Another month, another program. I forget what it was like, to not be fully absorbed in your job, to not live, eat and breathe it. In a way, it is too consuming: I have little time or inclination to write or be creative. That part of me falls away as easily as a label peeled off a bottle, and I wonder whether I have the self discipline to conjure it back up when I leave. Do I need the structure of a writing job to live the life of a writer, or can it be like flipping a switch: wilderness guide one week, writer the next? How are these two parts of me conjoined, and where do they diverge? Most importantly, how can I connect them?
On the other hand, it is a blessing to be fully present in each moment. I am absorbed by the girls in this program, the guide team, the group, the expeditions, the daily tasks and routines – every piece of it requires my undivided attention until the extraneous thoughts drift away into the cobwebbed corners of my mind. Today I was doing paperwork and looked at the date – 8.4.12 – and had to pause to consider how unreal is seems. Has it really been nine months since my heart was stomped on like a burning cigarette on a cold night? Now, days pass and I hardly think of him except with a twinge of regret that it wasn't what I'd hoped it would be. But I am glad to be here and doing this again, and glad to have the freedom afterward to go anywhere, do anything.
Time, as usual, flies, and I have little of it to spare for writing. Two guides and five kids is a demanding ratio, and in the evenings I like to sit and talk with Jesse. But there is so much I wish I could write down, because I know that without writing, it will become lost. It is not the words that count, looking back at it years later, but the act of writing itself, as if sitting and making yourself aware of where you are and what it smells and tastes and feels like is more important than the words themselves. I remember being about 9 years old and sitting behind a dresser, writing in my diary while cookies baked in the kitchen. I wrote about school that day, but what I remember most is the moment I put pen to paper: the smells of Christmastime, the grey slush outside the window, the toys on the floor. We cut and paste together our lives in this way, words and old photographs coalescing until we develop stories, memories, explanations, selves.
Last week, we attempted to hike 3,700-foot Mount Etolin and made it to approximately 1,300 feet, or roughly one mile in four days of hiking. Since there was no chance of summiting, we were able to come down a day early and dry out at the floathouse: we were soggy to the core, filthy and stinky. All the girls got their periods at once and I didn't pack nearly enough tampons, and everyone was drenched to their socks and underwear within the first hour of hiking. How to possibly describe such rank wetness, with no dry place to escape to? We slogged through mud, slept in wet sleeping bags, hung wet clothes from our bodies. It was one big fat bucket of suck, and yet, there were moments: bending over with a 70-lb pack on to lean on my trekking pole and noticing how alive the forest floor is, how much life thrives in the wetness that drives humans away. Hair-like worms waving, centipedes skittering under leaf litter, tiny spiders and beetles and nameless insects crawling and dangling and jumping. Everything fetid, fecund, alive; growing, rotting, struggling to carry on.
And let us not forget the black flies. The hoards of no-see-ums that erupted fro the muskeg pools upon our arrival, enlivened by the first human prey they'd likely seen in their brief, miserable lives. They dropped into our food by the hundreds, flung themselves into our eyes, noses and ears; invaded our tents and brains and sanity. Let us not forget them.
Then today, for the first time in 20 days, we awoke to sunshine. Beautiful beach, fire, dry everything. We are on the move agin, circumnavigating Etolin Island. I move my home every night, carrying what I need from the canoe to the woods, setting up my tarp and sleeping bag again and again under different trees, in different forests – all different and all, somehow, the same.
I'm sitting on the long flat-rock beach of South Etolin Island, watching the tide creep closer to my feet. We are staying here for three days for reflection time, and it is nice to rest from the rigors of expedition. The embers of the morning cook fire crackle and the occasional salmon throws itself out of the water and lands on its side with a smack. Ravens fan the air with their heavy wingbeat and, as in a Grateful Dead song, the eagles fill the sky – four adults and two juveniles swooping back and forth, dropping feathers along the beach. The woods are like a park here – flat and mossy ground under a canopy of widely spaced cedars and ancient spruces. The sun is shining and the sky is blue for the fourth unbelievable day in a row, and I'm living in shorts and a tank top. Life is grand. I do not doubt for a second that returning here was the right decision, that ending a two-year relationship and quitting the lodge were all right in some roundabout way and that this is the track my life is going to take: wandering, loopy and beautifully unpredictable.
The water is a flat powder blue with ripples of electric teal wavering toward the rim of sky. The sky itself is wide and blue and the horizon is a haze of blue mountaintops and blue islands. It is a whole landscape painted in shades of blue, a blue that is alive, flecked with silver and light, always changing.
Later – Walking back from across the long beach at twilight, Jesse's figure as he stoops by the water to wash the dinner pot is striking – a lone silhouette against an enormous backdrop of sky and ocean. It is sometimes easy to forget, being part of a group all the time, that we are essentially the only people on these distant, scattered beaches; that we alone make these untouched islands our home. I am more comfortable walking barefoot across this beach with a drom of water collected from the creek than I am on any city street. Stumps and trees and rocks become my landmarks. It is not a life I want to live forever, but I will always miss the simplicity of gathering water from a stream, cooking over a fire and sleeping under a tree.