It takes a long uninterrupted view to drown out the tunnel vision. A few months of being locked into a river bottom barred in by stunted cottonwoods, alder choked banks and private property had made my Nevada eyes go numb. There were a few bends where the ever changing river has chewed away these riparian walls and I could squint across the open tundra to some of the oldest mountains on earth thirty miles in the distance. It was at once comforting and upsetting to know that the world was still beyond me, intact and waiting.
There are no real rules up there in my river bottom, just the code of the North. Occasionally a state trooper would land his Super Cub on the gravel bar to make sure I was keeping my nose clean. It was the only real intrusion from the real world and its sharp claws didn’t seem to reach out quite far enough to wake me to its existence.
The comforts of home were longed as soon as I first touched down and set foot on the sketchy gravel airstrip. These longings were mainly superficial in nature – good booze, my girlfriend, my dog. These feelings faded into the background as quickly as they came and I was smiling at the awkwardly graceful flight of an arctic tern as I made my way upriver to my home for the summer. The river was high and intimidating, the camp was not yet built, and the sun didn’t shine for the first five days. I felt at home immediately on our desolate corner of the river. We spent weeks building tents, shoveling gravel, and building bonds that will last a lifetime. Living a remote bush camp with the same dozen people for months will make you brothers, a strange oddball cast of a family made up of every kind of misfit and weirdo imaginable. We lived by no rules but what made us laugh hardest and that many hands make less work. We all blended into an organism that dissolved nearly everything outside of the confines of the river bottom. The premonition of the ever distant and absent real world faded into the alders with every triumph, close call and practical joke. Countless hours spent tying flies, swapping tales of the day, and holding eachother up made us strong.
The time away from camp was the hardest. Going down river into a native village that bordered on hostile was never fun. Having 7 year olds wish you death as you shove off from the bank was both depressing and sobering. Guiding was pleasant when the action was steady. Ten hours a day on the river driving up and down in a jet sled, tying on flies, netting and bonking fish, and soothing the egos of millionaires doing battle with what has a high probability of being their fish of a lifetime is as good as it gets. The most maddening parts of the day are unfortunately the most prevalent – pacing the bank with bloody festuous water dripping off of the net slung on your shoulder onto your equally filthy shirt, consumed in thoughts of that hazy real world and what it’s doing to you at that very moment. I may have been free in the Alaskan bush, but invisible chains still bound me to what I had thought I had escaped.
It’s a rare thing to find freedom and an even rarer thing to live it, consume it, and come out alive. Time to think. That is the essence of freedom. The long lonesome hours of a solo bike trip, waiting out a storm in a canvas tent for days, pacing a gravel bar and tending to more than capable people who are pining to be helpless and comforted. Freedom isn’t defined by doing what you wish when you wish, it’s the ability to be sorted in time to think out loud and out of control. Any person who has had any sort of extended adventure into the wild will tell you that your mind is your biggest enemy, lurking in the corner and always jumping out when it’s not busy. That’s why so many people stay busy, occupied more by things they despise and less the things they love. Distraction is the greatest drug. We all know this, yet will not readily acknowledge it. The reason the bible still holds sway today is that the rules and doctrines provide a distraction from thinking, a deafening tool of subjugation and certainty. God is the art of distraction. Our minds are too dangerous to be kept open and running freely and the devil has no screen saver.
Freedom will save you, and it will kill you. Your soul, your mind, your heart. It will fracture you between the worlds of home and the wild. We cannot live in both worlds, it’s impossible to do so. But the pain lies in attempting it.
Ah, but coming home.
After a long and beautiful flight over 450 miles of Alaska in the copilot seat of a bush plane and a long layover in Anchorage at a much loved bar containing wild and colorful Alaskans, I found myself in Los Angeles surrounded by rules, conformity, connectivity and social contracts and constructs that held no weight for such a time that they lost all ability to pull the reigns.
Back in Reno I’m confronted with traffic lights and road construction. A girlfriend who doesn’t love me anymore, a dog who tried to forget me. Social interactions, monsters in flesh, tiny worlds viewed only as far as the block and blinded at the corners. Politics, rat races. Choosing a leader who has very little control on your other life. A monotonous day job, finding a place to rent, catching up with friends who won’t ever understand how you feel.
I now pine for my freedom, even if it kept me awake at night. I feel like I’m walking around in the haze that seemed so distant only a week ago, breathing in what the real world never relinquished – control.
Walking back from the bar the other night I saw nobody else on the street. No cars, no dogs. I closed my eyes and the buildings turned into stunted alders, the sidewalk a gravel bar. The street light became the never setting sun.