Dispatches From the Russian River: Farther, Faster

Upon leaving her cabin in the woods, Alexis Coe realizes that not finding the answer to what you're looking for is sometimes just as good as finding it.
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A road near the Russian River. (Photo: Alexis Coe)

A road near the Russian River. (Photo: Alexis Coe)

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”
     —Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"

Should I wait for San Francisco to top out? Is seeking different than running? What becomes of our most ambitious dreams?

Seven dispatches ago, armed with little more than these questions, a small dog, and a cord of wood, I traded San Francisco for a feminist Walden on the Russian River. For the last three months, I’ve lived a solitary, simple existence in an unincorporated hamlet in a damp redwood forest, contemplating dislocation—my own and that of others.

I looked for answers in the works of Sacramento-born Joan Didion and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. I read Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Preston, Rebecca Solnit, Kevin Starr, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Mark Twain. I received an intimate, detailed email from a reader who identified himself as a “Douche-in-training," and many more from back-to-the-land dreamers and doers. They had opinions about the downfall of America, guns, women hiking alone, techies, San Francisco, my joint rolling neighbor, conservatives, small towns, and my love life. I turned to Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, and it inspired me to keep, re-visit, and re-write a journal.

My losses became the logs on my fire: set in place by my own hands, giving me heat and beauty for the night. And the next morning, the losses were gone, spent, a burnt sacrifice that left me feeling ready—even excited—to face the new day.

But when I was on a bike ride during the day or passing the evening hours in front of the fire, my mind wandered away from all those words. In theory, I was searching for specificity, for something concrete, but, in practice, I seemed fixated on abstraction. Poetry I had long ago memorized re-surfaced, and I sought out forgotten lines and new verse with urgency. Recitation became my companion. Most forest creatures have a soundtrack that goes well with damp air and soft Westerlies. The blue jays have their songs, and under the canopy of the redwoods—who have themselves survived so many lifetimes—poetry became mine.

I found myself returning to something I had memorized—for less than honorable reasons—long ago. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” was favored by a professor I revered, and so I’d set out to impress her by casually reciting a few lines during a discussion. At the time, I had thought my punishment for being such a brown-noser was in having to repeat the line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” over and over again. I had deemed it trite. Now I find it to be everything but.

Bishop tells us to “Lose something every day.” She had. Lost keys. An hour badly spent. Her mother’s watch. She starts out small, but it all leads somewhere else, to something more, to someone else. Bishop may have mislaid her mother’s watch, but she’d lost so much more than the object itself. A piece of jewelry is replaceable, but the care and safety a child feels under her mother’s watch is not. That loss dwarfs leaving a beloved home or city. There’s always more to lose. What we want to do. Whom we want to do it with. As long as we exist, we lose. Losing is a condition of existence.

That’s why we need all the practice we can get. Losing isn’t a process that can be completed, and so we improvise and get better at it. If we acquire enough skill, we can become competent journeymen or even masters in the art of losing.

But how do we do that? My neighbors didn’t end up living in a remote area without cell service and mail by coincidence. By the end of my first day on the creek, those helpful, good people shared their stories of loss with me; most were still practicing, but there were masters among them, each practicing in his or her own way. Amy builds and hoards. Hank tinkers and volunteers. Bob smokes pot and dotes on his dog. They worked with what they had. So did I.

I took Bishop’s final prescription—Write!—literally, and called it "Dispatches From the Russian River." Every day was a rehearsal in self-sufficiency, from the very first morning I woke up to the sight of my own breath. A week later, I understood the difference between soft and hard wood. I had opinions about kindling. I was soon building blazing fires on the first try.

For the first time in my entire life, I can’t tell you where or how I want to live. But in the midst of losing so many things that were once so important, I’ve also lost something that, it turns out, isn’t that important to me: the need for certainty.

This was a skill that helped me in other ways, that helped me create order and meaning in other parts of my life, past and present. Over time, my own losses—my marriage, my city, and the faulty narratives I’d clung to for so long—became part of a daily process. My losses became the logs on my fire: set in place by my own hands, giving me heat and beauty for the night. And the next morning, the losses were gone, spent, a burnt sacrifice that left me feeling ready—even excited—to face the new day.

It turns out nostalgia isn't deprivation, and a solitary life is not a lonely one. The key was that I had choices before me, that I was making them myself, and implementing them with my own hands.

During my final week in Cazadero, the unnamed town I’ve come to love, I realized how wrong I’d been in “Beginnings,” my first dispatch. I thought this sojourn was going to conclude with answers. I expected this final installment to be an elegiac essay consisting of realizations about California’s boom-and-bust culture; I would unveil my plans for the future. But this experiment was never about doubling down or moving on, like one of Didion’s women of the golden West. The work I did on the river did more than just keep me alive; it gave me a way to think about being alive. I practiced losing and I got better at it. I learned that I could continue getting better at it.

For the first time in my entire life, I can’t tell you where or how I want to live. But in the midst of losing so many things that were once so important, I’ve also lost something that, it turns out, isn’t that important to me: the need for certainty. I don’t know what comes next. That isn’t strength, but the source of it. I thank the creek for revealing it to me.

Thoreau quit Walden Pond when his landlord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, lit out for Europe. Emerson’s wife, Lidian, had asked Thoreau to join her family, but that is not the story Thoreau told in his book. He’d learned much more than he'd ever expected, more than he could even express, and knew he still had “several more lives to live” elsewhere. So do I.

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.

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