+ By Chris Kalman + Photos by Chris Kalman
It’s four in the morning when I finally hear the sound I’ve feared all summer. I’m 12 miles deep in the backcountry, living in a yurt in the remote Sierra Nevada mountain range in Sequoia National Park. Not a soul in sight. I try not to breathe—then I hear it again. Scratch scratch scratch. Scratch scratch scratch. It’s coming closer.
Suddenly, I hear something step on the small plastic plate that I left on the floor. It can’t be more than two feet away from my bed, where I lie, pretending to sleep. I tense up my muscles, acutely prepared for this long-awaited moment, and yank the string to the booby trap—hard! The pot comes slamming down to the floor, and the vicious beast is captured. I turn on the light, flip the pot over, and take a look at my new friend: Mr. Mouse.
People tend to think of the wilderness as something of a no man’s land. They imagine lions, tigers, and bears at every turn, deathly lightning storms spurred by Thor himself, epic blizzards and snowstorms just waiting to turn any backpacking trip into the next Donner party. Over and over again, when I told people I would be living in the backcountry for an entire summer, on my own, without supervision, I got the same response: fear.
“But what will you eat?” “What will you do if it snows?” “Are there bears out there?” “What if you run into some bandits or something?” “What if you fall and break a leg?” “Won’t you get lonely?”
Of course, I wasn’t afraid of any of those things. I am no stranger to mountains. In fact, I’m more comfortable in the hills than any city, suburb, or town. The paralyzing claustrophobia of concrete towers, honking cars, and smartphone-lit semi-catatonic faces disquiets me. Where buildings stand taller than the scant remaining trees, I find myself anywhere but at peace.
Going out to Sequoia National Park was a hard decision, though. I’d rather not explain why the timing was bad, why a million things were tugging me back to Maryland. In the end, though, I needed a job. I wasn’t exactly killing it as a writer, and I wasn’t finding anything else in the area that seemed to fit the bill. So I went.
The gig was something of a dream for a guy like me. Hike into the backcountry, set up a yurt (a large, semi-permanent circular tent on a flat wooden platform), and live out there for three months. No phone, no Internet, no supervision—just call in on the radio in the morning, say where you’re going, and call out in the evening. Something between a writer’s sojourn and a paid backpacking trip. I was sad to leave Maryland but elated to arrive in California.
My day-to-day life out there was not much different from any average Joe’s. I would wake up, do my morning rituals, clock in to work, hike four to 18 miles (paid travel time), clean up litter, toilet paper, and illegal fire pits along the way, interface with the public and solve whatever minor crises they might be having, hike 4 to 18 miles more, and clock out. Think nine to five, but with better views.
When people did not respond to my job description with misgivings, they tended to idealize it. I suppose I did as well. Of course, the law of averages always wins. Was it the most beautiful place I’ve ever spent a summer? Probably. Did I catch more incredible sunsets in a single season than many city-dwellers catch in a lifetime? Likely. But did I also get lonely, doubt my course in life, get a little stir-crazy, keep a mouse in my pocket for a short time, name a family of marmots that lived nearby, and write some of the wildest, weirdest, most experimental . . . stuff . . . I’ve ever written, as my brain reeled from seclusion, isolation, and sensory deprivation? Definitely, yes.
The wilderness is balm for a tortured soul, but it does not render a new soul altogether. In Sequoia, I found that the peace the mountains brought me was ephemeral. Perhaps it was only a superficial distraction from the turbulent waters of my wild mind. From time to time, without anybody to bounce ideas or feelings off of, I felt bipolar—swinging wildly back and forth from “You are worthless, and so is everything you write,” to “All that matters is that you do your art—forget happiness or comfort,” back to “Give up on anything remotely ascetic—sell out, go back to school, get a normal job, start a family, buy a minivan—and do it NOW.”
Before I left for my job, people asked me about bears. “Are they out there?” “Do you have bear spray?” “What will you do if you see one?”
Well, I only saw one bear the entire season. I was on a normal patrol, more than 15 miles away from my yurt. As I walked down the trail, I came around a bend and saw an enormous brown butt just 15 paces away. My senses quivered in an awe-stricken fight-or-flight moment. I must have stepped on a stick, because suddenly that bear turned around and looked at me. I was ready to run for my life, but the bear charged, headfirst, off the trail and into what looked to be impenetrably thick forest.
I don’t blame him. I may have been the wildest, least tame, most terrifying thing he saw all summer. In the end, it wasn’t the bears that I was afraid of—it was me. █