I grew up in a small college town of vintage buildings and attitudes lying somnolent next to the Connecticut River on the west and a ridge of seemingly primeval forest to the east. In the fall of my sophomore year of High School, a long string of Indian summer days held at bay the stinging winds and rains of October. Green leaves turned to their colors and peacefully fell one by one. Except on rabble-rousing football weekends, the whole town took on a feeling of quiet waiting. After school it was still warm enough that my hammock in the clutch of mostly bare birches in the backyard beckoned me for a nap; the low-angled sun warming my face, a book drowsily dropped on the ground.
On this particular school day, a day wasted inside almost beyond bearing, I sat in my algebra class, the last interment of the day, watching two lazy flies buzz against the glass. Lethargy descended like a miasma, a lethargy that even daydreams of riding a motorcycle to Alaska and becoming a bush pilot could not banish. Something had to be done. Escape was possible. My parents had left town that morning for a conference and the house was mine. It was not the solitude of the too quiet house that I needed but the panacea of wilderness so often promised by Hemingway and others. I decided to hike to the far side of the ridge and sleep alone in the woods for the first time.
At home, racing darkness, I hurriedly packed sandwiches, soup, hot chocolate, a sleeping bag and ski clothes in a Maine guide rucksack. I hit the trail but not before hiding in the bushes in my own front yard until the coast was clear, then sprinting across the road into the pines. It wasn’t my parents’ possible wrath at finding out about my adventure from a neighbor that I was avoiding but honoring a strong desire to keep this adventure private. In the woods, I followed game trails north and east until I came out on the Appalachian Trail. An hour of hard walking in the golden, then grey, twilight under the trees brought me to the standard Appalachian Trail lean-to. I considered it but continued on to the next ridge where I would be unable to see the lights of town.
I camped at the end of a rocky outcrop on a flat spot guarded by two large boulders. I cut some cedar boughs for a bed, piled rocks for a fire pit, and gathered branches for firewood. This was life to be savored. A small fire was soon blazing. The darkness beyond settled down. A few bird calls then silence, not a single sign of human existence. I pulled on my ski jacket. Settled into the bag, put soup to warm, and waited. The first stars appeared in the nearly dark eastern sky. From beyond the pale of firelight, I heard the snapping of a twig and the movement of some animal. Yes, I answered, we are here together. A doe appeared in the shadows and stood watching me and the fire. I answered her curiosity. You have nothing to fear cousin, I am the most gentle of interlopers. I whistled. She bounded lightly away. And my true self, snug beside the fire with the night for company, felt light and easy as well.
Shade by shade, star by star the night sky was born. Born, then moving west, the earth alive with turning as I imagined universes and spooned soup out of the can. Not a breath of wind, not a ripple in the order of things. I was not sleepy. Crackle of the fire, sweet scent of the boughs of my bed, minutes lost to awe and witness. And separate at last from all the citizens of my town, in their houses under the blue light of the TV while I, The Adventurer of Oak Street, like a monarch, settled deeper into the great comfort of being outside and being warm.
More stars appeared. And there was a slight sense of time passing in a kindly way. I pulled a wool cap and some light gloves out of my pack, threw a few sticks on the fire, and put on a small pot of instant hot chocolate. The hot chocolate tasted slightly metallic. Delicious.
Sometimes I thought of “cabbages and kings” or women “coming and going and talking of Michelangelo” but mostly I just watched until I could see a trace of turquoise in the eastern sky. I imagined the sun rising out of the Atlantic to chastise the stars. Out of the darkness I could see the outline of trees at the edge of the clearing and hear the singing of one bird species after another, each greeting in turn the new day. This sequence is determined by a tradition of the aviary world. Each entrance prompted by the growing candle power of every new day-immutable and mysterious. The fire had long ago died to embers. I waited until the sun came full upon my sleeping bag, then let myself doze off for an hour or so.
When I woke, I was ravenous. I fetched water from a brook, stirred it into the coals of the campfire, packed up and, in what would become a lifelong ritual, thanked the campsite for sheltering me and walked happily out of the woods not caring that it was a school day and I, who had spent the night being “on time,” was not worried about being late. I went home to what seemed like an alien shelter, showered, changed clothes and walked uptown for breakfast at Lou’s Restaurant. I had the “Lumberjack Special” and two cups of coffee and left a generous tip. Then sauntered down to the ‘ol school house Tom Sawyer style.
Arriving at school halfway through fourth period, Mr. Peters, the English teacher, barely turned from the blackboard- gesturing for me to leave a tardy slip on his desk. It had never, in my new universe, occurred to me to forge one. I stood by my desk. I was undecided if I should bother to sit down or just walk out of the building. Mr. Peters turned and stared at me. I looked back at him with a steady sympathy. His composure faltered.
“Oh, never mind, just sit down.” The class stirred uneasily. The teacher returned to his task at the blackboard. I decided to sit down. The girl in front of me turned around and raised a carefully coiffured eyebrow as if to ask “how did you get away with that?” Instead of answering, I piled several books on my desk, propped open a copy of The Green Hills of Africa, and began to read.