Journey to the Interior by Roger Karny

One Man’s Wilderness is the story of Richard Proenneke’s 1968 solo Alaskan adventure building a log cabin from scratch and living off the land. His only contact with the rest of humanity was with a bush pilot named Babe Alsworth and his plane. At 51 years of age, Proenneke had been introduced to cabin living in the remote wilderness of Alaska after a friend invited him to stay with him a few weeks.

Proenneke was convinced. He then spent a summer and fall in the Twin Lakes region near that friend’s cabin cutting logs for his own place and scouting out the area. The logs aged nicely over the ensuing harsh winter. Then in mid-May, Proenneke set out for his home-to-be, leaving the flatlands of middle America to hook up with Babe and his bush plane.

Dick Proenneke’s journals provide his long-time Alaskan friend and coworker, Sam Keith, with the material for this book. Keith relates Proenneke’s dance with nature, alone in the cabin he built, 40 miles from any town by air, with no roads in or out of the wild mountains he called home.

With Dick’s cabin being built by the onset of winter, the real adventure begins: exploring his surroundings, hunting, cataloging all the wildlife, and settling in his new home for the long winter nights, with temperatures sometimes as low as -40˚F or more. Caribou, brown bear, Dall sheep, skunks, wolves, fox, fish in the two adjacent lakes, and many varieties of birds were all in abundance, and all surrounded by huge, snow-covered mountains. Babe would occasionally fly in some more perishable goods to keep him stocked. The plane had wheels to land on ice and pontoons to land on water.

Dick lived there for 30 years, till 1998, when he gave his cabin to the National Park Service. This Twin Lakes area he loved had become part of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Over the years, those who visited Dick at his cabin included former Alaskan governor Jay Hammond and singer John Denver.

What I find most interesting about Proenneke’s Alaskan life—besides, of course, the allure of living amid the beauty and peace of high mountain ranges and plenteous wildlife outside his door—are his journal “Reflections” garnered from his mostly solitary life there. These Sam Keith presents at the end of the book. They are the deep yet elemental thoughts of a man unencumbered by the fast pace of a modern society constantly chasing its tail, a society that believes its own fantasies about the need for more and more. He’s a man who has the time he needs to do what he knows is essential for his life. He is a man alone. Being alone is the price he pays, but he doesn’t mention anywhere that the price is too high.

“Must I really have this?” he asks himself, referring to the usual material goods. By inference, he wants us to ask ourselves that as well. (He spent a total of about $40 on store-bought materials to build his cabin. The rest came from his wilderness surroundings.)

“I have learned patience,” he says. And, “What a man never has, he never misses.” “At my pace”—Proenneke only walked or paddled a canoe—“I can notice things.” These are the things you don’t notice speeding along on a highway in a car.

The challenge of building your own winter-proof home, of living simply without modern conveniences, of just living alone for years on end, were all things Proenneke not only accomplished, but reveled in. “I don’t think a man [or woman] knows what he actually can do until he is challenged,” he says. How comfortable with oneself and one’s ideals does one have to be to achieve that?

But what are the dangers of living alone in the wilderness, and how did Proenneke face them? Well, first of all, he says, “In a jam the best friend you have is yourself.” Regarding contracting a serious illness or sustaining an injury: “Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime.” But, he adds, “When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness?” I agree.

Other wisdom he gleans includes: “I don’t have bills coming in every month to pay for things I really don’t need.” A person has “got to create.” Someone “has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes.” How can someone, he says, “on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?” (Karl Marx, by the way, said something similar years before.)

He goes on, “News doesn’t change much. It’s just the same things happening to different people. I would rather experience things happening to me than read about them happening to others.” And, “I honestly don’t believe that man was meant to know everything going on in the world, all at the same time.” Insightful words from a hermit to a world obsessed with keeping up to date on every little happening on Facebook, Twitter, CNN, and Fox News.

Lastly, “…the problem seems to be that technology is advancing faster than [we] can adjust to it. I think it’s time we started applying the brakes, slowing down our greed and slowing down the world . . . I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn’t cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses.” Wow.

I don’t know if Proenneke was a Catholic or a Christian . . . or even a Buddhist, for that matter! He lived his life as he saw fit, even if it was contrary to those of almost all of the rest of his fellow Americans. As to his living a solitary existence, it seemed to suit him just fine. Perhaps others would cringe at his way of life, but that could be because we choose to cringe rather than find the deep wisdom that comes from being alone from time to time in order to look inside ourselves.

Philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It could be we’re afraid to see what we’d find—even if we would find God. And heaven forbid that we would find our real selves as well.

God said in Genesis 2:18 that it was not good for us to be alone. But apparently there are some hermits, albeit few and far between, who thrive in solitude, despite the Lord God’s admonition to the contrary. Proenneke was one, but monks in the Catholic Church’s Carthusian order, for example, spend almost all of their time alone in solitary cells praying and meditating (see the excellent film Into Great Silence). Some monks have become literal hermits, like Thomas Merton—although Merton took great liberties with his order and was able to smuggle in many friends to visit him at his hermitage!

Within the boundaries of his chosen existence, Dick Proenneke was a man who lived life to the fullest each day. Maybe his view of life was a little conservative . . . or too liberal . . . or just plain libertarian. Whatever you want to call it, you have to admit it was spiritual and free.

The final thought in his journal relates to a bull caribou that he sees up on a slope: “. . . I wonder what he thinks about? Is his brain just a blank as he lies there blinking in the sun and chewing his cud? I wonder if he feels as I do, that this small part of the world is enough to think about?”

Proenneke was definitely a man who knew contentment, and who had found himself in a way that most of us never will. But how can you and I, everyday working, citified folks, learn anything from him—or, for that matter, from a Carthusian monk stuck far away in some cell contemplating his navel all day? Our world is the one they have taken refuge from, the one where the wildest beast is likely our tabby cat or pampered poodle. It’s the one where all we may do is create widgets in some office or factory to get a paycheck at the end of the month, and our biggest adventure is trying to get off the packed freeway during rush hour. Or maybe our biggest spiritual adventure is tuning in to a televangelist on Saturday afternoon, and the last thing we want is to stay home alone that evening.

Well, I think we all have a place of aloneness, a place we can retreat to when things get overwhelming. Whether it’s the bathroom, the backyard, or the nearby park, it’s available. Some are lucky enough to be able to live or vacation in the mountains or by the seashore, where just walking out your back door might put you in a state of meditation. Sometimes it takes a conscious decision to just escape a while for your own peace of mind. Or your solace might come from working on a project that consumes your attention, energizes you, puts your mind into a mode of “flow,” and makes you forget the hustle and bustle and remember who you really are.

Merton speaks not only of a literal “desert” of solitude, but one within that can be available to anyone at any time. It is the place of serenity that monks find in prayer and Proenneke experienced in the wilderness. Each of us discovers it in a different way or place. It’s even available just by reading about and observing the lives of others, and maybe imitating them in some small way. Some of the more extroverted among us may need less introspection; some of the more introverted may crave it more. However we locate it, the interior sanctuary is always there for us to recharge our batteries, renew our perceptions, and reemerge with a clearer vision of life.

Roger Karny is a freelance writer living in Colorado, and a graduate of Swarthmore College. He worked for 30 years for social services. His articles have also appeared in the Industrial Worker.


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