The Future–and My Life as a Hermit at Burgson Lake

by Laura Crum

When I was twenty-two years old and in my third year of college as an English major, I became fascinated by Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden. I read and re-read it and slowly I became determined to give his idea a try. (For those who haven’t read this classic, the book tells the story of how Thoreau spent a couple of years living alone in a cabin he built by Walden Pond, and the insights that came to him there.) I knew I wasn’t going to be able to build a cabin, or try Thoreau’s experiments in self-sufficiency, nor would I be able to live this way for years. But I came up with a concept that I thought was workable. And my goal became spending a summer living alone in a tent at a remote Sierra lake. My version of Walden.
Easier said than done, of course. But I persevered. My boyfriend at the time lived in the town of Sonora, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He knew a woman who was the daughter of one of the original forest rangers in that region. He told the woman of my goal. I needed a lake that was enough off the beaten path that I could be alone there, but it needed to be close enough that I could walk out and get supplies once in awhile. The lady said she knew of such a lake.

And one spring weekend the mountain lady hiked with me and my four month old Queensland Heeler pup, Joey, to Burgson Lake, near the Dardanelles, in the Clark Fork Wilderness. Getting to Burgson Lake involved five miles down a dirt road to the trail head, five miles hiking down a well marked trail and one mile off trail to the lake. Burgson Lake was sort of a well-kept secret. It was relatively easy to get to, and a little gem of a lake. It was marked on maps. But there was no trail that led to it and no signs, so very few people went there (at the time—this was thirty years ago).

I loved Burgson Lake at first sight. I can envision it perfectly all these years later, cradled in gray granite, rimmed with pine trees, poised on the rim of a great silvery canyon, with a view of the big volcanic cones called the Dardanelles. I found a campsite at the far end of the lake, protected by a little grove of pine trees, and made my plans.

One month later, I moved in. I had packed up enough food for three months (granola, nuts, dried fruit, beef jerky, trail mix…etc), to be augmented by weekly trips to town for fresh food. This load took one pack mule. I had enough books for three months of solitude, and following Thoreau’s guidance, I took the “greats”—no summer romances here. Plato, Aristotle, the Bhagavad-Gita, War and Peace…you get the point. This load of books took another pack mule. And I had an old African safari type canvas tent that I had borrowed from friends (thinking it was as close to a cabin as I was going to get), a folding cot, and all the usual camping gear. This took another mule.

And one early summer day, I rode a rented horse named Tex ahead of a packer and the three mules and guided the string into Burgson Lake (where the packer had never been before). And the packer unloaded my mules and helped me set up the big tent and left me there with my young dog. And so began what was perhaps the most interesting summer of my life. A time which is shaping my future to this day—or so I believe.
I still have the journals I wrote during the time I spent at the lake, and they begin with my impassioned desire to get away from the busyness and turmoil of every day life and have “the time and space to watch the sunset die out of the sky.” I envisioned many long hours sitting by the lake just watching whatever came to pass, reading, writing, thinking. Along with days of solitary hiking and swimming. And all these things happened, just as I planned. And yet it was nothing like what I had thought it would be.

To begin with I was very excited. I set up my camp, and I took a swim in the lake. Burgson Lake was a perfect swimming lake in the summer—cool, but not too cold. As evening drew in, I built a fire, had a glass of wine (or two) and some trail mix and beef jerky for dinner and watched the light die out of the sky, just as I’d hoped and planned. My young dog pressed himself close to me, not yet used to the big wild world where we now lived. And when it got dark, I crawled into my sleeping bag on the cot (quite comfortable) and went to sleep watching the orange-y shadows of the firelight flicker on the canvas walls of the tent. And I had a very odd dream. One that I remember to this day.

In the dream I was right where I was in reality, in my camp on the shore of Burgson Lake. I recognized the boulder strewn granite terrain instantly. Crossing the granite, in full view of me, was an animal that I immediately recognized as a snow leopard. And this was odd because I had never seen a snow leopard in my life, never even seen a photo of one. But somehow I knew it was a snow leopard, and in retrospect, since I have now seen many photos of this animal, I can say that it looked like a snow leopard. But how my brain created that image is beyond me. Anyway, this snow leopard paced along a granite ridge in the Sierras, where it certainly did not live in real life, looked back at me once and was gone. I have a vague notion that I tried to follow it. That was it.
Doesn’t seem very significant or memorable does it? But from the moment when I awoke the next morning to the present day, more than thirty years later, that dream remains vivid in my mind. I knew it meant something. I just didn’t know what.

It was only when many years had passed, maybe twenty years, that I read a book about totem animals and vision quests. And to my amazement, I recognized what had happened to me all those years ago. Because completely unknowingly, I had more or less fulfilled the criteria for a vision quest, moving heaven and earth in my determination to be alone at the lake. And as is said to happen, on the first night I spent alone there I dreamed of my totem animal. The fact that I had no idea what a vision quest was, or what a totem animal was, or even what a snow leopard was, makes this seem pretty magical to me. I couldn’t have projected these concepts—because I’d never heard of them. Judge for yourself.

Anyway, there I was, twenty-two years old, alone at Burgson Lake, having had a dream I knew had some spiritual significance, even if I didn’t know what it meant, and ready to begin my “Walden” experiment. And this is where I got my comeuppance.

I had gone to live alone at Burgson Lake envisioning a mystical communion with nature, and in some ways that did happen, but a lot else happened that I didn’t expect. For one thing, I was often scared.
I hadn’t expected to be scared. It had never, in fact, occurred to me that I might be scared. I wasn’t prone to being nervous; I didn’t mind being alone. And in the daytime I was fine. Not scared at all. But…
Almost every evening, as it began to grow dark, the nervous feeling would creep upon me, spoiling my peace. I would hear rustles in the brush, and wonder if it might be bears, or worse yet, men who meant me harm. It didn’t matter that my logical mind knew it was deer. Something about the dark rendered my logical mind useless.

Or rather, my logical mind was only useful for pointing out stuff that made my fear worse. You are miles from anyone who might help you, it said. If something happens to you here, you are on your own. No one will come to your aid. There is no calling 911.

This was true. It was long before the era of cell phones (around 1980), and cell phones didn’t work from that spot the last time I was there (five years ago). Even if you could have called for help, it would take at least two or three hours for anyone to get there, if they could have found their way. Even if someone else, unknown to me, was camped in my area, the only likely spots for them to be were all a few miles away. Yelling for help would avail nothing. I really was on my own, dependent on my own resources.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected this. I had sought it, after all. I just hadn’t had any idea what it would feel like to be completely on my own, cut off from all other humans. My mortality, something that at twenty-two I had been reasonably able to ignore, was thrown right in my face. I mean, I realized I could DIE out here. Of course, I could die anywhere. But in the safe-seeming realm of civilization, it was easy to forget this fact. It was impossible to forget it alone here in the wilderness at night (or so I found). Bull frogs would croak and I’d imagine intruders. I would think about how vulnerable I was with no weapon and plan to run into the dark and hide. I’d listen and stare into the night and feel anxious. I also felt pissed. This wasn’t what I had hoped to experience, for God’s sake. I’d hoped to feel mystical oneness with nature, not scared of the dark. I built the fire up and drank wine and at last I would fall asleep.

Every morning I awoke with the sun and felt fine; the night’s fears seemed silly in the bright light of a mountain dawn. I ate granola and dried fruit for breakfast and bathed in the lake. Some days I hiked, some days I stayed at the lake and read and swam. But fear didn’t really leave me; it returned at dusk right on schedule. And after a week of this I hiked to my truck at the trailhead, drove an hour to town, and borrowed a pistol from my boyfriend. After that I slept with the pistol under my pillow and the nights were better.

I hiked with the pistol on my hip and I kept the pistol next to me day and night. I felt a LOT less vulnerable (and I got some funny looks from hikers that I met on the trail). But the bottom line remained the same. Some days I would swim across the lake, and almost always, when I got to the middle, it would occur to me that I could drown out here—no one would save me. The pistol wasn’t going to help with that. I’d float on my back and remind myself that I could float like this endlessly and there was no need to drown. And then I’d swim the rest of the way across the lake to be greeted enthusiastically my dog, who seemed to worry that I would drown quite a bit more than I did.

Since I am writing this, it is quite evident that I did not perish during my summer at Burgson Lake. In fact, I didn’t even have a truly negative experience. I never got close to drowning. I never saw a bear, though I saw fresh bear scat. I saw three rattlesnakes, but none were a problem. I was never threatened by a human, though I had a few odd encounters.

Occasionally people would camp at my lake. Sometimes they would want to be social. One young guy was determined to have a drink with me, but he didn’t give me any grief (I had the gun on my hip the whole time). One Saturday, however, three guys who were obviously very drunk at noon came riding in on horses, singing and hollering. I heard them coming from my camp and watched them through binoculars. My tent was hidden in the trees and I knew they didn’t know I was there. There were three of them. And I made a quick choice. I packed a few essentials and slipped out the back way. They never even saw me. I hiked out to my truck and spent that weekend in town. When I returned on Monday, my camp was undisturbed. But I still think I made the right call.

So, truly the only thing I actually had to fear was fear itself. That and the very real truth of my own mortality. But, of course, I could have faced/found that truth in many ways. This just happened to be the way I stumbled upon it. However, there is one thing worth mentioning. And it is this. It is different to be alone. Really alone.

We commonly don’t think much about this. We talk of being alone when we are merely without others in our home for awhile. We have neighbors, we go shopping, we drive down the street. We see other people every day. Almost all of us. We are never really alone.

At Burgson Lake, I was, for long periods, truly alone. Alone as in I never saw another human. I often went to town on Saturday to buy fresh food, but sometimes I did not. I sometimes saw others when I went hiking, but quite often I saw no one. It wasn’t a heavily traveled area in any sense. And I kept track. So this is how I know that I once went for ten days without seeing another person.

Ten days doesn’t sound very long. But stop and think if you have ever gone even three days without seeing another human. How about 24 hours? Most people have not. It’s an interesting experience. There can be fear, which I experienced. There were, for me, many moments of thrilling beauty, when I stared at the light sparkles on the lake and truly lost myself in the connectedness of the moment, just as I had envisioned. There was lots of time to read, and to write in journals. I didn’t bring a timepiece, but I became very good at reckoning where I was in the day by the sun. And the days stretched long in a way that could be both delightful and difficult.

Cause here is the part you don’t imagine before you try it. You get bored. You miss other people and regular things like cars and movies and bars and such. This was before the days of the internet, but now, I suppose, you would miss the internet. I missed my boyfriend. In short, there were moments where I was lonely. I would have given anything, at times, for a loved companion.

I had my dog and I had books. All in all, I did pretty well. I wrote in my journal when I wished I had someone to talk to, and I read. I stared endlessly at the lake and the mountains and the birds and lizards and deer and pine trees and tried to understand whatever message they had for me, just as I had hoped to do. I watched the light die out of the sky, and the flames of my campfire flicker in the darkness. I watched the full moon rise over my lake. Everything around the lake became deeply familiar to me, from the small, swampy forest at the other end (lots of mosquitoes), to the “granite beach” (a gradual sloping shelf of rock that led into the lake, where I sunbathed), to the “jumping off rocks” (where I dove into deep water) to the “dock” (a huge old floating log that I tied up near my camp, which functioned quite nicely as a pier). I became very good at building fires and prided myself on not needing even a scrap of paper or such. One match, dry needles and ferns and twigs, voila!

And sometimes I went to town on Saturday. You have no idea how much patience you can have with things like traffic and lines and crowds and such when you spend the rest of your time completely alone. It was fun just to be in the bustling tourist town. But I was always ready to go back to my camp after a day of town life. In many ways, which I barely understood at the time, I truly was soaking in the experience of solitude like a sponge. My Walden experiment was a success in a way I never could have predicted. It gave me a pattern for my life.

I have said before that I envision my future, now that I am done writing mystery novels, as being perhaps a somewhat solitary and hermitish life. I wrote about these themes in my twelfth novel, Barnstorming. The truth is that I see that I have created a life that is somewhat modeled on my time at the lake. I have a small cabin on the edge of a round riding ring. The centerpiece is a round vegetable garden with a round birdbath of clear water in the middle. Symbols for sure.

I can see no other houses from my front porch. If I keep my gate shut and don’t go out, I can spend days without seeing a human other than my husband and son. This is it. It’s the perfect form of the life I sought. I have loved companions, I have solitude, I have that cabin by the symbolic lake. I have my Walden. My task now is to deepen in my understanding and connection—the goal I sought that summer. I believe that vision can come to fruition now.

Just as I did when I was twenty-two, I still have a vision of escaping the endless busy-ness of civilized life and the pressure to do and be something that other people exert. I want to sit on my porch and watch the light die out of the sky without feeling that I must go somewhere and/or do something. Just as I did then, I want to deepen in my connection to the natural world. To be with what is. I want to live as Thoreau did at Walden Pond.
And I can do that right here. In my own cozy cabin by the shore of my solitary symbolic lake, which is, actually, about as remote as Thoreau’s cabin was in real life (he could walk to town for lunch, and could see the railroad tracks from his front door). I have the loved companions that I missed at the lake and I have my horses. I feel that my life’s journey has brought me full circle to the goal that I sought in my youth. And I am happy with this result.

We don’t know what the future holds, but if I envision anything, I envision this.


4 Responses

  1. Well, I have tried numerous times to make the paragraph breaks consistent, and this ridiculous program will NOT let me do this. So, they’re not consistent–sorry. I give up.

  2. What a wonderful story, Laura. I’m glad that you are where you want to be. I’ll miss new books from you, but I still have all of those that you have written and they can be reread. Unlike you, I have never had a desire to be one with nature. Maybe, that comes from living in suburban Chicago, where the products of humankind rather than nature are everywhere. Also, I find as I get older that I want to be with people, to interact with people, even those that I don’t really know, e.g., in the library, grocery store, and so on. Luckily, I have my husband and daughter (loved companions) at home. Hope that the rest of your life is all that you want it to be.

  3. Wow, Laura. This story started so quietly that I wasn’t prepared for the depth and intensity of what you went through. Thank you for telling it.

  4. Thanks Margaret and Sara. Glad you enjoyed it. Right now my writing is mostly memoir type pieces, like this blog post. I plan to put them together in a book version for Kindle. Maybe do a garden book, also.

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