When I sit in my ice fishing shanty, nothing but the hiss of the heater and the gentle glow of the flasher to keep me company, I find myself sucking into... myself, if you'll permit me the horrible turn of phrase. The world outside that thin layer of canvas disappears and, for at least a little while, there is nothing to be found in the galaxy other than what I can touch within easy reach. It's a cocoon, a hideaway. It is, to me, supremely comfortable. The catching of fish, at that point, is so remotely inconsequential, it nearly fails to enter the equation.
|On the right lake, you can sometimes have the whole place to yourself|
When I walk through the woods. When I walk through the woods until that perfect state arrives in which my feet are not yet sore and barking, my legs are heavy but not yet gone to clay, I'm tired but in the midst of a slow-motion runner's high, and the quarry no longer matters. I walk to achieve this state as much as I do to powder a grouse in the slanting morning light or put fungi on my table. And I do it alone a lot. Not that I dislike the company of those I hunt and fish with, but things just seem to make more sense when I'm on my own most of the time. There's no keeping pace, subtle competition is nowhere to be found. If you've ever tried to coordinate a deer drive or bird hunt through heavy cover and over rugged terrain with a large group, you know that it can be, at times, more hassle than it's worth.
And so I remained happily alone in the dark, so to speak, for quite some time. I've spent time with my "Madison friends" (so delineated not only by their geographic existence, but their relative disinterest in outdoor sports) during the week, and wandered off to chase protein and sunsets alone quite often on the weekends. It was fulfilling, and obviously interspersed with weekends I treasured with my outdoor buds.
The difference between alone and lonely is mostly a matter of comfort with oneself, and that works for me. Whether I ever produce anything worthwhile again or not, the fact is that this ginormous melon on my neck not only barely fits in most hats, there's also a creative mind sloshing around in there that craves quiet time to think -- sometimes deeply about the meaning of things, often about the perfect piece of pie... and redheads.
In the span of a couple years I suffered a great many painfully sickening losses. So for a time I'd been cruising along in solo mode, adjusting to a life irrevocably wounded. People worried about me. They talked of me in hushed tones and "stopped by" a lot. They used kid gloves with me during the holidays, knowing that almost everyone I'd had was gone. Somebody gave me a canned ham once, which would've been very sweet if I were a 1970's housewife with a surplus of pineapple rings and maraschino cherries. They marveled at my "toughness," which never really existed, and when they'd had enough cocktails, awkwardly congratulated me for not becoming a lop of weeping goo. Insert vaguely uncomfortable man-hugging.
It was all very overwhelming and sweet, and I am forever indebted to every one of them for their love and compassion, but my one true respite throughout it all was grabbing a rod or a gun or a kayak paddle, and pointing my sniffer into the wind, alone.
Eventually we all got on, family, friends and I, with being the ones still above ground together, and things got as back to normal as they ever will be. I continued my lone jaunts even as I began to treasure my time in deer camp or with the bird hunting boys more and more.
Then the internet happened for me. A social media explosion, more precisely, akin to the big bang; Google Earth, GIS and all the other useful outdoor cyber-tools notwithstanding. Before the pulverizing avalanche of heartache beset my family and I, I'd joined an ice fishing forum. I remember the day. People were sick and in the hospital. I wanted to go fishing, but obligations with out-of-date waiting room magazines bound me from the ice. So I clicked around and found the forum, which will remain nameless here because I was later ejected for being too likable and funny. Also for toeing the line right up to profanity, quite creatively, I thought.
While I am and was an electronics junky, far from a stranger to LEDs and touch screens, I'd never joined an internet forum before that. I'd never used any social media. I was content to eat my lunch quietly on a stump in the swamp, and look at my own pictures when I got home. I only begrudgingly use Facebook now to halfheartedly promote this collection of rambling drivel, and then not very often. My current Instagram addiction may be a different matter, but I try to convince myself that it's only related to my affection for, and envy of, quality photography.
It turns out the sweaty palms and butterflies associated with joining that first ice fishing forum were completely unfounded. While that community could not abide my penchant for playfully twisting the language right to the edge of acceptable public use, I did meet there a group of outdoorsmen I'm still in daily contact with today. All of us too fantastic in form and thought to mix with the great unwashed, we formed our own private outdoor forum that still thrives to this moment. I can alt+tab over to it as I type this, and they will probably razz me for being a verbose, blathering donkey when they read it.
This is a group of men who have grown together, built cyber-camaraderie over the last half decade. And not just over the ether of the interwebs. I've flown halfway across the country to fish with some of them. One guy actually had the impudence to move to Montana without taking the rest of us. I hope to sully his home with my presence and frightening fly casting someday.
It has become more than an outdoor forum. It's a community. I know their kids' names. We share our real life victories and defeats. They comforted me when everyone was dying. I stood up in one of their weddings. All because some nerds at MIT and DARPA wanted to talk to each other back in the day.
Draw a horizontal line across Wisconsin from La Crosse to Sheboygan. Rotate it clockwise a tick, and you're damn near connecting my house to that of my good friend Adam, but we never would have met without the internet. Packer games, ice fishing, talk of girls, booze-soaked rowdy wedding receptions; we could have shared none of them had we not each clicked on the link to that ice fishing forum.
|After years of chatting through the screen, Adam and I finally meet|
I belong to many internet forums now, some related to the outdoors and others not. I'm even starting to get the hang of this Twitter fad. As is true for all of us, though, my closest personal friends will always remain nearest my heart. The Lathrop Street gang from back in the days when a house cup and a marginally clean shirt made you a celebrity, the guys I marched with, the retired crew up in deer camp who are probably hoisting one and talking about how cool they used to be right now, and Brian, who was there with Dad when I was born and still shoots woodcock faster than I do -- these are my people.
This blog is a form of social media I never imagined myself being involved with, but it has led to acquaintances all over cyberspace. I read some of your wonderful writings, see your gorgeous pictures, and am inspired to write and cook and chase game more than I ever have been. Thank you. But while we're at it, what's up with all the stickers? I may be a relative social media noob, but where are you people sticking all these things? Seriously.
Still, I often find it most comfortable to go it alone. If you're ever in Wisconsin and you see a lone fly fisherman casting like he's being stung in the face by invisible hornets... or a solo bird hunter miss an easy passing shot... or a solitary mushroom seeker arresting a fall in the brush with his face, stop and say hello. It's probably me.