Below is an excerpt from the book ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: NOTES ON A DOZEN LIFELONG SPORTS, a collection of essays written by Outward Bound alum John Casey. The books contains two essay on his life-changing experiences with Outward Bound. In the excerpt below, the author describes his two-day solo on a winter cross-country skiing course in Maine.
I’d had a wonderful time by myself for four September days on a tiny island off the coast of Maine, daydreaming; gathering rose hips, sea- urchin roe, and mussels; sleeping on a bed of leaves and pine needles; and watching herons. This is to be a shorter solo, but the question of shelter is more pressing. Chris mentions that there’s a snowstorm coming, probably by evening. I’m only a mile or so from camp, but the feeling is— and is meant to be— one of isolation.
I stand still for a while, looking around. There’s no wind, no movement, just a gray day. After a moment I notice there’s a touch of rose in the young birch trees. I startle myself when I clear my throat.
I ski around, looking for a place to rest. I get lucky— there’s a large fallen tree; the thick base of the trunk is propped up by the roots. I clear the snow away, using a snowshoe as a shovel. I find enough long sticks to make a lean- to, tile the roof with blocks of snow. I serve them onto the roof with the tail of a ski. It takes more time and energy than I’d thought. It’s midafternoon. I eat a carrot and saltines, save the raisins. I climb inside to check the roof— still some gaps. My leather mittens are oozing yellow water again, but this is a help— when I slap more snow on top, it’ll be wet, and then it’ll freeze, making a more stable roof.
I move my pack inside. My stove is a #10 can with holes in the side, my pot a #10 can without holes. I gather twigs and light a fire. Fill the pot with snow. I lay the snowshoes down as bedsprings, some spare clothes as the mattress. I turn around when I hear a plop. My stove is too near the mouth of my shelter, and the roof is melting. I manage to get my mittens on and move both cans. Didn’t the guy in the Jack London story make the same mistake? Built his fire under a tree, and the snow on the branches fell and put it out. I should have known better.
It’s dark. I make soup by throwing in a bouillon cube, a carrot, half an onion, and half a potato. I have to keep feeding twigs in through the holes. It takes forever until the vegetables are soft. Worth the wait. I open the one tin— it’s olive drab, Army surplus, stenciled “Chocolate Nut Roll.” With an effort of will, I eat only half.
It begins to snow. This is a good thing. It’ll insulate the roof even more. I’m feeling snug, even smug, as I crawl into my sleeping bag.
Just as I’m falling asleep I feel a warm breath on my cheek. I lie very still. This fallen tree makes such a good den, something else might be holed up here. A bear? The space is too small, but a porcupine . . . I arm myself with a ski pole. My flashlight is dim from the cold— I should have kept it in my sleeping bag, along with my boots. Nothing under the tree trunk, but I feel warm air. At last I realize that it’s warmth from the decomposing bits of leaves and twigs under the armpit, so to speak, of the uprooted tree. I curl up peacefully.
The next day passes in a lovely waking dreaminess. It has snowed six inches of several varieties of flakes. The weather was changing through the night and keeps changing all day. From placid white to a gusty blue- and- gray afternoon to a quiet gray twilight. I haven’t done much during the day except stroll around. I did whittle a wooden spoon, but otherwise just looked. I considered trees. I watched the moon rise. Behind a moving curtain of clouds I found the Big Dipper, the only constellation I know except for Orion.
I wake up at first light. I hear a noise. A crackling or even crunching. Someone, something, walking in the snow? I hold still, not breathing. The noise stops. Maybe nothing. When I breathe again I hear it. After a few cycles of holding my breath and then breathing again, it becomes clear that the noise is my own breath soughing across the edge of my sleeping-bag hood. Okay, two embarrassing false alarms. I laugh at myself once, stretch, and then curl up peacefully.
When I wake up again the day is undecided between high blue sky and low gray clouds. I decide to sleep until this question of color is resolved, but Alex arrives on skis to roust me. “Just follow my tracks.” When I get to the logging trail, I catch up to the rest of the clan. We are happy to see one another. It seems a long time. We would have hugged, but we were on skis.
When we glided into camp, Chris had a fire going. He’d been all the way back to the lodge and brought an orange for each of us. We’d had almost the same experience, hour for hour. Lisa and I had heard the same owls. When the sun was out we’d all worshipped it. Marcy actually washed her hair. Lon washed a shirt. We’d all tensed up at noises that turned out to be nothing. We’d been sown like seeds the length of the valley, all sprouting similar thoughts. For the rest of the trip there was a marked increase in energetic tenderness for one another.
Excerpted from ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT by John Casey. Copyright © 2011 by John Casey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.