This is the hardest of the Cabin Fever series to write as I’m trying to think about what I took away from my cabin years. Difficult because there is so much.
After a lot of thought, I think I can place most of what I learned under two broad headings: space and connection.
I think of this as both time and distance.
Walking for hours and knowing I would not see another person all day.
Talking and singing (very badly) to myself with only the trees to judge.
Walking in the dark and knowing the way by the slight curve of the road and the barely visible outline of black trees against navy blue sky.
These are all things I haven’t done for decades, but I still remember those ridiculously free feelings as if they were yesterday.
And time. So much time.
There were lots of things to do, of course — chopping wood, hauling water, keeping fires going in the winter, but so much time left for dreaming.
Of course, I had no electricity, so news of the outside world was limited to static-garbled scraps from the William’s Lake radio station, intermittently and randomly snatched from the sky by my old battery-operated radio.
“Come on over to the Boitanio Mall, climate controlled for your comfort …”
“Billy Jack, could you please come pick up your egg delivery from the train station as soon as possible. They’re hatching and running around …”
Limitless hours were left over for chasing random thoughts, reading books from cover to cover in one go, watching clouds, examining the light on a leaf. My Kodak Instamatic wasn’t up to capturing most of this, but that love of waiting and watching, now part of my photography, was hatched (like Billy Jack’s chickens) back then.
When I first arrived in Likely, however, I was quite afraid of all that space. I worried (and I know this from the one lonely diary entry I wrote in that whole period) that I might be hollow inside, and that I’d become filled up by the space and there’d be nothing of me left.
At the same time, I felt a bit claustrophobic, surrounded by miles and miles of trees.
I couldn’t say when those fears left me. I know that, at some point, I started thinking of the trees as my friendly neighbours and I guess I just stopped worrying about whether I was hollow or not.
If I’d set out to “find myself” I guess I must have just stumbled over myself one day without really noticing at the time.
While much of my Cabin Fever Series has been about me being alone out in the woods, the fact is that I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of a lot of other people. Even if I didn’t see people for days on end, I knew I was part of a community.
Back then the mail was delivered to Likely’s post office (a series of boxes at the gas station) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mail Days everyone from a fifty mile radius came into town, ostensibly to check the mail, but mainly to see each other. The Likely Bar was the community centre.
I can’t remember how we arranged this, with no phones, but on a Mail Day I knew I could rely on a ride into town (about 15 miles away) from one of my Seven Mile Road neighbours. And I knew that if, for some reason, I didn’t show up — someone would come to check on me.
Should I feel the irresistible urge for human companionship, on a non-Mail Day, I knew I could always walk the couple of miles to my nearest neighbours and be welcomed in for a game of Bear Trap and several cups of well-percolated coffee.
Some of those Likely people who let me live with them when I was cabin-less, who loaned me tools, brought me firewood, gave me lifts, and even taught me to use a rifle (bear-in-the-cabin situation, luckily resolved without my having to practice my limited firearms skills) are still good friends today, forty-plus years on. In better days ahead, we should have a Likely bar reunion!
And it wasn’t just the Likely community I felt supported by. Old friends and family wrote to me often, and some even visited me in my little cabin, including my friend from Wales who helped build the cabin and gave me my first driving lessons. My very first lesson ended up in a ditch, but hey …
And my parents, my lovely Mam and Dad … many of you wondered how they fared, worry-wise during those years. I like to think that (without the torment of minute by minute Tweets or Instagram posts) receiving only occasional vaguely worded letters from me, they had just the most general idea of what I was up to. I hope that might have helped with the “no news is good news” frame of mind so valuable to the parents of absent children.
I was always hoping for a letter with my mother’s handwriting when I picked up my mail. I’ve saved many of her letters, and I use fragments of them sometimes in my images, as a thread of ongoing connection.
My parents never once wrote that I should drop everything and come home immediately, for which I am forever grateful. Once those days were long and safely over, I did tell them some of the more hair raising stories and we had some good laughs.
Now it’s my turn, as the mother of young adults, to chant the No News is Good News mantra when they’re off doing inadvisable things. My son thoughtfully gave me a Guatamalan worry doll after his last trip to help with that. What’s that saying about karma …?
For those of us lucky to be just waiting things out at home during the time of COVID-19, not working on the front lines, and fortunate enough to have a safe and comfortable space to be sheltering in, these past few weeks have been a new and strange kind of space. Connections are being forged by our common effort to protect each other, as well as via the myriad ways of staying in touch online — boomers Zooming, my kids playing out dramatic Dungeons and Dragons campaigns online, WhatsApping, FaceTiming, pod casting, blogging …
For myself, it’s had me looking back on my Cabin years with great gratitude, as I was privileged to have so many life style choices available to me — and the fact that I’m posting online about a time when there were no lines to be on, seems strangely cyclical.
Lastly, a few more random things I took away from those years:
- Hot running water is amazing. Showers in particular
- Ditto, being able to listen to music whenever you want.
- You can get by with very little.
- If you’re going to be alone a lot, never, ever watch horror movies: advice I follow stringently to this day.
- Life is better with a dog. A cat is nice too.