An artist's residency, unplugged

  • Aspen Guard Station in the San Juan National Forest of Colorado

    TOM BARTELS, ROUND HOUSE PRODUCTIONS PHOTO
  • San Juan National Forest of Colorado

    TOM BARTELS, ROUND HOUSE PRODUCTIONS PHOTO
  The Aspen Guard Station is a log cabin in an aspen grove in the San Juan National Forest, 12 miles north of Mancos in southern Colorado. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the guard station once housed fire crews. Today, the cabin is home to another kind of seasonal worker: writers and artists participating in a residency program sponsored by the San Juan Public Lands Center. This past August, I was one of them.

The cabin had water, a woodstove, propane lamps, a stove and refrigerator, but no electricity and no telephone. What the Forest Service described as "historic, but eccentric" sounded like just what I wanted. I live in the wired world of San Francisco, but the novel I’m writing is set at the turn of the last century. Two weeks without television and Internet access would help bring me back in time.

My husband, Glenn, came with me, and our route followed summer storms, from Barstow to Kingman to Santa Fe. Hail whitened the fields outside Chama. We bought a week’s worth of groceries in Durango, and on the other side of Mancos, we rattled up the forest road with books, papers, camping gear, Glenn’s guitar and my Olivetti manual typewriter. We arrived just before sunset. The trees lit up in aspenglow, pink lanterns with bark shades 30 feet high. By the time we’d unloaded the Jeep, the corners of the rooms were dim, the woodbox and shelves of paperbacks already gone gray. We scrambled to locate flashlights, candles, matches, and instructions for the propane lamps.

Nightfall at the cabin was a revelation: When the sun went down, it got dark indoors, too.

The first night’s scramble became an evening ritual: Light the lamp over the kitchen sink to cook by. Light the candles on the table to eat by. Light the Coleman twin-tube lantern to read by. These small lights did not illuminate a room; they let us see the darkness.

At the end of the day, when we turned off the last lamp, the one over the bed, the mantle would hold onto the glow like a reluctant second sunset. There was a softness to the cabin’s indoor night. The walls were thick and 10 logs high. The burnished wood had the patina of an old violin. Our pine table and benches were CCC-carved, original to the guard station. In one of the paperback anthologies I found a poem by Gary Snyder called "Things to Do Around a Lookout."

It began: "Wrap up in a blanket in cold weather and just read." We did that. We went out on the porch to feel the cold; we opened our ears to the quiet. There were sounds, of course — a faraway rifle shot, the hissing of propane, our own voices — but there was no noise. Night came in and sat by the stove, the wolf taming itself, wagging its tail. The shadows were dreams waiting to happen.

Mice skittered across the floor all night long. But the evenings of sustained darkness made our bodies ready for sleep. We slept well and deeply.

On our last night, we heard elk bugling, making a sound like I imagine the northern lights must look.

That first evening, when we drove up the forest road, I expected a residency: two weeks at a guard station in Colorado. What I got was an opportunity to inhabit all the hours of the day. Unelectrified nights turned out to be as essential as our daily writing and hiking. There should be some word like "enlightenment" that means what you learn from darkness. The creative counterpart to shedding light, endarkening, bringing dreams and restorative sleep.

Sea-level natives, we hiked to just short of 12,000 feet at Sharkstooth Pass. City dwellers, we listened for bears: The snapping of twigs in the forest turned out, every time, to be high-altitude cows grazing. At Windy Gap, we were surprised by the spires of Monument Valley resolving out of the haze some 120 miles away.

In its last two lines, "Things to Do Around a Lookout" makes a swift turn from its listing of present activities, mundane or aesthetic or essential. What to do next is suddenly the end: "Get ready for the snow, get ready / To go down."

Back home, the days are getting ever shorter. We have passed the autumn equinox. We are moving toward December’s winter solstice. When the sun sets here, I turn on one lamp instead of two, or sometimes none at all. I shed some needed darkness. I let night fall.

Erica Olsen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in San Francisco, California.

For details on the Aspen Guard Station: Artist-in-Residence program, see www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/about/artist.pdf.