Why I Went

On November 19, 2000, as the votes were being recounted in Florida, I drove in to a remote cabin in the backcountry of the Rogue River Canyon of southwestern Oregon to begin a winter of solitude I had spent months preparing for. The road to the cabin would soon be buried under snow, several inches having already fallen as I came in. If I wanted to leave I would have to travel many miles on foot. The cabin, which has no electricity, stands on a private homestead surrounded by federal land managed as wilderness. I would have no human neighbors, no human news, no human light at night other than candles and propane lamps in the cabin and satellites sliding soundlessly among the stars. I had stocked the place well with food and firewood and established a fall garden of greens and root vegetables. I hoped to hunt game birds and catch a few steelhead in the Rogue for fresh protein, but this was an experiment in solitude, not in survival.

I wanted to satisfy an old curiosity, almost as old as the 52 years of my life at that point, about what I might learn and how I might grow by stripping off human company and communications for a sustained length of time, which turned out to be four and a half months. It was, in an informal sense, a spiritual retreat. I wanted to open myself to the influences of Nature—the movement of night into day and day into night, the silence of the woods with the river whispering from the canyon bottom, rain and snow and sun, the voices of birds and other creatures—and under these influences I would practice my domestic economy and think such thoughts as might come to me. I would meditate every morning, keep a journal, and take notes for and write my way into a book about my sojourn in solitude.

I had another writing project in mind as well. For several years, in fits and starts, I had been trying to write a memoir about coming of age in the Vietnam War years, about how I became a man and how perhaps I didn't. I knew that such a book would inevitably involve my father, a charismatic, alcoholic union organizer active nationally in the heyday of the American labor movement, from the early 1930s into the 1960s—and, though I didn't know him well, the single most powerful influence on me as I grew up. I brought with me into solitude several boxes of books, papers, and taped interviews having to do with my father's life and with my own life as a child, teenager, and young adult. I hoped to advance this memoir during my Rogue River stay.

Within a week of my arrival I found the two projects merging as one. Almost everything I did during my sojourn—gardening, splitting firewood, grinding coffee, drinking whiskey, reading and writing, baking bread, fishing and hunting—put me in mind of my father. Maybe because I had freed myself from most of the responsibilities and normal routines of my adult life, I felt closer to my younger self, too. I began to draft an account, in journal form, of the evolution of my experience of solitude, and to weave into that narrative two others, themselves considerably interwoven—my father's life, particularly his labor movement career and struggles with the bottle; and my own coming of age, focusing principally on the late 1960s, when I dropped out of college, dithered about the military draft and eventually refused induction into the armed forces, lived as a hippie in San Francisco, got involved and self-destructively over-involved with drugs (even as my father at last hit bottom and recovered through Alcoholics Anonymous), and eventually groped and drifted to a sense of self and a writing vocation.

The two memory narratives, which together constitute almost half the book's pages, give rise to recurrent meditations on how a boy becomes a man, on the character and legacies of the 1960s, on the twentieth-century American labor movement, and on alcoholism and drug use. The present-time Rogue River narrative recounts the challenges of my sojourn (loneliness, the sameness of my days, a scary injury, despondent periods, auditory hallucinations, a wild turkey ravaging my garden) and its pleasures (silence, the work of my daily economy, catching fish, long hours of reading, moments of spiritual intensity, and the company of that same wild turkey). I also find occasion in the book to think out loud about Rogue River human and natural history, environmental issues, and questions of faith, belief, and spirit. Re-reading Walden during my solitude—it seemed only appropriate—and poking around in his Journal, I found Henry David Thoreau entering my thoughts and all the book's narratives surprisingly often.

I ended my retreat on April 1, 2001, becoming, I'm sure, the last person in America to learn the name of our new president. Along with the journals I kept, I brought home 274 penciled pages of what would become this book. In the four years since, I have taken my time developing and reworking it. At 352 pages it is a long book, and certainly the most ambitious book I have attempted, but not, I hope, a ponderous one. As I wrote it I found humor asserting itself more frequently than usual for me, and I did not resist. Writing Rogue River Journal felt to me like a long, at times difficult and painful, and in the end satisfying hike through varying terrains of Nature and memory. I'll be very pleased if readers experience it in the same way.