Tomorrow closes my third week on the road. At the onset I expressed my trepidations concerning a lengthy solo outing and the expectations of solitude. My concerns were rooted in the experience of embarking on a 2 week solo camping trip to Colorado in 1975. After a little more than a week I had succumbed to crushing loneliness that drove my back home to familiar faces by the 10th day.
In 1975 distance meant separation. There were few options to remain connected with loved ones… letters and pay-phones. Letters were a message in a bottle that would not bring a reply. Phone calls were expensive and thus hurried. If anything, these two means of communication did more to highlight solitude than alleviate it.
Fast forward to the 21st Century and we have, FaceTime, Messenger, Facebook, Skype, various social media platforms… and of course telephone calls via a mobile network that spans most of the country. We assemble our friends and family in a one touch directory that keeps them available at a moment’s whim, but perhaps with an unintended consequence (“Burial Rights in the 21st Century”).
I have been away from home for 20+ days, but there have been meaningful interactions with Christine virtually every day. Today it included “FaceTime” with her and 2yo granddaughter Lennon upon her lap.
We are not creatures well adapted to solitude. There are exceptions (see infra). There is a reason that solitary confinement has been a favored means of prison discipline. Indeed, it is recognized the such confinement for too long is a form of torture and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Even Monks who voluntarily place themselves under a vow of silence remain safely ensconced within their monastic “community”. They live, work, and pray side-by-side in fellowship.
New friendships (which I have made on this trip), phone calls home, and even video chats are not a substitute for tactile human contact. I miss falling asleep with my arm over Chris. I miss the frequent gratuitous embraces throughout the day, and even just holding hands. However, the relaxed “what did you do today” talks have done much to belay the loneliness that once assaulted me 45 years ago.
An interesting aside: Christine has been reading my posts much as you do when we are on the road together. She has commented, “I really get it now! I understand why people look forward to your posts and enjoy them so much!” Cool!
Speaking of “what I did today…”. Up early, I fixed a big protein packed breakfast and readied my bicycle for a long ride.
The “Route of the Olympian” passes the campground a mere two miles away. It is a continuation of the rail lines that comprised the Coeur d’Alene and the Route of the Hiawatha, and can be followed for many miles as a part of a cross-Continent journey.
In it’s heyday the Olympian was a super-luxurious rail experience that took 4 days to cross country from coast to coast.
It compared favorably to all other exclusive train experiences, event the legendary Orient Express that linked Paris to Istanbul (BTW, in 1972 I was a second class passenger on that line from Belgrade to Paris).
Today the Olympian is just a memory, as is it’s rail bed. Where the Coeur d’Alene was 73 miles of well maintained asphalt and the Hiawatha was 15 miles of downhill coasting over adequately graded limestone gravel, the Olympian is a bicycle path in name only. To be sure there was beautiful scenery, but it was usually outside of my field of vision as I fought to keep my bike vertical on the trail that was surfaced with large aggregate made up of river rock.
Moreover, it was rutted and potholed. My eyes were glued to the area 15 feet ahead of my front wheel. I endured at a maximum speed of 6-8 mph for 12 miles, finally making it into the town of St. Regis. It was brutal, but I managed a few stops for pictures and even scored a souvenir.
A cold coffee latte in St. Regis brought welcome relief and fueled me for the 18 miles winding up into the mountains on the Old Mullan Road.
It was a hard but rewarding ride that left me and the bike so dust covered that I could no longer read the decals on the bike. Drinking from my water bottles on the ride was like taking in a mouthful of fine grit sandpaper.
Bike cleaned and clothes changed, I was in the car returning back up Old Mullan Road. When I was on the bike I had passed a gravel road that ascended the mountain higher that the road I had been on. Camp hosts Susi and Tom told me that it serpentines for 7 miles and ascends another 2,000 feet in elevation to the top of “The Camels Hump” and a Forest Service Fire Tower.
I drove up the gravel forest road until I reached to closed barrier gate. Continuing on foot I reached and climbed the Fire Tower and was rewarded by a 360 degree panorama that extended for scores of miles. I also met Don, the fire-spotter.
Earlier in this post I mentioned that we are not creatures well adapted to solitude. I mentioned that there is the rare exception, and his name is Don.
Don is about 44 years old. He moved to this area when he was 15, and in 2004 he began manning the fire tower. His predecessor died of a heart attack. (I wondered, but did not ask if he died on the job and how many weeks it took to find out that he was dead… Bad Pete!). Don is on duty 6 days x 24 hours each week except during the winter. While on duty the top of the tower is his home. No electricity, except solar/battery power. He has propane lamps, a propane refrigerator, a small stove/oven, bed, no plumbing, and the damndest view that money can buy.
He also has solitude. Don was friendly enough and welcomed me into his “home”, but he made the point that he liked it that visitors were a rarity. He has been at his solitary post for 15 years and looks forward to another 15 years. Don smokes unfiltered cigarettes. I hope he makes it. Don is a rarity and well suited to his duties. Good for him, and good for our forests.
Tomorrow I head toward Salt Lake City to visit friends Ron and Lena, then on to Denver to reprise my visit with Kris… and then home!
Peace Everyone. Pete
10 thoughts on “The Modern Myth of Solitude, The Olympian, and Don. Cabin City Montana. July 21, 2019”
Julie Baliva says:
Amazing, as always. We especially like the details of the bike ride. LOVE the picture of Christine and Lennon. Stay safe.
Pete Schloss says:
Thanks Julie and hi to Dom too!
Impressive! Love your bike rides and the scenes. Such a treasure meeting up with Don! Also Love the picture of Chris and Lennon.
Pete Schloss says:
Thanks Pam and hi to Steve too!
With you standing at the tippy-top of a forestry fire tower, I have to say that your very high “Hi” to me is worth a “Thank you” and a lowland “Hi” back at you. Cheers to you, Pete.
Pete Schloss says:
Pauline Schloss says:
Your thirst for “what’s next” leads you to the most interesting places and people. When does Don get relief or get supplies or know what is happening Outside the tower????
Pete Schloss says:
He’s off one day a week and really doesn’t care what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Both Chip and his dad did fire tower duty…but they had electric and radio service…not sure about the bathroom situation..expect there is a mighty feeling of power pering from that great height…as for the rest..that’s what used coffee cans are for…it ain’t “chock full ‘o nuts” for nothing!
Pete Schloss says:
There was an out house, but it was quite a few flights of stairs straight down.