I decided to call this first entry into the Salamander City project “Tabula Rasa” but I suppose that isn’t quite accurate, as the term implies no existing notions to begin with, but there was a preconceived idea in the making here. You see, I discovered something important about myself, and I embarked on a journey to figure it out. Rather, a journey to figure me out, via it. And the inspiration to do this is what led me here.
I grew up in Alaska and New Mexico, always in rural areas. Doing things outside was common, and the beauty of nature was something that my parents taught me to appreciate. I can remember telling them I wanted to live in a log cabin when I grew up. But then, I also said I wanted to be a priest, and that one didn’t turn out. Hmm.
Fast forward to young adulthood. After graduating college at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, I headed to upstate New York and tried to find a career. I’d lived in the city while going to school, and I lived in the city in New York as well, finding an apartment inside Albany city limits. I grew fond of urban life. Lost my intimidation of it. Trips to New York City became a regular thing. I don’t even look up at the tops of the buildings so much anymore. The country boy embraced the city slicker life, and was better for it.
In 2012, discussions of outdoor activities with a banjo player I worked with led to the discovery of Northwest Camp, outside Salisbury, Connecticut. Owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club, it’s a wonderful old log cabin and surrounding plot at a crossroads of hiking trails. My then-girlfriend and I booked a few weekends there over a couple of years.
No electricity, no running water but a stream nearby. No toilet, only a couple outhouses. It’s what I came to call a “primitive cabin”, though they certainly can be more bare than this one was. The only amenity aside from a countertop area, a kitchen table, and a few hardwood bunks, was a woodstove.
These were my first real camping trips since my teens that weren’t group affairs where the social atmosphere kept you busy. It was magical. Arriving in the freezing cold, firing up the woodstove and hiding under layers the first night while the fire slowly warmed the cabin.
Inventing ways to cook on a stove that wasn’t cook-style, really. Playing games in the main room by candlelight. Looking after my dog, Blake. Always the snowy emptiness outside, devoid of lights. Once, we were snowed in unexpectedly. The weather report had called for three inches. We ended up with more than two feet and had a hard time getting out of there.
But the thing that I need to tell you about these trips, the thing that is relevant here is this curious effect that sitting still had on me. Not having anything to do, nor anything that I should do, and accepting that I was going to do nothing. I’d like to say it was heavenly, but no.
It was hell.
I have distinct memories of these moments, typically the morning of the second day, when the work is done and the activities are exhausted and there is nothing to do but laze about. Sure, I could find something to do if I had to, but the fact that the possibility of not doing that scared me, felt horrible in fact, prompted me to explore it. Why would I abhor that state of being? Especially when such a thing is what so many would think of as bliss?
I forced myself to allow it to happen, or to not happen, you might say. I allowed time to pass. My mind jumped around, grasping at anything that would give me reason to get up and do something. It felt truly awful. Like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Later in life, I would talk about this with a therapist, who related tales of intentionally seeking this same effect by going on meditative retreats. And like she did during her brief removal from her world, I experienced a great slowing of everything internal. This happened quickly, over the course of hours. Without something to bounce them back and forth, my attention and my focus dulled and dragged until they moved very little. This was the desired state. A place where I might set my mind on a perception, or a concept, or an idea, or a feeling, and allow it to simply be there, in the moment. Not preoccupied with the future or past.
This was the bliss I wanted. Peace. A singularity of mental presence. An absence of concern. A thing flirted with when sitting by a fire on an overnight camping trip, but not realized until I was face to face with being entirely ready to act, but not doing it. The sensation was startlingly foreign to me. It threw the rest of my adult life into sharp contrast, and painted it in a negative shade that I had always known in some inner way, but been unable to fully perceive.
Getting there was difficult. Uncomfortable in the extreme. I had to force myself to commit to soul-grating inactivity for hours on end, but it would arrive eventually. It may sound hard to believe but take it from me, not doing anything for hours and hours, even days, when you are someone who stays busy, is truly difficult.
But once there, I existed in a vastly improved state of mind and heart. Things settled into place. At the end of the trip a few days later, I took the perspective back with me, when rejoining the world that seemed to speed at unthinkable velocity.
I learned a value at Northwest Camp: that I am wholly, viciously wrapped up in the rat-race of life. Constantly living inside ambitions not yet achieved. Swallowing down accomplishments to make room for the hope of the next, still yet out of reach but providing the motivation to go on. Always fighting for something more, something better, never allowing myself to enjoy what already was. My goals, my hopes, my dreams. All of these are of penultimate importance, I knew then and I know now. But there is a great failing in allowing them to replace your enjoyment in the present moment.
To go to bed thinking of how you’ll manage your time the next evening. To work the week long only to think of the coming weekend. To play the guitar only to get better at it so I can write a better song. To listen to a new record only so I can gather new ideas for my own. To eat a bite of food while thinking only of looking forward to the next meal. To write a chapter of a book only for the goal of finishing the whole book. To drive into the country only to get the trip done before I make dinner tonight, and then make dinner so I can eat it, and then eat it so I can go to the movies, and then go home so I can get sleep, and then sleep so I can get up for work, and then work so I can make money to go do all these other things that each are only placeholders in an infinite queue that will cease when I die and no sooner.
It is anathema. And I live it. So do many of us. And so many do not understand it well enough to step out of it, even for a moment. I talk about being busy and trying to live harder in my blog sometimes, but nothing really portrays the struggle to stop heaping your thoughts and feelings into the future quite like being forced to let it go. The happiness of pursuit, I’ve said, is where our hearts ought to lie. And I believe that. But it seems that the default way our psyches do this is to leave the present and inhabit the future.
So, I took from those trips a value that I have kept close to my heart ever since. I remember how it felt to let go of the race and fully inhabit the moment I was existing in. I have difficulty doing this, and want to train myself to it. And I want to make it a part of my life. A part of my being. A part of my day.