skin.
A few weeks into this adventure, however, the fact that I had no plan seemed increasingly foolish. Although I was feeling more alive than ever, I was losing my hope that I would somehow procure the necessities of life. Moving into the mountains had been an act of blind faith (and desperation), but reality was closing in on me. I had no money for gas or food (or anything), no known way to communicate with the outside world and I was down to three days of rations. The future looked bleak. I was as close to the economic bottom as one could get. At the same time, life felt so real. The irony of this juxtaposition was not lost on me. I was twenty-four years old.
So there I was living on faith and faith alone with only three days of food. Those days passed quickly and, before I knew it, I was sitting in my tent one early morning holding a small can of ravioli, the very last bit of food I had. Without much hesitation, I ate it, the whole thing, and then set out on a hike.
I hiked all day. Around two in the afternoon, I started getting really hungry. I had no food but I pressed on, driven by something. I must have walked five miles or more in the Potosi valley, exploring areas I’d never seen. I was in new territory and the sights, sounds and smells absorbed my senses. The landscape grew more and more beautiful and this helped me forget my hunger. There were lakes and streams in the valley and the forests along the edge gave way to rocky slopes on either side. Towering above those slopes were the magnificent peaks of the Tobacco Roots that had always captivated me when I glimpsed them from Bozeman.
It was a gorgeous bursting day and I felt weight lifting from me as I hiked on. An hour passed and the valley floor turned steeply upward. After a long and exhausting ascent, I arrived at the top of the high hill and found myself at the edge of a small lake perched impossibly above the valley. There was no one around. I hadn’t seen another human being in weeks. I was beyond hungry at this point. To my right was an abandoned mining shack that probably hadn’t been occupied by anything other than bugs and mice for more than a century.
I knelt down by the rocky edge of the lake, cupped my hands and took a drink. The water was ice cold. Its chief source was the spring snowmelt from those stunning mountain peaks, the same ones that had drawn me to this valley in the first place. I gazed at the crystal clear lake as the wind blew geometric ripples across its surface. I stood there in silence and closed my eyes as the sun warmed my face. The only sounds were those of the gentle wind in the trees, the quiet gurgle of a distant stream and the occasional chirping bird. I opened my eyes and felt an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude.
That moment by the side of that high mountain lake was ethereal. Life felt pure, stripped down to its essence. For whatever reason, I had a powerful faith that everything was going to be O.K. I was filled with boundless patience. By all accounts, I should have been terrified by situation, but, instead of feeling fearful, I felt grateful. Maybe I was stupid or delirious from hunger. But, as I stood by that lake, I pretty much served myself up to the world and said, “Thank you.” And, ever since then, I’ve been trying to say those “thank you’s” whenever the world offers such rare and precious glimpses. These moments are, of course, accessible to anyone and are actually always there in the most ordinary of circumstances, waiting to be found. The truth is that if we are simply paying attention, we’re as likely to stumble upon the same joyful gratitude during a relaxing walk in the park as we are to find it on some precarious adventure.
– – –
After lingering by that lake for an hour or so, I began the long hike back towards my tent. As the late afternoon turned to evening, I felt peaceful but dizzy with hunger. All those fears of coyotes, mountain lions, bears and strangers crept into my mind over and over again but I was able to push them out as fast as they entered. It was almost dark when I made it back to camp. As soon as I arrived, I resisted the urge to sit down and instead mustered the last of my energy to make a fire.
I looked through my backpack and tent for morsels of food to no avail. I was starving. I remember thinking that Gandhi would have laughed at my defining hunger as starvation. I also remember thinking that hunger is supposed to raise your awareness like sleep deprivation or pregnancy. The words of Emerson and Thoreau bounced around in my mind as my tiny fire died down. I climbed into my tent, completely exhausted, and zipped up my sleeping bag. I felt thankful for the day because it was real and because my mind was blissfully on the present almost the entire time.
I fell asleep feeling humble, cold, hungry and grateful.
– – –
The next day I awoke at sunrise and walked down to the stream to drink some water and wash myself. I was deliriously hungry but decided, for some reason, to go for a hike. I hadn’t really been back towards the east since I’d first arrived in this valley a few weeks ago. All my adventures had been to the west. One dirt road divided the valley. I hiked a mile or two down the road and my prospects brightened. I saw two men working building a tiny cabin, something I hadn’t noticed before. I waved hello and one of them came out to the road to greet me. We chatted for a moment. It turned out he was heading back to Billings and the crew needed a replacement for him.
“Are you any good with a draw knife,” the man, Gary Senn, asked. I will never forget him because I might not be around now if it weren’t for him. I sure as hell wasn’t begging my way back to town. At the time, I remember thinking that I would stubbornly stick it out there in the Tobacco Roots no matter what happened.
Fortunately, my chance meeting with Gary averted such an unnecessary and foolish disaster. That day I got hired and ate a hearty meal. I ended up going to work with this small team of men for the next month or two helping to build a few log cabins at a spot called Potosi Hot Springs. My job was to hand strip the logs for the cabins. You should have seen the callouses on my hands. I grew stronger each day and was soon in the best shape of my life. It was as hard a work as this philosophy major had ever done.