Evan looked out the window and thought, “No backing out now.”
The snow was falling, and falling with a force and thickness that if he did not know better, the young man in the cabin would have thought the world itself had gone white. Gone were the thick aspen groves and clumps of cedar trees that grew tall despite the extreme altitude. Gone was the crushed gravel and granite “road” that led him here in the banged up old Land Cruiser that had seen far too many winters. Gone even was the stack of wood that would provide him warmth in this long, cold winter of soulful examination.
Evan had spent the better part of his twenties in the exact opposite location from where he now found himself. In a sun drenched cubicle in southern California, just a five minute walk from a beach he had made a lot of money.
And lost his soul.
It all hit him one day when he had a flat tire on the side of the road. He had no idea how to change it. So, he called a tow truck. He got home to find that his girlfriend had left him a message- a literal note on the door that she was done with his distance and lack of interest. Not ten minutes later, his boss called him and told him that he needed to ‘fix’ a problem. ‘Fix’ meant forge or fabricate something. He had done it a thousand times, but this time, something hit him.
Right in the heart.
He had always wanted to grow up to be a real man. A man of integrity, character and capability. His grandfather Paul had been that kind of man. A man with strong hands, a soft heart, and kind eyes. A man that knew how to fix a tire, chop a tree, and mend a young boy’s broken heart when his parents had divorced.
He was none of these things.
Grandpa Paul had died the last fall, but before he died, he had said something that Evan had initially dismissed as dementia. But here, now, those words and the image of Paul’s face rushed to the forefront of his consciousness:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
And so the next morning he handed his boss a note of his own- it simply said, “I quit.”
He sold it all. All the trappings of his unethical and self-centered life from his lavish apartment to his fancy sports car. He bought the old, worn out but rugged Land Cruiser and headed east to the Rockies.
The old man that sold him the cabin looked at him from grizzled eyes and with less than the average number of teeth he spoke with dismissal. “You’ll be comin’ down the mountain in a week. Two, tops. Ain’t no city folk got the gumption to make it in a Rocky Mountain winter. And this is gunna be a beast of one.”
Looking out at the blanket of snow and the fading light, Evan started to agree. He saw the reflection of a man gone to waste. He saw his pudgy hands rub the smooth and round chin of a man thirty pounds too heavy. He looked at the well-kept two hundred dollar haircut and stared back into the beady eyes made tiny by the excess flesh that crushed in around his eyes. Then he put his hands in the pockets of the two hundred dollar “mountain pants” that he bought because they were “guaranteed to keep you warm and dry in winter.” He saw a ghost of a human, ironically suited up for battle with nature in the very same type of armor he had suited up in for his unethical cubicle life.
He saw a joke.
He saw a man desperate to change, yet still trapped in the materialism he had fled to the mountains to escape. He turned back to the den, a small, sparsely appointed space that would have seemed cozy if it had not suddenly taken on the shades of a prison. No, a death row cell.
Panic gripped Evan. Yes, he had stocks and stores of food for months out in the rudimentary refrigeration barn. Yes he had wood cut, yes he had fuel for the snowmobile he knew nothing of how to operate. Yes he had supplies- but he lacked the most important thing. The thing he had dreamed of having as an adult. As a MAN.
The Land Cruiser keys were gleaming on the kitchen counter. He felt a pull toward the keys and at the same time, a quiet, almost imperceptible whisper:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan turned quickly, looking for the source of the whisper- knowing it had been in his head. For a brief instant, in the faint reflection in the snow plastered window, Evan thought he saw his grandpa’s face. Then he realized it was just his own reflection distorted in the dying light of day.
He looked at his right hand, white knuckled as it gripped the keys. He slowly released his grip, and stepped back. No. Evan would stay.
He would stay alone in this cabin, he would test his mettle against nature, he would learn to really live by daring to face death.
And it must start with lighting that pile of wood in the fireplace. It was getting cold.
Evan struck a match and lit the kindling beneath the dry, fragrant pine logs. Before the flames took, he placed his hand on the wood and felt the rough and brittle texture of the pine bark. He began to feel the heat of the fire catching, so he stepped back and settled into the old recliner that sat near the fire. He leaned back, mesmerised by the fire as it danced and twisted, sending sparks up into the piercing darkness of the chimney.
Outside, the wind howled and occasionally there was a scratching noise on the window as the wind whipped the snow onto the old, thin panes of glass.
It was quiet. There was no television, no cell service. Evan just watched the fire dance and crackle. On his first night, that is where he drifted off to sleep.
And so was his routine in the evenings for the next few days. He began to acclimate to the quiet- something very different from the loudness of his apartment that was just blocks from a freeway. The only sounds here came from the things no human had made. Mostly the snow for the first few days. It was near blizzard like, and the old man and former owner had warned him that “nobody finds themselves in the blizzard until the thaw.” Evan assumed that meant he would die in the blizzards, so he waited to “Lose himself in nature to find his soul,” until the snow stopped flying.
In the meantime, he explored the cabin. All eight hundred square feet of it. There was a tiny kitchen with an oven and stove and sink and small fridge. All run by the generator that was just outside the kitchen window, steadily along providing power to the cabin during the day. But at night, just like the first night, Evan preferred to keep the generator off because he felt something soothing in the sounds of the rough and rustic world surrounding him.
The bedroom was small, containing a full sized bed and a single window, but it had been covered from the outside by window flashing to keep the heat in. In fact, Evan had yet to sleep in the bed, choosing instead to stay close to the fireplace.
The bathroom was small as well, but then, Evan wanted simplicity, right?
The cabin had the exposed cedar timbers everywhere, and Evan liked to run his fingers over the rough and stringy bark packed down with whatever they had sealed the logs with eons ago by his reckoning. There was a bookshelf in the den, and it contained dozens of books- some classics from the Victorian age, and some more modern paperbacks from the likes of King and Cussler and L’Amour and Crichton. During the snows, he devoured them.
When the snow let up, he ventured out. First, not much farther than the sightline of the cabin. It’s small outline was made smaller by the massive amount of snow piled on the roof as well as rising up in drifts from the ground. The smoke poured from the chimney constantly, as Evan knew there could be nothing worse for him than to lose that fire. It was heat, it was backup power, it was life.
After about a week of exploring, he finally let the cabin escape his sight. On the first venture, he encountered a deer. His loud movement spooked it, and it darted away with grace through the loosely packed trees of the forest. In that brief moment, Evan learned what freedom looked like. What the ability to move and go wherever one wanted.
Evan made a mental note to learn how to not scare the wildlife.
A few days later, the snow had been packed well down by his trampling, and he felt secure enough to venture much farther than before. Up one ridge and down another. Here, he found a truly majestic bull elk. He watched from a distance as the massive creature lifted his head and shook his antlers. They rattled as they contacted small branches on either side of it. It must have smelled Evan, because it turned and looked right at him. Evan locked eyes with this beast, and there was an understanding, it seemed. The elk tossed his head again, as if to say “Follow me!” then it raced up the mountainside.
For the briefest of moments, Evan considered it. But just then it began to snow. Immediately, it was near blizzard levels, and terror gripped Evan. He turned and ran back, following the tracks he had made. But he had been hiking for over an hour, and after about fifteen minutes, finding the trail became very difficult.
After thirty minutes, the trail was completely gone.
Evan must have wandered, lost in nature, for over an hour. The temperature was dropping fast, and a tingle in Evan’s toes and fingers was causing him greater concern. He knew that he must get over a ridge and then go down into a small valley to find the cabin, but in the sheets of snow- everything was white. By the time he crested a familiar ridge, and begun the literal slide down toward the cabin, he could not feel hands, feet or nose despite his “guaranteed” pants.
As he scrambled to the door of the quaint cabin, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window. If his fingers had feeling, he would have felt a rough stubble growing over a slightly thinner face. He did notice that the gear he wore was hanging on his body in a different way- much more loosely and free. The bulge in his mid-section was almost gone.
But noticing the bluish tint to his nose, Evan burst into the cabin and felt the warmth of the dying but still alive fire hit him full in the face. He rushed to the pile of wood he kept inside to keep it dry and tossed a few decent sized logs on. There was no sound like the grinding of the ash and wood as the two combined to combust and give life and heat. Evan stripped the wet and cold outer clothes off and huddled next to the fire. He need to eat, but the heat was even more of a necessity. He placed a numb and blue hand on the stone hearth of the fireplace and deep in his bones he felt the heat- but it took a few minutes before the extremities began to feel alive again.
It was a few more days of snow, and Evan was okay with that. He had scared himself. Too much too fast. But every now and then, he could have sworn he saw an elk outside his window in the whirling snow.
When the snow stopped this time, Evan took the ax by the door out to find some wood to chop. He still had a decent amount, but he wanted to be prepared. And he wanted to test his mettle, too.
The ax handle was smooth and wooden, rather light to the touch. It was clear the bulk of the tool was kept in the iron double headed blade. He noticed the sheen of a sharp edged blade on each side, then recalled the strange stone that sat near it by the door. The old ax must be kept sharp by that thing, he thought.
He found a decent sized dead tree not too far from the house, and he began to chop. His first swing missed and he tumbled down into the soft snow bank. He stood up, dusted himself off and tried again. The blade hit, but it bounced back and flew out of his hands back down the embankment he stood on. He looked back at the cabin, and marveled once again at how much he had come to depend on the small, rudimentary structure for life.
Learning from his mistake, he gripped the recovered ax and went to work on the tree. It was clearly user error, as once the blade found its mark, it bit deeply into the wood and sent small splinters flying. After fifteen minutes, there was a cracking noise at the site of the cut, and the tree began to move. Evan hopped out of the way as it crashed down into the snow, where it rested silently. Evan drug it down closer to the cabin so he could continue to work it into burnable sections.
The next week was spent chopping the tree up during the day, and sharpening the ax in the recliner by the fire at night. Evan would run the stone over the blade, sending small sparks that seemed to be tiny children of the larger fire just feet away. In these moments, Evan appreciated not just the silence, but the smells he had come to love. The burning wood. The scent of cedar that lingered in the walls of the cabin. The occasional gust of wind that would bring the pine and aspen scents in through the thin windows or in one of the cracks by the door.
One night, a deep squealing sound tore his attention from his sharpening. He rushed to the window looking up the mountain and saw the bull elk. It was standing, hind legs towards the cabin at an angle that allowed the elk’s front half- which was higher up the mountain- to lift the head and antlers up in a way that made it look like the elk was calling to the mountain top. Then it turned as it finished its bugle and looked directly at Evan through the window. “Follow me,” it seemed to say again. Then it ran up the mountain and into the night.
Evan caught a glance of a strange man in the window. He was thin, bearded, and had longish, unkempt and wild hair. His eyes were wide, bright and vivid. And his smile- that was the most foreign thing in the image. The man was bulky, but in a muscular way, not an overweight way. It took Evan a moment to realize that the stranger was him. And he saw his grandfather Paul in the window- only this time, he realized the face of Paul was his own. He was seeing that the man he had sought to be his whole life was there. In his face, in his DNA, Grandpa Paul was the man he strove to be. And those final words echoed in his ears:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan rose early the next day and set out up the mountain. For the first time in his adult life, he felt capable of something. He had developed character in his time in the cabin. Now, he had to see if he had the integrity. The fortitude to do something good. Something great.
One of the books he had found in the cabin was about tracks. He found the ones he was looking for quickly, and followed them. By noon, he had passed above the tree line.
He stopped for a quick lunch, then continued his climb. At times he almost ran, at times he literally crawled. But by the time the sun was about to enter the last third of the sky, he reached the summit of the mountain whose name he did not know. He as the highest thing in any direction, and as he looked out over the surrounding mountain tops, he felt, for the first time ever, like a man.
He heard a cracking noise and turned. His breath caught in his lungs.
Fifty feet away stood the bull elk. It looked out at the horizon, then locked eyes with Evan. They stared at each other for a long time, then the elk turned slowly and walked down the mountain. Evan smiled.
“I’ll be chasing you for the rest of my life, friend.”
He had gotten lost in nature, and truly found his soul.
He turned and started back the way he had come. Back home.
Back to the cabin.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.