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.
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.
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
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.