Oregon Solitude Seeker Out-Thoreaus Thoreau


Seventy-seven days into his search for deep solitude in the misty forest of the Rogue River canyon, John Daniel was hard up against it.

There was no more comfort to be found in chopping wood, tending the garden, taking long tramps through the woods hunting grouse, fishing for steelhead or even giving himself a buzz cut with the electric clippers.

Cranky and restless, he rummaged through newspapers in the kindling box next to the wood stove for a crossword puzzle. But they were all too hard or too easy; none was just right.

Finally he reached for a cookbook, set it spine-down on the counter, closed his eyes and pulled his hands apart to let the pages fall open by themselves--a sort of Betty Crocker throwing of the I Ching.

Sticky buns.

"I ate half of that pan the first night," Daniel recalls with satisfaction. "It gave me heartburn, but I didn't care. The smell of rising bread is so healing."

As a Reed College student, logger, railroad dick, wilderness poet, Wallace Stegner poetry fellow, author and itinerant writing teacher, Daniel has often preferred his own company to being with others.

But this was the first time he had gone so deep.

He chose to explore an extreme solitude, spending a winter by himself--away from wife, cat, friends, pubs and TV--at a remote cabin in the rugged Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon. It was a fitting place to tackle solitude. Dutch Henry himself, a gold miner and horse packer, and the misfits who followed him had all lived here by themselves.

Daniel had spent time alone here in 1994--albeit with occasional visitors--when he christened it as a writer's retreat sponsored by the Boyden family, which owns the property, and Northwest PEN, of which he is chairman.

He had always wanted to finish out the rest of the year--the November-to-April part, when snow blocks the highest part of the logging road snaking in over the ridges--and delve more deeply into the silence.

And there was the book he wanted to write but couldn't get his arms around at home--a memoir of his father, Franz Daniel, who gave up studying for the clergy to be a union organizer, and who taught his son to plant a garden, drink whiskey, love baseball and fight the bosses and bullies of the world.

As for the writing, Daniel came out with 294 pages of manuscript composed with pencil on paper at a 1950s Formica kitchen table, and a better understanding of the pieces of himself that came from his dad. The book, "Rogue River: A Winter of Solitude and Memory," is due out in a year or two.

But the solitude part turned out to be a lot different from anything he had read in Henry David Thoreau's "Walden." Thoreau, after all, had a train running behind his cabin and went home to his mother's house for dinner.

"His was actually a very public experiment to show people they allowed social and economic customs to enslave them and if they wanted to they could be free," Daniel says. "Mine was just a guy who likes solitude and wild places holing up to see what solitude is like."

Daniel spent months preparing, filling his garage in the Coast Range west of Eugene with stores for five months--heaps of coffee, tea, wine, whiskey, granola, dried fruit, potatoes, onions, flour, dried milk, hamburger and cans upon cans of everything from beans to sauerkraut.

He assembled the books he would read--a hefty biography of Thoreau, Shakespeare's sonnets, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," by Shuryu Suzuki, Trappist monk Thomas Merton's "Thoughts in Solitude" and more. There were also boxes of letters from his father to refresh his memory of their growing-up battles.

Before sealing himself off from the world, there were negotiations to be made with his wife, Marilyn, an environmental engineer, on just how much solitude he would have. In his romantic conception, when he thought he would count the days by notching a post, Daniel planned to cut himself off entirely.

But that would never do for Marilyn Daniel. They agreed he would fire up the generator and call in on the radio phone once a week and leave a message on the answering machine. He would also leave the phone on twice a week in case she needed to call him.

When at last it was time to say goodbye, John and Marilyn shared a long hug. Then he climbed into his truck and drove away.

After stocking up on fishing gear in Grants Pass, he drove through the dark over gravel roads, chaining up for 6 inches of snow on the last high grade, then bouncing down a rutted dirt track to the cabin.

Made of rough-sawed planks and plywood, the cabin is 400 square feet: three small rooms, an entry-pantry and a deck overlooking a meadow. Light comes from propane lamps, heat from a wood stove with clawed feet. A wood-fired range does the cooking, and a propane freezer stores perishable food.

When Daniel first arrived, he was elated--so happy that the first messages left for his wife made her a little angry at not being more missed.

"I missed him in a deep way, but I wasn't lonely," says Marilyn Daniel, who was looking forward to her own time alone. "I observed that when you don't live with someone, you save a lot of time because you are not involved in all those little negotiations, like what will we have for dinner."

In the canyon, John Daniel would rise late in the morning; brew coffee on the wood stove; sing out "Hello, Darlin' " to the turkey pillaging his garden; split wood; take pictures of grazing deer; harvest broccoli, lettuce and rutabagas from his garden; cook fish he caught from the river over madrone coals; and write his book.

He found himself thinking about the people who had chosen to live here before him, not as an intellectual exploration but as a simple way of life--especially old Bill Graiff, an Austrian immigrant who died in 1953 at age 82 after falling out of an apple tree planted by the original homesteader, Dutch Henry.

"It is something that most of us who are now drawn to that way only know periodically through float trips or backpacking," Daniel says. "It has to do with providing for your own livelihood. It has to do with silence in which you can hear yourself think and feel. It has to do with just a direct connection with land and weather and critters."

He regularly took an old J.C. Higgins pump-action 12-gauge shotgun in hand to hunt for grouse, though he never bagged one. The birds seemed to know when he was carrying the shotgun, and only offered a fair shot when he was unarmed. One chase brought him to the biggest sugar pine he had ever seen. Another revealed a pool in the Rogue River where he later hooked his biggest fish of the winter, a 30-inch steelhead that got away.

While fishing in early December, Daniel was surprised to hear somewhere downriver an orchestra playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The music went away when he hiked up to the cabin, but came back frequently. Sometimes it was bagpipes playing the "Marine Hymn," sometimes a chorus singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Sometimes the sounds he imagined were scary--like when he would hear his name spoken out loud, or the low whine of a truck coming down the road in low gear, a road blocked by a locked gate.

"Maybe it was my way of keeping myself company, because it was nice," he says. "It quieted down after a few months. By then I was hearing the silence. Silence is not an absence, but an overwhelming presence. You can hear the river, the occasional owl, or a flicker. It was very healing--healing an injury I didn't know I had."

With no people, Daniel found himself talking to a frog that croaked under the cabin whenever the sun broke through the mist. He also carved and painted a self-portrait on a stump outside a cabin window, just for another face to look at.

His toughest test came when he came across a transistor radio. In a "Lost Weekend" moment where the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other wrestled over whether he should turn it on, he succumbed long enough to hear one word--"physically"--then threw it in a corner, disgusted with himself.

Where time had started out moving luxuriously at the beginning, then with painful slowness in the middle, it speeded up at the end until he wanted to rein it in. When rafters and fishermen began floating by on the Rogue in March, the world began to pull at him.

"I started feeling, 'It's great here, but it would be nice to be out, see people, touch people, hear the news,' " he says.

On April 1 he packed his pickup and drove out. He soon found he was rusty in the ways of the world. Stopping off at an ATM, he couldn't remember his access code and had to leave cashless. At a restaurant, he left his driver's license behind after writing a check.

It wasn't until he got home, startling his wife at her desk, that he found out that George W. Bush was president and Seattle had had an earthquake. It was all in a scrapbook kept by Marilyn.

A month later, Daniel finds himself thinking of his time alone, like the 30-inch steelhead he hooked but that came off the lure just as he was hauling it up on the bank.

"He kind of hovered there and disappeared," he says. "That was kind of the experience for me--this extraordinary mysterious beauty I was in and knew and now have left. But I have it vividly in memory, just as I have that fish in memory and won't forget him."

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