When Life Gets Too Crowded, We Turn to Something Very Special

What can be more special than solitude?
What can be more special than solitude? Photo: John Lemieux/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Several weeks ago, I was waiting at a traffic light at an intersection in Ventura. It is a busy intersection, and it has become much busier over the years as our town has grown. This is not unusual in many towns. There is a mall at this intersection, and a popular restaurant and an enormous big box hardware story that handy people frequent but I rarely visit. These days there is too much traffic for this intersection. People run the light, get stuck in the middle of the intersection, and other people can't go. I think you can already feel the frustration.

On this particular day, all this was happening and more. It was just after five in the evening, the roads choked with drivers coming home from work. Cars ran the light. They were stuck in the intersection when the light changed. Other drivers began honking. Behind the windshield of a truck I saw a man pounding on the glass and shouting. He did not stop. He just kept pounding.

Our town is not usually like this. Yours probably isn't either. But we have all seen this. People were very angry.

Too many of us in one place? I don't know.

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Several days later I was talking with a friend. This friend lives in another state. His home backs up to nine acres of woods. Beyond the woods there is a river with a series of rapids. At night my friend can hear the rapids. Often, he told me, he sits in the woods in the evenings. He has a small fire pit there. He builds a fire, sips scotch, and listens to the rapids in the distance. His time alone in the woods, he told me, satisfied some kind of primal calling. And then my friend puts out his fire, caps his scotch, and returns to his family.

I'm betting you feel a little better just reading that. It's not difficult to imagine the stars through the trees and hear the sound of the rapids -- and maybe even your own sigh. A touch of serenity.

I have sought out solitude in my own life. This isn't unusual. Most of us have done so. Maybe we do it more and more, now that our intersections -- and our lives -- are crowded. It feels good to hear your own breaths.

But it is also true that a life of solitude isn't easy either. Few of us know this these days. Most of us live elbow to elbow with our fellow man, with all the detriments and benefits (convenient malls and restaurants and hardware stores) this entails.

There is an island off Southern California's coast called San Miguel. It is a beautiful island, fourteen-square-miles of wilds raked by wind and wave. Except for a smattering of National Park Service personnel (San Miguel is one of the five islands that comprise Channel Islands National Park), these days the park is uninhabited by man. On the broad grassy plains, no one is pounding on their windshield and shouting.

But from 1930 until 1942, through the Great Depression and on, Herbert and Elizabeth Lester and their two young daughters Marianne and Betsy, lived on San Miguel, the elder Lesters (with as much help as possible from the younger ones) running a sheep ranch, shipping wool and mutton to the mainland. Herbert Lester was a true adventurer, a Hemingway character brought to life, a collector of rare guns, a compulsive recorder of everything and anything, a lover of Bernaise sauce, a man who brought home and tended sick and abandoned field mice. Presented with the gift of a new rifle he slept with it, permanently staining the bed sheets with lubricating oil. He performed primitive surgery on a friend's nasty wound, applying a wool-sack sewing needle to the patient and a fair share of liquor to the patient and himself. His wife and daughters were no dilettantes either.

Several years ago I spent a week (nearly) alone on San Miguel. One afternoon I hiked to a spot called Harris Point on San Miguel's north side with my friend Ian who, not coincidentally, is one of the island's rangers. Ian combines keen powers of observation with dry wit. Other than a penchant for hiking far too fast, he is perfect company.

It was an elemental afternoon. The wind beat and the sky filled the world, and at one point a peregrine falcon circled overhead. As we neared Harris Point, a vast spread of beach swung into view. It ran, empty of man, in a great scimitar arc, pounded by breakers that curled over casually, on no one's time table. These lovely sands were backed by sandstone and shale cliffs, eroded by time and gradually sloped: great rivers of white sand, driven toward the island's interior by prevailing onshore winds, ran up every gully and ravine, probing inland like skeletal fingers.

The pounding waves threw up a gauzy mist. The winds swept this mist over the beach and up along the ridge lines, blurring everything slightly so that the whole scene assumed an ethereal air, something not quite of this world.

It was so many touches of serenity.

At last, Ian and I climbed a steep slope. Ian sat down, not because he was tired, but because we couldn't go one step farther. Just off our toes, the cliffs fell straight down into a seething sea. The wind whopped in our faces.

"This is the way all trails should end," Ian said. "You're sitting on Lester Point. This was Herbert Lester's favorite spot on the island."

They found him in his favorite spot, a grassy swale where he often went to sit and meditate harking to the sound of the wind.

These words, penned by Herbert's loving wife long after his death in a lovely book called "The Legendary King of San Miguel," describe the spot where Herbert Lester shot himself.

These days three Lester headstones -- Herbert, Elizabeth and daughter Marianne - are nearby, a family together in the place they loved.

A place where I can lay my head, and rest and think and dream and love. No other place is there like this, in other lands or up above.

That's the inscription on Marianne's headstone. She wrote the words herself, when she was thirteen, though it's not likely she was thinking of her headstone.

No one but Herbert Lester can know for certain, but most believe it wasn't the hard life of solitude that saw Herbert Lester kill himself. To the contrary, he deeply loved the life of solitude he led on San Miguel, away from, as he once said, "the shallowness of civilization and its incessant and inconsequential demands -- particularly the horrors of the drug store lunch."

But that life was hard, and most do believe he shot himself because he feared his failing health would make him a burden to the family he so loved.

Ian and I sat quiet at the last footfall of Lester Point, all the world sky and sea. I could see a headstone in the distance. It made me a little sad, but it also made me feel good because I knew there were two headstones tucked just out of sight.

I will never forget that moment. I'm sure you have your own moments and memories like this, pocketed away for the right moment. Sometimes, in a crowded world, they are what keep us sane.

After I made it through our hellish intersection, I turned into the parking lot of the hardware store. As I said, I frequent it on rare occasions.

Nearby, the man who had pounded on his windshield was getting out of his truck.

I debated and made my decision. I hoped it wasn't the wrong one.

Approaching the man, I said something about the nightmarish intersection, something about it being at its worst this time of day. I think I wished him smooth sailing through the rest of the intersections in his life. I don't remember exactly, because at the same time I was also wondering if I might have to duck a right hook. The man was large and, judging from the color of his face, still angry.

"Christ," he said. "What a (insert expletive) mess."

His hands stayed at his sides.

"Too many rats in a box," he said.

I had no answer for this. He was right. On occasion we have all witnessed human decency crumble. Sometimes it gets too crowded for everyone. Sometimes civilization seems shallow and inconsequential and selfish and rude.

The wind scooped up a foil wrapper stained with mustard.

It was a far cry from the wind at Lester Point, and then suddenly it wasn't.

It's the rare moment when our pretendings are stripped away, but in the trash strewn parking lot the man's face lost much of its anger.

"I can't wait to get home to my wife and kids," he said.

Herbert Lester, my friend at his fire pit, this no-quite-so-angry man in a shopping center parking lot, they each have their refuge.

That refuge isn't solitude. It's family.

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