It was three o’clock in the morning and the moon had just risen above the Sierra Nevada when the cougar’s scream sat me bolt upright in bed. It sounded like the cat was outside my back door. In the summer heat both front and back doors stood open to the cool night air. There was nothing to keep the cat from charging through the door and impaling my naked body to the damp sheets, other than its disdain for the smell of humanity. Admittedly, that was a pretty pungent smell—unwashed dishes, old laundry and human sweat.
I lived in a single wide trailer that my brother-in-law had hauled in place with a backhoe. From across the narrow valley formed by Tennessee Creek it looked remarkably like the wreckage of a DC-9 abandoned on the hillside. There was an awkward crimp in the roof line as if the trailer’s back had been broken on impact. Gray paint peeled in leprous patches. One side rested on the dirt, the other was propped with sectioned tree trunks called rounds that compensated for the steep pitch of the hill. There was no electricity, no running water, no sewage and no rent.
The land behind my trailer was mostly grassland rising through forest, past tree line, all the way to the roof of the Sierra Nevada. It was good habitat for a cougar and this one obviously resented my presence. Every three weeks it completed a circuit that brought it to my back door and every three weeks it objected to finding me still there.
The kitten that shared my trailer was no less intimidated. From its own early morning hunt on the hillside, it came bolting through the front door and landed on my chest with claws extended.
It’s an interesting experience, living without electricity. Our conditioned response when alarmed at night is to turn on the lights. It’s somewhat less autonomic to remove the chimney of a kerosene lamp, adjust the height of the wick, light the lamp, and replace the chimney. And when you finally get the damn thing lit, it’s barely bright enough to light your path on a moonlit night.
I lived for more than a year without electricity—less a social experiment than a flight from society—but I did learn something about the simple life. The myth of Walden Pond remains a powerful impetus in a culture beset by complexity and, I suspect, often lies beneath the fascination with apocalypse. Remember the Y2K phenomenon? My sister talked of outfitting a cave to prepare for that myth and my mother still considers the end of world as justification for her faith. (Even more terrifying, so does our current president!)
I learned that simplicity is hard work. Subsistence takes most of your time. The experience of living on that hillside in the Sierra Nevada has robbed most of my attraction for living rough. I’d much rather have time to spend on things other than staying warm, finding shelter, eating and digging holes to bury my waste. Still, I could have spent the time I’ve gained from technology more wisely.
But still I remember the sound of that cougar more than 20 years ago. It’s a memory that chills my spine across the intervening years. I may not have chosen the simple life like Thoreau, rather had it thrust upon me, but it’s lent me some perspective on my foolishness.