The following is a direct transcript of the notes I took while immersed in my ~40-hour fast in the woods (41.5 hours of water fasting, 31 hours in the woods). Background information available here and here.
I briefly thought about scanning the notebook pages and posting them here. It would be a more raw reflection of the experience. But it’s not exactly what I want to convey. Besides, there are too many pages (the notebook was very small) and the handwriting is just too unnavigable. Keep in mind that Duck and Cover is the result of me really trying to temper my handwriting into a palatable form… and many of you still complain that it’s incomprehensible at times. The handwriting, not the humor. Okay, that too.
This text is presented unedited, unabridged, in its original syntax. So here we go:
13-14 October 2007 – Marin Headlands, California
13 October 2007
Have arrived at Haypress camp site in Marin Headlands. Emily dropped me off at around 10 AM. I had not eaten in over 8 hours at that point. Last ate ~1:15 AM today.
I think I’ve brought too much water. The journey in was arduous due to weight of pack, but went very quickly (less than 1 mile).
I like my spot and my view. I think I will hike some today since camp is all set up. I am still very time-focused. There are many animal noises and I am not as isolated from humans as I might choose to be. There are 5 groups slated to camp in this area tonight and they are not particularly secluded from each other.
Hungry, but able to delay with water.
I have hiked out to the beach (so-called Tennessee Beach) and found a bench just overlooking it. As the waves crash in and quietly recede, I see the bench is dedicated to the memory of Timothy P. Murphy, who died in June 1984 a month and 4 days short of his 28th birthday. I cannot but notice that this made him just 2 months and 3 days older than I am today. Something feels significant about that, obviously, as many things have already. On my way out here, someone had dropped their watch on the side of the trail. An affirmation of the decision to let go of time… what else could it be? The watch’s presence, only to be discovered by its owner not 15 feet up the trail, seemed so contrived as to be blatant. Awareness is never enough, it must always be wonder.
I am perhaps explaining things in more detail here than I would normally – I can’t tell how clear things will seem later upon returning to a world of food and time as they seem now. So I’m taking an extra step, just in case.
It should also be noted that the epigraph for Timothy P. Murphy is “Life is not measured in length, but in depth.” Amen.
Much of the walk back from the beach was spent overhearing a conversation between 3 young women, at least 2 of whom (if not all 3) apparently either work or worked for Seneca Center. It wasn’t till pretty deep into the conversation that I heard “Seneca” – at first they were just trading stories of kids that sounded like the old days. Suffice it to say that I’m running out of coincidences this trip.
After putting in ~7 miles today, I think most of the physical exertion portion of our program is over. I initially hadn’t thought I’d even hike that much, but I think it’s good to sweat out the toxins as well as starve them out.
A long nap, followed by a tiny walk around the area. I decided to move my tent further from other campers, given the apparent opportunity to do so. Despite being told that I got the “last one”, it seems there are only 2 other groups and thus 2 no-shows tonight.
The tent starts out inside the backpack. Then the backpack goes inside the tent. Finally, the tent returns to the backpack. There is something right about this way of living.
Been dozing through much of the early evening, especially since there are many loud campers nearby. At least one is a long-time park ranger with a sonorous voice and many tales to tell.
I awoke in dark night with the classic dilemma of getting up and going to the bathroom vs. staying “warm” and holding it. Of course the former is the long-term warmest option, so it was taken.
The stars bowled me over. I think I sometimes forget the stars are even there in anticipating the night sky. It sounds silly, but I had really not been expecting the depth and breadth of the stars.
I lingered in the cold to take them in. Even though the distant voices persisted, I was able to fully appreciate the enormity of the universe.
I don’t know how anyone can stare at the stars for a long time and not come away feeling the reassuring grace of God’s presence and benevolence.
14 October 2007
It must be. Darkness passed to foggy lightness. Night was an unending span of dreams, hurried overwhelmed awakeness, then somewhat settled sleep. There were brief times that the passage of time was so slow I thought that surely I had died.
I haven’t been able to really divest myself from time-awareness the way I’d hoped. It seems that nature is our first introduction to conceptual time and while it may not demand that we tie ourselves to minutes or even hours, it certainly makes us aware of morning, afternoon, evening, and night. And in so doing, it’s easy for the “civilized” human to take the next step and attempt to extrapolate more granular sands of time.
Far too much of my trip has also been influenced by neighboring campers. It seems most of them will be away early today and I can achieve some solitude. But the cooking of their fires has made me even more aware of the food I’m not eating. Avoiding that temptation was part of the reason for not bringing food at all, even for “emergencies”.
I did get some solitude, though, on the high hills above these headlands. I took off without a pack – just water and a light and many layers – in search of quiet contemplation. I found it in the heavy fog about 1/2 – 3/4 miles up the Fox Trail, almost all steep uphill. A spiderweb was highlighted with dew and caught my bright attention. It couldn’t fool anyone with any vision at all, but the spider remained patient in its center.
I turned uphill from almost that precise location to see a scene of deep-rutted foggy path that almost precisely mimicked a scene of several of my dreams (though none from the night before). There was nothing more momentous from this observation – I continued up the path a bit and decided the uphill was more strenuous than I wanted for my last 10-12 hours without food, so I should get back. Still, I paused for some minutes to simply take in the enormity of the blanketing fog.
Three natural phenomena have overwhelmed me this trip: the ocean, the stars, and the fog. Neither uncommon nor unpredictable targets of adoration and appreciation, but powerful nonetheless.
The foghorns are going like crazy, as though to remind me that I really can’t find seclusion here. There is a dialogue of two high notes followed by a very deep and low sustained note. The dialogue is not always precise, thus carrying on the air of a conversation that can only use two words. Its unpredictable timing make it more distracting than a good meditative baseline.
In any event, I am hungry. Not as severely as I expected to be, but then water can be used effectively to combat the worst of the hunger pangs. I have definitely been much hungrier in my life.
Yet food does seem like a real focal point. I dwell on it. Thinking about having Chipotle tacos when I’m released from this fast has really helped keep me going. My mouth actually has a slight ache from the absence and inaction. I have had meandering headaches, but nothing debilitating. This is impressive, because I haven’t had coffee since early Friday morning, putting me on a scheduled 72-hour fast from coffee by the time I plan to break that.
By the way, take that, people who think my headaches are some sort of caffeine withdrawal! Coffee is good migraine-prevention medicine, but absence of preventative medicine does not equate with immediate sickness.
The fog and my irregular sleep are helping to join forces to make me less aware of time. It could be morning or afternoon right now – I know not which. The foghorns are subsiding a bit, leaving only the ubiquitous quails in the area – there are many and they are in herds (or whatever quail groups are officially called), and they make many noises which neatly balance between familiar bird sounds and bizarre interpretations which are the quails’ alone.
I was contemplating a last hike, but my legs quickly told me that this would not be in the cards today. At least 10 miles of hiking without food is plenty for my body that has not exactly been acclimated to 5 miles/day of activity.
I was wandering around this nearly abandoned campsite when I noticed two rabbits out of the corner of my eye. I danced to approach them – pausing every time they looked up with concern, giving them time to get used to me at this distance, then approaching again until they seemed to need me to pause. One, the larger, was too skittish and eventually bolted for the brush. But the first, smaller one, maintained a watchful eye but stayed outside to forage for food. Both were tiny rabbits, looking almost like pikas. They must have been young.
I eventually reached a bench about 20 yards from the smaller rabbit and sat down to become part of the observant landscape. Over the course of 30+ minutes, I was able to hang out with the rabbit, ocassionally joined by the other rabbit, a number of quails, and a traveling crew of very loud bees or wasps.
The rabbit ate the whole time. I did not. The winde kicked up and seemed to scare the animal more than I did. It gave me my best time of reflection and grounding this whole trip so far.
In the midst, I thought about the wind and the water and all nature’s creatures. They seem to find an ineffable common thread – they take the path of least resistance. This is nature’s way. And given all the things I am out here to find or consider, maybe there is not as much wrong with living by momentum instead of direction. Maybe I am condemning an existence in line with nature’s calling.
But then again, do I answer to nature? Nature eats meat, nature destroys, nature is often cold and harsh and unforgiving. Nature guides by survival above meaning. So how could I adopt a principle of nature, just for its seductive beauty and the wonder of its path-carving? As Professor Hirshman, my second favorite of Brandeis’ philosophers, always graced her classes, “Bears shit in the woods.” Not only did she use this as one of many devices to shock students into thought, but it was her oft-used take-out argument for Aristotle and other naturalists who wanted to embrace whatever they were given by the world around them as what was also right.
And even on my retreat to nature, there is a Port-o-Potty on camp site. 2, in fact. Even I am not retreating to the standards of bears on this, a journey to reject civilization.
So what am I left with? An affirmation of what I already knew? Maybe I should be suspicious of anything else.
And despite their grandeur, the woods aren’t going to give me any concrete answers anyway, even without food or distraction. A bobcat is not going to walk up to me, lick its paw, and tell me what I should do with my job or my website. I know that. That’s not why I’m here.
As I strain for the quiet in the wake of the last other campers here departing, I realize that there is no quiet. There are quiet noises, but no real quiet. I feel I’ve joked with myself many times that this trip would be better pursued in a sound-proof lightless chamber than out in the open. But that’s not really the intent either.
The point is that the wind, the birds, the trees all make noise. Some of it is enhanced by my own tent, but without it there would still be sounds of all variety.
Perhaps nature is just reminding me of others – that we are not on this planet alone. A basic lesson, and one I know, but it bears repeating. To help each other can, ultimately, be our only purpose.
It’s amazing how closely tied bad parenting is to having too many children. This may seem obvious, but it’s really consistent. Sure, there may be some exceptional parents who can handle many kids and some bad parents of even a single child. But generally, parents become inattentive and frazzled with multiple kids, especially at 3 or 4 or more. And they manifest this frustration all the time – saying things like (just overheard) “nobody likes a squealer”. Perhaps the biggest issue is how indelible the marks left by lousy parent comments can be. Children in their first decade of life (and even more so in their first half-decade) are almost wholly formed by their parents’ critiques and molding. When parents make obnoxious comments that are the result of feeling overwhelmed by having too many children for their attention, the results can be devastating.
This is neither a new thought nor one terribly tied up in this trip in particular, but when I witness such profound examples of it, I cannot help but take note. Literally.
I must also admit that starting at around noon today, I’ve been cheating and occasionally checking the time. I had to bring some sort of timepiece or there would be no way to assure meeting up with Emily at the proper time to go home. And earlier today, I cracked into it because I had no idea how close I was and I thought I might have to start packing up soon.
Ha! It was only 11:54. And the time that’s passed since has been the slowest yet. I’ve checked a couple more times. It’s really starting to crawl. I’m hungry and I think I feel I’ve passed most of the productive or valuable/meaningful time I’m going to get. It’s also colder than yesterday and thus much colder than I’d like. I’m ready to pack it up, pack it in. But I ought not begin too early or I’ll have time waiting in the parking lot, which would be even worse.
I think the bulk of this trip’s impact will really be felt upon return. How will I see time, food, and other people differently? Right now I’m yearning. Upon return, will I be appreciating?
Well I came outta the woods a little early – I got a little freaked out around 4:00 (yes, I checked again) and was surprised at how dark it was already. I had been figuring on packing up at 5:00, but 4:00 was feeling like the time to go. It took me about a half-hour to break camp and another half-hour to hike out – both were shorter times than I expected. Em is scheduled for an on-time arrival, so I have a couple more hours to be outdoors.
It’s cold and I’m hungry, but I’m very glad to be out of the woods. So to speak.
I had one last good message from the woods on my way out. I had tied my sleeping bag under straps behind the backpack. Quite tightly, I thought. But about 1/3 of the way down the trail, it fell out. Rather than remove my pack and reattach the bag, especially with the understanding it would probably fall out again, I simply picked it up and carried it.
I was immediately delighted by both how much lighter my backpack now seemed and how I was somewhat comforted by the feeling of hugging my sleeping bag to my chest.
At first, I thought “lighten your load!” But immediately I saw that wasn’t quite it – more accurately the message was “shift the weight: your burden will not be any less, but it will feel lighter.”
Now there’s what we call a take-home message.