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Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. Reeling from the social and political turmoil of the early ’70s, our Throwback Thursday writer, Max T.E. Lawrence, recalls the time he went Walden and lived in a national park.



Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

The Last Best Thing

At the end of May, 1972, I went down to The Grainery on Arapahoe Ave in Boulder Colorado and bought myself another huge sack of brown rice that I hoped would last me three or four months. I was skipping town for a while. By myself. Had to get away from all the crap that was flying. Watergate, Nixon, the whole national mess. And just people in general. I was truly sick of all the pushing and shoving. I wanted solitude, and since I couldn’t get a job living in a fire tower as a lookout on some far away mountain top, watching for budding forest fires, this was the next best thing. Maybe the last best thing.

Heading Out

Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

I quit my job at the Brillig Works Bookstore on College Avenue after my two-week notice was up, climbed into my red ‘55 Ford pickup I called Trusty, packed with enough supplies and books to last me the duration of my stay, maybe more. I had plenty of pot, a jug of White Lightning and several tabs of Orange Sunshine, too. With my black Lab, Mon Cul (meaning my ass in French, a name I stole from the novel Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins), sitting beside me and panting, his great blocky head thrust out the passenger side window, long pink tongue hanging from the side of his slobbering mouth, I headed downtown to Pearl Street where I met up with Haggis Altoona. The mouth-watering smell of hot dogs cooking on a food cart permeated the air, overpowering the reek of the temperature inversion, which had been in full swing for three days, smothering the region in foul-tasting smog. My stomach quaked. Brown rice for three months? Didn’t know if I could make it that long without meat. Haggis deposited a large package in back, climbed into the passenger side and I hit the gas. We drove out of town and up the meandering road of Sunshine Canyon—into the foothills, high over Boulder—high over the miasma—headed to a place another friend had taken me to a while back, which I had found fascinating and which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get out of my mind.

A couple of days earlier I had gone to the lumber yard and bought a bunch of two by fours, large rolls of plastic, nails and even a couple of rolls of insulation. I emptied my cabin in Eldorado Springs Canyon of the essentials I would need for my trip and placed them in the bed of my truck. I just hoped it wouldn’t rain until I was set up properly at my new digs, which I had found after searching high and low over the last month and a half.

The Lure of Silence

Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

I had read Thoreau’s Walden’s Pond in high school, and it was one of the books I had chosen to bring along. Wanted to reread it again while I was away, wanted to get a new perspective about what it means to be truly alone with yourself while living alone in the woods. I understand perfectly well that one can be alone with one’s self in a crowd, but that’s not what I wanted. I had been doing that most of my life. I wanted to be alone with myself in the wilds of solitude with no one around except the silence, the wind and rain and sky empting their secrets into me, my thoughts roaming the land, filling the forests and mountains with images of silence that I could take back with me when I was ready to leave.

The Sound of Silence

Solitude can be as noisy as the ruckus you get when you’re in the middle of a bustling city and find yourself around too many people. I know this; I’ve experienced it. We all have. I had to try to get to true solitude, wanted to listen to its language, because it has a language all its own—foreign, but intimate. You need silence to surround silence. Old Henry David Thoreau would be good company, because he was one of the forerunners. The other authors I was planning to read would be icing on the cake, the glue bringing the quiet together meaningfully. The sound of one hand clapping. That’s what I wanted to attain, to experience. The sound of silence.

Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

The long and winding road curled upwards into the dun-colored foothills alive with springtime color, the pavement a snake swallowing its tail, and us along with it. I’d come ‘round again, back where I started. Headed back to the quiet before one enters the storm of life. I was getting closer to the place I wanted to be.

Into the Forest of Sighs

We reached the turn off, a dirt track hardly visible, looking more like an overgrown deer run than anything else. I was barely able to get the truck down the path. We traveled for about a half an hour over bumps and gullies, uphill, downhill, sideways. We finally came to the end. We got out and stepped into another world. The forest was populated by huge boulders that spread out under the canopy of pines stretching into the hills, sighing. Haggis and I, along with Mon Cul, set off climbing upward to the place I had chosen to live for the next three or four months. Under a rock. We crossed a border delineated by barbed wire, loose, with a sign that read: Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest Lands.

Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest Lands

There were others living up here on National Forest land—illegally, of course. If you were caught you’d most likely be shipped off to jail for trespassing. Hermits, all of them. Not many, but those who wanted to escape the world. Seemed they were here for the long haul. Outcasts all. We passed by some of their rock-faced dwellings and, like the last time I was here, I was amazed at the ingenuity of their living spaces. But I was here to make my own place, one as far away from them as possible.

An Asteroid the Size of My Imagination

We followed a series of cairns I had previously built along the way to guide me to my place. About an hour into our trek, Mon Cul disappeared into a giant reddish thicket and barked somewhere ahead of us. We rounded a hill, following his howl through Juniper and the open Ponderosa Pine forest, and there he was, sitting in front of my new home, the most beautiful boulder I’d ever seen, a giant hunk of stone rising silently in front of me. This was my place. I heard the gurgle of water. A small spring trickled out of the ground nearby and flowed downhill, disappearing in the flowering red of Indian Paintbrush spring had airbrushed against the hillside. My boulder sported a severe overhang on one side, which faced the sun. Underneath, a spacious concave indentation opened up like the beginnings of the mouth of a cave. I hereby claim this asteroid to be my own, I announced to the Universe. This would be my home for the summer.

Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

Haggis and I spent the day transporting the rest of my stuff up to the rock. At sunset he bade me goodbye. He was going to take Trusty back to Boulder. The sun was fanning a brilliant sunset, a washboard of reds and oranges and purples skidding down the sky in front of us. The trepidation of being alone was beginning to get to me. Didn’t know if I could do what I had set out to do. To be this alone out here, away from all those I knew and loved. For three or four months? I must have been crazy. Haggis looked at me as though to say, “You’ll be fine.” He knew what I was feeling. That released me. We made a date for him to come and fetch me after Labor Day.

Something Special

He winked and gave me the box he’d stashed in the back of my truck when I had picked him up in downtown Boulder. I opened it. Inside were small seedlings, perhaps ten burgeoning marijuana plants. Tiny and fragile. Nestled together like newborn babies in paper cups. I was going to be grower, naturally—outdoors—in the sunshine and solitude. I was going to bring these plants lovingly to fruition—high up here—in the quiet of solitude. It was going to be something special.

Throwback Thursday: Going off the Grid

Next up: The Construction of Silence



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