To a cabin I go.
Tomorrow I leave for the Ben Rover Cabin in Polebridge, an outpost along Glacier’s remote western boundary. Ben Rover is a Forest Service cabin on the western banks of the North Fork of the Flathead River, and I will spend four days in the cabin, challenged with two direct tasks: reading and writing.
The indirect tasks are many, including rediscovering the writer within I’ve recently banished to the corner while the many duties of starting a business take up all the rooms, even hiding in the attic, scurrying around the beams . But this is the point of the Outside Experience, a requirement for the second year of my graduate program. The Outside Experience is something, with a tally of 100 hours, that either enhances current work, like say a research project, encourages concentrated writing time, like a writer’s retreat, or explores new possibilities in writing, publishing and or teaching. True to my program’s independent style, there are really no strict boundaries on the experience, with the exception that it’s tailored to an individual’s needs and will be something different than the every day rituals of writing (and living and doing laundry). For some, it’s attending a writing conference or residency. Others have traveled across the globe for research or taken on solo wilderness treks.
For me, I’m breaking my Outside Experience into two parts. The first part is my upcoming solo retreat in a remote cabin in a place that leaves the trappings of civilization, like electricity and cellphone coverage, at the other end of a very long dusty and pothole-ridden road. The North Fork of the Flathead is a place I hold very near to my heart. I used to live a dozen or so miles south of Polebridge when I worked for the Big Creek Outdoor Education Center and the region has been home to some of my many adventures on foot and on water. I also need a bit of time away from my computer, the Internet and other responsibilities (like laundry) to refocus my creative efforts.
I hate to report it, but in the last month or so, I haven’t wanted much to do with school or writing. I’ve even contemplated quitting my MFA program but I know that I’m one who changes her mind often and know that although the brewery has garnered all of my attention, my graduate work and my writing is important, even if I never publish a book. Or even a damn essay, but that’s another story. Pun intended, even!
To fulfill the requirements of the Outside Experience, I plan to complete the required hours by attending the Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference in Homer, Alaska in June. I believe dividing my experience into two parts will serve the part of me that needs a solo, focused retreat coupled with a conference to meet and learn from and with other writers. Ever since Cole and I returned from our ski vacation to Alaska in 2012, I’ve wanted to return and this conference gives me every bit of incentive and authorization to do so since it’s for school.
However, as I draft my shopping list and plan my menu, having to take into consideration the only refrigerator at the cabin is the cooler I bring along with me, I’m uneasy with the prospect of my solo retreat. I have much work to accomplish with an upcoming deadline for school and have little to show for it. Also, I’m challenging myself to not bring my laptop: without the ability to recharge its battery after its died, what is the point? I will write by hand. I need this shake up of routine, a routine that inevitably becomes distracted and disjointed when checking Facebook and tending to emails. The Outside Experience is designed to give a writer an opportunity and authorization to do something they don’t normally do. While it may not seem as bold as say traveling to Italy to research Venice’s canals for a novel or teaching poetry to prison inmates, I’m hoping that the small act of connecting pen to paper will help release me from whatever rut I’m in. It will hold me accountable. I have to write. I have to read. I can’t waste the solitude.
As someone who’s possessed by landscapes, I knew the only place (besides my family’s cabin on Marquette Island in Michigan where absolutely no work would be accomplished because I’d be surrounded, gladly, by family) to spend part of my Outside Experience is the North Fork. It is a landscape that challenged me mightily when I attempted to stay through the winter with only the company of my dog and cat, hunkered in my work cabin. At that time, which, unbelievably, was over five years ago, I believed-or tried to convince myself-that I was some hermit woodswoman badass who needed little company to carry her through the darkness of winter. I learned otherwise. And yet, the North Fork is a place of unparalleled beauty: a mighty river snakes through the prairie, bordered by the staggering peaks of Glacier to the east and the burned over mountains to the west. It’s easy to wax romantically about the inspiration the area around Polebridge commands and I know better now. But I also know something very true, when I’m stuck or feeling drained or even gasp, hating writing, I go to a place where rivers flow and mountains commune with the sky.
In many ways, this first part of my Outside Experience, is very much outside.