This town is so lonely it’ll make you old before your time;
Let me take you in my arms, hold your body close to mine…
Every year at this season it comes over me: the hermit thing. The urge to take a stack of books and notebooks and my laptop and head off to the cabin for a week alone—to study for a season’s worth of sermons or work on a piece of curriculum or write that baptism book for parents.
I have, in fact done this every year or two, and the drill is always the same: After a nine hour drive across the plains and badlands, the Black Hills rise and then disappear in the twilight. The road winds steadily up and into the Hills until, at over a mile high, I arrive at the cabin just after dark. If I’m lucky there’s a fresh snowfall to light my way to the porch steps. I unlock the door, drop my suitcase on the floor, get a fire going in the twenty degree cabin, then finish unloading the car (under stars that shimmer “like salt on black velvet”). I unpack my suitcase, set out my laptop, and continue to build up the fire. Thirty degrees. I busy myself cutting some bread and cheese, and uncork a bottle of wine. Forty degrees. It is quiet. There is no TV or radio or internet or CD player. The cabin is surrounded by the darkness and miles of the Black Hills National Forest, and the walls are made of logs twelve inches in diameter. Quiet. At about sixty degrees I sit in front of the fire with the bread and cheese and wine. I take a sip and it hits me: “This is kind of lonesome.” I’ve enjoyed my hermitage for about forty-five minutes, and I have six days and nights ahead of me.
There are three troublesome things about my isolated scenario: One is that I am an extrovert. Not the wacky Krusty the Klown extrovert of my youth – I’m sliding closer to the midline every year – but I’m still defined by that Myers-Briggs truism that an extrovert is “energized by being with people.” The second problem is that I’m madly in love with my wife, and I just left her behind for a week – in fact made deliberate plans for what I kept claiming was going to be a “great week – really productive!” And now I’m here at sixty degrees (with a forty-five degree bedroom waiting for me) while she’s at home watching Glee. And here’s the thing – she’s happily watching Glee. Oh, she loves and misses me, but she is – as an introvert – conveniently energized by being alone! (I need to keep insisting that she “misses” me, because when I come home she persists in telling me how nice her week was. She especially delights in reporting, “When I got out of bed, all I had to do was pull up the spread, and it was made!”)
The third problem is that the Sage Creek Grill, one of the best restaurants in the Black Hills, is (what I quickly come to think of as “only”) ten miles away, in Custer. It’s too late to go tonight, I suppose, but something to look forward to tomorrow – after I get a few pages of reading and writing done, of course. (One year I bought fifty dollars worth of groceries to take out to the cabin for my solitary meals. But the lure of the Sage was such that at the end of the week I dropped the groceries off at my sister’s in Rapid City on my way back east.)
But the morning dawns cerulean blue and snappingly cold. The cabin is now cozy warm, and those twelve inch logs will keep it that way with the occasional tending of the fire. (The same logs whose thickness made my bedroom so quiet that in the middle of the night I got up, rummaged around, and turned on a fan – for the noise.) I bundle up to sit on my favorite porch chair with a cup of coffee, devotions, and visible breath. Quick cup of coffee and quick devotions because it is cold.
Back inside, I open the laptop on my specially-built-out-of-lumber-scraps custom laptop desk. I lean back in the chair, do that backwards entwined finger-stretching-knuckle-cracking thing, stare at the screen, then notice my watch, recalling that the Sage Creek opens for lunch at 11:00. Time for a shower, then twenty minutes to town, lunch with any of my area friends or relatives I can coax into joining me (if I'm lucky, this will be a laughter-filled "hour" that stretches into the afternoon), twenty minutes back, and, to work….
(Let me pause here to report that I actually have accomplished much sermon-planning, curriculum-writing, and, yes, finished that baptism book using this routine. The reader will be excused for wondering how.)
I started these fanciful forays into creative loneliness when Caryl was teaching, and we were usually unable to coordinate her schedule with my Study Leave calendar. (Yes – Study Leave! My Mom once said, “I don’t care what you call it, it’s still vacation.” My Mom!!!) But now Caryl is retired, and she’ll go with me this year. I love it, but it’s actually a trade-off: On the plus side, no lonely nights with cheese and crackers; but then, whenever she sees me leaning back and eying my watch she gets to say, “How’s that sermon coming?”
The extrovert in me will be pleased with the company; the introvert in her will be fed by the quietness of the cabin. We'll go to the Sage Creek once or twice.
And it will only take a little bit longer to make the bed.