It has been a few years since I have been in Montana. It has been a few years since I could enjoy the tranquility of dark skies and quiet nights. It has been a while since I could, on any given day, go to somewhere where there are no voices and no movement. My life is very different from that now. It has been a long time since things have been totally still.
Like most people in 2017, I am often a pawn to the cycle of boredom and instant gratification, to the effortless "lets see how cool this is" of being able to click wherever I want, obtaining "information" that is puddling like in its bland, sweet taste and ease of consumption. Time can pass fast when there is nothing to do: I can "sit down to play a game" for "a few turns", and get up to find evening has fallen.
These stories aren't new, I am sure everyone here can share stories of time spent in Turn Based Strategy stupors or of blindly link clicking across wikipedia. What I want to share is the opposite story, of my time spent in places where oceanic amounts of time were exited with the clock hardly moving forwards.
When I lived in Montana, I lived in a place that was, by Montana standards, was pretty suburban, but which would have been considered very distant by most Americans. I was almost always on bicycle, which most of the time meant I couldn't go to true wilderness areas, since those areas are by definition roadless. But I sometimes went to areas that would be considered "wilderness" because they were forest service roads with no human habitations around. My normal route was a road that started near my home, at about 3500 feet of altitude. The first 12 miles of bicycling took me to about 4500 feet, after which there was a winter gate. The winter gate was closed from November through April or May, because the road beyond that point wasn't maintained and was covered with snow. In spring and summer, it was open, for another three miles, before it hit a second gate, that would often be closed until June. Between these first and second gates, there was a gravel loop road, crossing the creek the road ran alongside, going up into the mountains, rising a few thousand feet, and then turning around and looping back. This route, running parallel to a three mile road, took about ten miles of road length. Some of it was steep enough that, being a lazy person, I would get out and walk, especially in the hot June sun. (And this hot June son, causing the sweat to pour off my face, existed at the same time as waist-high snow banks lined the side of the road). There were dead end spurs poking off the road: dirt tracks leaving the gravel road, each one probably not more than a few hundred feet long, but giving me the feeling that I am trapped in a maze with the real possibility of missing the right road. And all of this is taking place where I am not more than 2 linear miles from the paved road. But in a place where no cars pass me, where they are no signs of people, and where if I did take a wrong turn, if I did get lost, if I did fall and break my ankle, if I was attacked by a bear or cougar, I would be without recourse. And then finally, when I have reached the top, and begin to coast back down, getting just slightly more confident that I haven't gone down the wrong path that will drop me thousands of feets into some cold, dark valley that I can't climb out of before dark...then my entire adventure is over. A few miles later, I am back in civilization because I see a truck at a campsight and there is a forest service sign in brown metal announcing the road number. At my leisurely pace, it might take an hour or two from the time I left "civilization" until the time I return. In those times, a mile away from the road, looking at the oceans of tree-clad hills going into the distance, what do I think? Probably the usual things to keep my mind running, mixed in with a lot of trepidation. With no people, no structures, no power lines, no cell reception, no hum of cars or voices, its easy to feel very alone. This is just the tip of the iceberg: there is still a road here. There are places where people can hike out 40 miles from a trailhead and see nothing. But when you are in a natural area, not even a wilderness one, things shift widely.
And after this is over, I will go home. I will make myself some tea to reward myself for my efforts. I will probably look into the large stash of candy I've stashed for just such post-expedition self-congratulatory moments such as this. And then I will probably get on my computer and start to internet. And look at the clock, and find that my entire time between living home and returning home, the entire time that I was bereft of the normal world, the entire time that each degree the temperature dropped or inch the shadows lengthened, the entire time that I wondered just how far my voice would carry in an emergency, the entire time that the grid of my normal life was gone, was four hours. Maybe five. I will think that I could have spent that time playing computer games (like I did yesterday, and like I will do tomorrow), and I will realize how rich of an opportunity I have. And the entire convoluted pocket world I inhabited for those long four hours will fade from memory.