Against all odds and surprising those who have known us over the years, as the days of isolation wear on, we’ve been watching Alone presented by the “History” channel, which also offers Pawned Stars, American Pickers, Mountain Men, Lost Gold of World War II, Truck Night in America, Axe Men, Top Shot, Kife or Death, and Kings of Pain.
I don’t wish to flaunt the advantages of a liberal education, but I was a history major at a reputable institution of somewhat higher education, and my book shelves are still groaning under the weight of the tomes I could not bear to toss out when as a be-tasseled graduate I packed up my undergraduate digs. Herodotus, Edward Said, Arnold Toynbee, A.J.P. Taylor, G. M Trevelyan, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Gordon Wood, Richard Hofstader, Charles Beard, Samuel Eliot Morrison … they sit in silent disapproval, gathering dust, untouched since June of 1970. Not only have I not read them in the intervening years, I suspect this is the first time that I’ve evoked their names in conversation or in print.
So much for them, and apparently, so much for history on the History Channel, which turns out to be perfectly fine with us as it’s become clear that in this household what we need are the extraordinary breed of men and women wiling to pack out in the wildest bush in Patagonia or the most forbidding tundra in Alaska, leaving family, safe shelter, food, and toothpaste behind for a span of time to be determined by their grit and the vagaries of life at the edge of extinction.
I have problems, Lord knows. I have very small hands and have a heck of a time reaching across four frets in order to play the chords used to back James Brown’s “I Feel Good”. I live with it, but it’s always there, reminding me that the only use I could have been to Brown was in carrying his cape as he pretended to stagger with exhaustion. The people consigned to Patagonia or the Arctic attempt to fish and trap in the wild, rarely succeed, and often go days without eating, weeks without eating anything but kelp and limpets. I’m annoyed because our neighbor decided to raise chickens, bad enough at the outset, then brought in a strutting time-disordered rooster who feels obliged to yodel from pre-dawn to dusk. Guys on Alone contend with wild boars, pumas, wolverines. Hang on, did I just say wolverines, with an “s”, as in more than one? Yes, indeed.
The last person standing wins $500,000.00 which buys a lot of jerky and many, many limpets. Ten men and women set out, are dropped at some distance from each other with ten items to keep them from a cold and lonely death. Lots of tough choices there, and one of the pleasures we take here on the couch is in debating the advantages of the sharpened short shovel or the gill net. Do they bring the Premium Ferro Rod Fire Starter or hope to find what they need to craft a bow drill from wood at the site? They are allowed to bring whatever clothing they want to lug around, but tarps, rope,sleeping bags, and pot or frying pan count in the group of ten items allowed.
How long do they last, you ask? One experienced woodsman saw a hefty pile of bear scat and called in the rescue boat after three hours in the bush. I’m not judging. The current record for endurance is eighty-seven days.
The key here is eighty-seven days … Alone.
There is no camera crew, no medics, no cheerleaders or producers. Entirely alone, day after day, night after night, wolverine after wolverine. Some extraordinarily able people are overwhelmed by the distance from those they love. They hang on, surviving for weeks, but the pull of home is in many cases irresistible. The mental strain of isolation is a significant issue for almost every contestant and does take some out. Luck is a factor as well. The producers claim that all sites are comparable, but some folks hop off the boat onto a sunny beach with good fishing, plenty of firewood, and access to fresh water, while others sit in a dark, wet hollow smack in the middle of the wild boar’s hunting ground. As I have reminded those around me for many years, accidents happen, and they happen with immediate impact on Alone. As soon as we see someone heft an axe, we wait for the flailing go pro camera and the shouted yelps of distress. They’re starving, addled, desperate. A fish finally takes the hook,and in their haste to land the only meal they’ve had since September, they slide across a slimy rock face and the go pro documents the plunge into icy water.
In order to quit, the contestant has to “tap out” by calling the rescue team by Satellite phone. We actually have no idea what the three or four people who show up on the small rescue boat do for the eighty-seven days; they have to be huddled somewhere close to the drop sites. I’ll be honest; not much happens for many of the days spent in the wild; catching a fish gets twenty minutes of coverage. What holds our attention is the process by which those who thrive manage to hold themselves together. The most unlikely of winners have emerged because they are transformed by the hardship they endure.
So, here’s today’s life lesson from Alone: We don’t know what’s coming next, we have no control over what’s coming next, our collective futures are far less secure than we had imagined. It seems we have to be willing to live with transformation because tapping out is not an option.