I just got back from a week at the cabin that I have gone to for the past darn near twenty years. It is my little piece of heaven, the reward that motivates me. When things get tough throughout the year, I remind myself that no matter what’s happening, whatever is stressing me out or pissing me off, I will be at Salmon Lake in the fall, and the thought keeps me going. It is the carrot that dangles in front of this particular donkey.
But this year Salmon Lake was completely different. It was still heaven, but different. Don’t get me wrong: Salmon Lake hadn’t changed, I had.
As I do every year, I pulled into the parking lot, unloaded a week’s worth of groceries, books, and hiking clothes onto the dock, picked up the phone nailed to the old fir tree on the left, and asked for a boat to come and carry me across the Lake to my cabin. I was welcomed by the warmth of the daughter of the family who has run this lodge for generations. Our friendship has laid down a ring around its core every year of my visits. It is not a fast-growing, softwood friendship with its roots planted in the loose soil of easy cheer, movies and gossip, but a slow-growing, hardwood friendship that wraps its roots around the granite boulders of rare, quiet conversations between nature-opened hearts.
I put the food in the fridge, brought in wood and set the fire, then grabbed a folding chair and took a steaming cup of tea out onto my dock to watch the sun set and wait for the first bat to whirl in the twilight.
It was still and warm. As the light faded, the Lake became a looking glass, reflecting first the shadowed trees surrounding it, then the backlit ridges encompassing it, and finally the stars floating above it. It has always been a sacred space for me, this alpine bowl. It is where I have found sustenance all these years. But in the midst of the familiar perfection, I became aware that a new element had been added to my treasured temple.
I’m not even sure whether that is the correct word. I have always considered silence to be the absence of sound. This was not that. This was a sound as real as any music on the air, as palpable as any humidity on my skin. A splash in the lake or the fluffing of feathers in the bushes didn’t break the silence, they were layered on top of it. When the disturbance of fish or bird faded, the sound of the silence remained.
This wasn’t a trick of the evening, a moment of perfect calm that had never before happened. There have been many other such nights. I am sure that the silence has always been there, it is just that I had been unable to hear it. But this summer in the Refuge, I had been introduced to the sound of silence bubbling up behind the shush of the river lazing over gravel. Once having made Silence’s acquaintance in the Arctic, I was able to recognize its voice at Salmon Lake.
The new sound, the reverberation that goes by the name “silence,” reached inside me and calmed me in a way that nothing else has ever done. For this was also a sad visit to Salmon Lake. It was the first year that I went with no hope for saving my relationship of sixteen years. I still carry the love, but the hope has slipped through my fingers. There have been many years when I spent my time at the Lake unaccompanied, but this was the first year that I was truly alone; the first year that I had no one to return home to.
Unwilling to spend the night in the cabin serenaded by the sound of the refrigerator droning in the kitchen and critters scrabbling inside the walls, I unrolled my sleeping bag and lay down on the dock, glorying in the stars that had been absent from the Arctic and allowing the silence to seep into my pores.
I woke with the sun warming my face and spent the days enjoying another gift of my time in the Refuge: a landscape which I had believed I knew intimately became virgin territory again. I now had the confidence to divert from the well-worn trails and traverse across the rocky slopes to discover hidden, seep-fed gardens and bush-wack up to distant outcroppings to enjoy startling new vistas.
In the evenings I would lie in my sleeping bag on the dock experiencing the silence, and slowly my sadness receded, until finally, in the middle of a moonless night, I found myself swimming in the sea of stillness inside myself that I first discovered in the Refuge. I hadn’t lost it in these few short weeks since my return from Alaska, but its surface had gotten ruffled by the breezes of daily life. The silence re-stilled the waters. Once again I could lie on my back and float in that internal sea.