I once went on a journey, not knowing exactly why,
but I have tried to find out.
We wound our way along the game trail near the creek and just inside the treeline, made ever so slightly more visible by our steps, and over a small rise. Suddenly, and not visible through the trees until we were upon it, there it was. Home.
We were glad of it after our hike up Bowman Creek, over Taylor Pass to the ghost town of Ashcroft, and down to Aspen and back. In 1972, Aspen was a ski town, yes, but not yet become the over-wealthy zoo town of today. We had visited a high school friend, who was home on summer break from Western State College. My then, and still, best friend Clyde, and I were not in college any more, having removed ourselves both from college and polite society, which held no interest for us in those turbulent times and seemed dangerous. The hot shower and beer were welcome. The news that we had built a cabin hidden deep in Gunnison National Forest was not particularly welcome by our friend’s father, the White River National Forest District Ranger, who said if we were on his forest, he would have to run us out, and then nothing more.
The Wooden Ship has little in common with Shalom. They both are made of log and have a roof of sorts and windows. Shalom is on Willow Creek; the Wooden Ship is on Tellurium Creek. That’s about it. Shalom has carpeted and hickory floor coverings and glass in the windows and wooden doors and granite countertops and four bedrooms and electric lights. The Wooden Ship has a dirt floor covered with wood chips, scavenged metal screens over the window openings, a canvas tarp door, and a wooden table big enough for two that we retrieved from a forgotten miner’s cabin. It does have a bedroom, which also serves as kitchen, with two uneven bunks piled high with sleeping bags and blankets. The table holds a kerosene lantern for reading. The bathroom is somewhere outside. The living room is everywhere outside.
The little cabin became home after Clyde’s father said this is far enough for his 1958 Chevy Bel Air and wouldn’t ford the creek. That left us to ferry ten loads each of all we could carry a mile up the hill to the site we had chosen. Or, at least it became home after we built the cabin from dead logs using an axe, a bow saw, and a hammer and moved in from the backpack tent pitched near the fire. Actually, the bow saw’s blade snapped on the second tree we felled and was backed up with a folding camp saw with limited reach. After a few days, we flipped a coin to see who would walk the 15 miles each way to the trading post to purchase a new blade for the bow saw. Didn’t seem like too big a deal for a 19 year old. Clyde lost/won, started early and made it back the same day with the unfortunate news that Sherman Cranor at the trading post didn’t have a replacement blade, and no, he couldn’t weld the two pieces of tool steel together. After about three week’s hard work we moved inside and began adjusting to our much enlarged living quarters.
We started out mostly hanging around the cabin making minor improvements, such as a couple of benches and a washstand to hold a gold pan as a basin. We had a box of books: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, clearly an influence, and took turns reading ahead in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, depicting the epic struggle of good vs. evil which has apparently been going on since the beginning of time. That was news. We were plainly on the good side, having escaped the tumult of modern society in the nick of time, we hoped. Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Krishnamurti’s Autobiography of a Yogi and Ram Das’ Be Here Now were also in the box.
The Wooden Ship was named after the song co-written by Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, with Stephen Stills, and David Crosby. Just to be sure we remembered, I carved the name over the door with a Swiss Army Knife one afternoon. The song is about people fleeing an unnamed apocalypse, presumably nuclear, given the reference to silver, glowing people left behind on the shoreline. It could be that or the other poisons rampaging through the country. In any case, we fled for our freedom and our lives.
The box of books mostly empty, we soon noticed the huge silent place around us and took to walking. Our strategy was this: pick a compass point and walk in that direction on an unvarying line from morning straight through to mid-day, then turn about and walk home for dinner. Over hills, up mountains, and across meadows and streams ten miles at a time. We learned the friendship of alternating leads, with the second in line trusting the first to find the best route, our footprints following close over logs. The night before we would have baked a simple bread called bannock in a dutch oven over the fire, consisting only of whole wheat flour, powdered milk, baking powder, water, and salt. As the chief baker, I noticed that three sticks of wood, each in their successive states of burn – almost coals, deeply burning, and just catching on – made the perfect cooking fire. A single match, with care, made fire. Bannock spread with honey or peanut butter on alternate days, with creek water, made lunch and kept us walking. Water borne parasites were unknown in those days and we drank for free. Home included a hundred square miles. There was a lot to see. [The only known period photograph is to the right, showing Clyde and Ed high above Tellurium Creek, looking across upper Taylor Park to American Flag Mountain and Italian Peak. We carefully avoided the eye of the camera so as to stay out of sight. - Ed]
Quiet weighs lightly on the soul. The tiniest sounds become part of life and interesting. The soft inquiring chirps of Gray Jays looking for a friend become the sound of daily visitors as they stealthily hop over the door sill to steal dogfood when the dog is not looking or doesn’t care. Their names are lost to time. The tiny spring sings in the background always. The wind in the pines tells us of arriving news. The mosquitoes’ buzz ceases to annoy after finding that if one doesn’t flinch at the bite, she will draw her meal and withdraw, leaving no mark or itch. Raven’s wings rush through pines; they are watching. The beaver slaps his tail every night just after we crawl into sleeping bags. We wait for it and then sleep.
We hear a vehicle stop at the creek crossing a mile down the trail and then hoof beats. We douse the fire and lie under pine branches waiting. The horseman clicks up the trail borne by steel shod hooves on the other side of the creek. We do not make the sound of breath, so he doesn’t notice a cabin across the beaver pond in the trees, still hidden. Why is he here, now?
We hunch over the kitchen table reading by the light of the kerosene lantern and drinking tea. A small, smoky fire glows in the fireplace and warms the Wooden Ship. Being necessarily frugal, we share a teabag and reuse it for seconds. Then the teabag goes in a tin can on a shelf on the wall. The next night or the night after we retrieve several teabags from the can to make one, then two, cups of tea. The teabags go back in the tin can. A noise! Down below. Voices? Has someone has come to visit, but at night? The sound starts up the trail by the creek, laughing, shrieking almost and accelerates, speeding up the mountain in moments. Up the trail, past the beaver meadow, laughing, shrieking and gone on into the night. The hair on Socrates the dog’s back stands on end. He growls. Socrates is fearless. Clyde takes the dog on a short leash and the kerosene lantern and the ax out through the tarp door to … do what? There is nothing. The next day we build a wooden door fastened to the jamb with leather boot soles for hinges and an iron latch we have found.
Socrates is also a menace. When we climb on the roof to lie in the warming sun, the damn dog wants to come, but cannot climb the log wall and tries anyway. He goes inside and comes out with a leather glove in sharp teeth, sits, and wags his Labrador tail, sweeping pine duff, looking up. Hey! That’s my glove! I jump; he runs into the woods zigzag. He lets me catch him and I tackle his 92 pounds headlong. We wrestle and he licks my face.
I spend a lifetime fishing the Taylor River between the mouths of Tellurium and Bowman Creeks on a single day. The sun stops moving for hours in the midsummer sky as I wade waist deep, then chest deep, one step at a time up the middle of the languid, meandering Taylor, casting to the undercut banks. Brookie after brookie after brown comes to my fly. Time stands still. I return home with a full bag of trout to cook over the fire with rice. I soon tire of killing fish and we eat rice. We are not hungry and strong.
We walk. At the headwaters of Tellurium Creek is an old mine site, the roofs of cabins on the floor and an ancient truck axle rusts. A truck? Here? What have we missed? In the fallen timbers a wood stove sits buried to its rim. OK , a stove. But it is missing the four burner lids that keep the fire inside and the oven door. Another day, Clyde walks to the headwaters of Pine Creek, and finds another mine with an identical stove, intact. We need a stove, but it is many miles away. He collects the four cast iron burner lids and puts them in his backpack. We are now digging the first stove from the ground. It is only two miles to the Wooden Ship and four creek crossings, one hundred feet at a time. The stove, even without an oven door, warms us and lets us make more tea.
Our tea is made from the water of a tiny rivulet one hundred feet from the front door. We have buried an old, double-walled milk can to its rim in the spring. It keeps our meat and vegetables and butter cool enough, if we have any. When we are not drinking tea, we drink the water from the spring and it tastes like wine. We are intoxicated.
We also use the spring water for a shower of sorts. The process begins with filling every pot in camp with the water that tastes like wine. We heat it on the stove, or if there is no more room, on the outside fire. Four gallons, maybe, then pour it slowly into a one gallon can strung by wire from a limb behind the cabin. The water streams through nail holes. This doesn’t take long. We begin again to heat water and switch roles. The cleaner one now pours and we are done for a week or so. The tin can still hangs from the tree.
The beaver likes the water, too, but mostly for swimming. There are twenty or more ponds in our little valley to inspect. We go out evening after evening before dusk and sit on the hillside, still and quiet. He does not know we are here because we do not breathe and goes about inspecting and making little repairs with willow branches. He seems to hold his breath for a minute at a time, and while under the water, we try to guess where he will take his next breath. In August, the creek and the ponds are low because it has been so long since it has snowed. We go out in the evening and the beaver has breached and drained the uppermost pond; the ponds below are all full now.
It is late in the season and we cannot stay the winter for lack of walls that hold heat and do not let out the smoke. Friends and family have come and gone, leaving us a temporary bounty of food: ham, roast beef, chocolate cake, coffee. All gone now, and so, too, is the rice. Then the flour for bannock. Then the oatmeal. Then the dogfood. We have pinto beans with salt and pepper. The pepper is gone and we wait for the ride promised by Joe. Socrates does not like the beans, at first. It snows twice in October. Joe comes on a Saturday and we do not know what to do in town.
The Wooden Ship bore us away home and now waits in time. Sometimes I think I may not have left or that I have returned.
I am glad to be here.