How four months living in the woods broke me, created me and changed my life for real.
By Zachariah Walker | Editor in Chief
I think I was born again. Not in the way that would have me sobbing on the stage of Benson Great Hall, but in a real, messy way. I actually think I was conceived, developed and pushed out into the world, my eyes still shut and my body still slippery from living in the wet dark for so long.
I can’t be the only person to have been birthed twice. Because every human being has an experience or two that annihilates their previous self, wraps their jelly-bean of a soul up in whatever earthly fabric is easiest to reach and pitches them like a knuckleball back to where they left off. Go ahead, laugh. But this is real. It happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to a few of you, too.
Last semester, I was a student at The Oregon Extension, a study-away program nestled into the Cascade Mountains of Southern Oregon. Thirty minutes up a winding road from the nearest town and far enough into the wilderness for Verizon to drop to 1x, the OE welcomes a cohort of college students seeking a non-traditional fall semester spent reading in hammocks, backpacking through volcanic valleys and thinking hard about what it means to be human. I was one of 29 from across the United States who decided to take a break from days packed with five classes, four extracurriculars and 15 to-do list items and instead focus on one thing — reading The Brothers Karamazov or cooking turmeric chicken for a potluck or pondering climate change solutions over hot tea — at a time.
Those four months were not easy, breaking me in spots I didn’t know I could be broken. But, like any good rebirth, my time at the OE provided me everything I needed to mend the wounds and heal into someone more aware, more awake and more confident in his ability to chop a piece of wood in one swing.
I lived fast before the OE. When I walked, I zoomed past couples holding hands and professors chatting on their way to lunch just so I could open my laptop and finish a Moodle quiz quick enough to draft an essay outline before class. I laughed hard and listened well and stopped to smell my stir fry when Wing added the extra garlic I asked for, but every day was still defined by little black boxes waiting for check marks. College was a place to get things done for good grades so I could graduate and start getting things done for good money. After my first day at the OE, when my only assignment was to read 120 pages of a book about the Anthropocene, and I had all day to do it, I realized I was in for something different. Something slower. Something that looked like a sunset over a rocky gulch and smelled like fresh baked sourdough.
The motto of the OE, as seen on its website, water bottles and brochures is “Simplify your life. Fire up your mind.” I usually think slogans are cheesy lies meant to falsely excite cogs in the consumerist system into spending $2,000 on an indoor bicycle with a television bolted to the handlebars, but the OE slogan, like the program it represents, has never seen me as a cog.
Living in Cabin 7, a three-bedroom wooden structure built in the 1920s and outfitted with bunk beds, a woodstove and desks hand-made by the previous year’s cohort, my life did simplify. I woke up at 8 a.m. to the alarm of my Casio F91W watch, ate over-medium eggs with my cabin mates, listened to a lecture on Transcendentalism or social justice movements or the Russian Orthodox church, took a walk around the organic garden and poultry yard, sat for an hour and a half in one of my professors homes and discussed big ideas from the previous night’s reading and spent the rest of the day at my own pace, completing the one assignment given each day (except weekends, which are free save for impromptu hiking trips), cooking curry for my cabin or skipping rocks on the pond. And each new day was tinder for the fire that did start in my mind. I took notes when a sentence stirred my heart instead of when it answered a worksheet question, and the two eight-day independent research periods where I read close to 1,000 pages brought the most meaningful academic work I have ever done.
But the readings kept me up until 2 a.m. some nights. A few discussions shattered my worldview to the point of stress tears. And the relaxed, focused pace of each day forced me to recognize that I have been living a life driven by the wrong motivations. Slow walks around the woodshop after lecture reminded me of just how fast I move when I’m back at Bethel. Nights spent laughing about Bigfoot sightings over tacos with fresh salsa twisted my head until I saw how I rush DC dinners with my friends so I can get back to analyzing poetry. And every time I finished a chapter without having to write a two-page response, I wondered if the past 17 years of education was a waste. Life at the OE shook me until my skin fell off and my muscles tore away and there was nothing left but a skeleton. But my bones needed to feel the wind.
Looking back, every day at the OE seems to breathe on its own, every moment existing outside as well as in the context of my four months on the mountain. It’s sometimes hard to explain, the way the forest and the stars and the gently flowing creek made me feel, so I have to resort to semi-philosophical ramblings like the first sentence of this paragraph. But I can always think back to the stories that stitched together every day — those short stretches of time without distraction or outside pressure, memories made possible by the unconventional pace of the program. Like the night my cabin mates and I cooked empanadas from scratch for four hours to feed my professor and his family because we had the time. Or when I hurled a snowball at the neighboring cabin so hard it broke the window screen and nobody got mad. Or the six-hour walk after an outdoor dinner that made me fall in love with a girl from Mississippi (but I’ll save that for another column). These seem like regular stories, but they hit me in the heart and didn’t let up — like watching “The Shawshank Redemption” for the first time or hearing my best friend say he loves me. They are stories of a place where stories are everything. Where the world outside what is in front of you fades away and you can breathe in. And out.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that the Oregon Extension killed me, made me new again, thrust me in front of the universe and said, “Slow down and look for once.” When I did what the forest told me, I saw and heard and felt beauty. Shooting stars with purple tails and a mountain valley so green you’d think God was Irish. Midnight jam sessions in the living room and perfect harmonies after six weeks of talent-show choir practice. Love like a first kiss between two people who have been waiting for what feels like four months plus a couple lifetimes to hold each other like that. And when I saw the stars and heard the music and felt that kind of love, I was content. Finally and for the first time, truly content. Like the roads leading down the mountain could fall away and I would breathe easy and deep knowing I would spend the rest of my life in a place that every day makes me feel OK to be exactly who I am.
That is what the Oregon Extension gave me. It is a gift without price or size or the pressure to pay back the sentiment with something equally thoughtful, because there isn’t a handmade photo collage worth nearly as much as the place and the people and the new life given to me in Lincoln. My time at the OE is part of me now, twisted around my spinal cord, and I can’t look at a constellation or hear a folk song or hug someone I love without thinking of what life was like among the pines.
So, thank you, Oregon. Thank you for breaking me down. Thank you for making me new. Thank you for making me whole.
Graphic by Aimee Kuiper