As many of you know, we lived in a yurt in the woods from 1999 to 2001 when our son was between the ages of 5 months and two years old. When we moved there our eight cats moved with us including one, Claire, who could barely walk due to some neurological damage she had at birth. It might seem crazy to share a twenty foot diameter home with two humans and eight cats (that’s 38 legs for those counting!) but as we were in the middle of the woods it was totally manageable. In fact, unless it was very cold, the cats preferred to wander outside, coming home for meals and occasional affection.
One of the first questions people ask us when we tell them about this time is how did we manage weather. The fact is that the weather was never a problem. In the summers it got hot there – sometimes up to 45°C and humid. But at night the weather would go down to the low to mid 20’s and with a space that small, as soon as the outside temperature dropped, the inside temperature would be OK as well. In the winter it would get down as low as -25°C but with a wood stove we were always warm.
One challenge that had nothing to do with the yurt was how far from civilization we were. To get to the nearest town we had to drive down a narrow, steep dirt driveway, 10 miles of dirt road and another 5 miles of paved road. For most of the time we lived there this wasn’t a problem.
One day, in December of 2000, Sage goes to to do our grocery shopping and some other errands. As she shops, snow begins to fall. It slowly starts to accumulate. Within 30 minutes she’s getting nervous. That driveway is so steep she might not be able to get up it if she waits too long so she cuts the trip short, skipping the stop at the gas company to get another cylinder for our stove and heading straight home. One of us can go back to town in a day or two to finish up.
She is right to head home because within 30 minutes the snow is coming down and blowing. Sage gets home, I help her carry the groceries back to the yurt, toss a log in the stove and relax. The snow starts to accumulate more quickly.
By the next morning the ground is well and truly covered. The cats are not happy about this cold wet stuff on the ground and it is surely our fault. Every time they come in or out they meow at us.
The snow falls off and on all day. We listen to the radio and hear that the roads are terrible. The police are advising that everyone just stay at home. That’s fine, Sage just went to the grocery store so we’re good. We switch to shortwave radio and listen to a variety show on the BBC.
That night I make a batch of refried beans for burritos. Half way through making them the gas burner sputters out. It’s no problem, I grab two potholders and move the cast iron pan over to the wood stove and finish cooking it there. It looks like until we get to town I’ll have to cook on the wood stove. It’s not optimal as it doesn’t get as hot as a gas burner but we won’t starve.
Over the course of the next 4-5 days we get a lovely mix of weather. Some days it snows, other days we get freezing rain. One day it warms enough that we think the snow on the roads will melt. But then we get a flash freeze and the roads turn to solid ice. After that the mailman no longer comes. But that’s no problem because getting to the mailbox would require us walking half a mile down a hill of solid ice. A bigger problem is the fact that my client is sending me some paperwork to review. I have to call them and let them know that FedEx will not be delivering to us indefinitely. I’m going to miss their deadline.
That night, I worry less about the deadline because while Sage is crocheting by the light of two oil lamps first one fades to nothing and the second one soon follows.
I go to the cupboard to get the oil to refill them and find that we have no more oil. That was also on the list for Sage to get before the snowstorm started. The yurt will be in complete darkness every night until we can get to town. Sadly for us the days are about as short as they will ever get and the sun is gone by 4:30 PM and we won’t see it for another 14 hours.
A day later I take inventory. We’ve eaten most of the dried beans, there’s no tofu, we’re out of fresh vegetables. I’ve got some pancake mix, some oil, a few crackers, a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and 14 cups of Fantastic Foods Instant Black Bean Salsa Couscous. Just add hot water. We picked this up a couple of months ago at the grocery salvage store (where discontinued, expired, and dented/damaged goods are sold cheaply). It sounded good at first and the first 2-3 were tasty. But after that they all started to taste like cardboard. But beggars can’t be choosers. We heat water on the wood stove, pour it in to the cups and call it dinner.
During this time we’re not 100% miserable. During the day we can read books and we even have a battery powered boom box that keeps us connected to the world and plays our CDs and Daegan’s audio books. At night we tell each other stories and talk. But without light we find our own natural rhythm is to go to sleep very early – sometimes as early as 6PM. Still, after three weeks of cold, snowy, icy weather the roads are still not clear enough for us to get out and we’re beginning to wonder when we’re going to get a break.
We are trapped here for 27 days in all. But finally after a couple of warm days the weather is warm enough that we decide to try to venture out. And we aren’t just going to town, we’re going to drive to the nearest city, Springfield with a population of over 150,000.
Though we’re all introverts we’re so happy to see other humans that we’re chatting with everyone from the grocery store clerks to waitresses to the librarians. We book a hotel room so that we can all sleep without any one of us having to wake up to tend the stove. We eat several meals out in restaurants and have Indian food, Thai food, and sushi – anything we can find that tastes as little like cardboard as possible.
We head home with a car full of supplies including food, lamp oil, cooking gas, and shopping bags full of books for all of us and a few books on tape for Daegan. We shuttle back and forth between the yurt and the car until it’s all unloaded.
Once it’s done, we close the door. After two full days in Springfield, the yurt is as cold as it is outside – just below freezing. And so, while I start the wood stove, Daegan asks if we can put on his audiobook of “Octopus’ Den” by Deirdre Langeland and Sage puts it in the tape player and starts it.
The kindling is just beginning to catch when all of a sudden we hear a terrible growl coming from under the yurt. I’ve no doubt what it is. We’ve been gone for some time and a bear has come by to investigate. He’s also looking for food and angry that all he could find was Black Bean Salsa Couscous. But now we’re back and we’re next.
I say “I don’t know what to do, I think it’s a bear.” and Sage takes charge immediately. She locks the front door of the yurt, grabs sheets and hangs them in front of the four big windows so we can’t be seen and tells the two of us to sit in the middle on the floor so we won’t be seen and for God’s sake be QUIET.
We listen to the growling outside. There’s no sign of this thing leaving and I decide there’s only one thing to do. I put on my running shoes.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sage asks.
“I’m going to run to Mal’s house by the mailbox. He’s got a gun. I will run back with it and I’ll shoot the bear.”
Sage stops me. “A gun? You’ve never touched one, you wouldn’t even know what to do with it!”
And so we wait, listen to the growling. And then we hear another sound added to the growling – high pitched animal cries.
“That’s Claire,” Sage shouts, “The bear is eating Claire alive!” She gets up to try to save her. I grab her hand. “We’re parents now – we can’t do that.”
And for three terrible minutes we cower in the center of our yurt listening to a growling bear eat the most helpless of our cats while we can do nothing. If we’d known a month ago that we would be listening to our cat being eaten by a bear before being eaten ourselves we would have managed to enjoy being snowed in and appreciated our final days together.
We sit in silence and the bear stops for a moment. Sage says “What is that hissing noise? That’s the tape! It’s going to start any second and then the bear will tear open the yurt and eat us. Stop the tape!”
I get up and run to the tape and go to stop it. The bear must hear me running across the yurt because he starts to growl angrily again. And then, as I press the stop button on the boom box, the bear stops mid-growl. I press the play button again and we hear the bear again.
It is then we realize: when the boom box batteries are below freezing, they barely put out any power and the tape will turn very slowly. What we thought was a bear eating our cat was, in fact, Daegan’s audio book playing incredibly slowly.
It has been almost twenty years since this happened, and I still remember it like it happened yesterday. I remember all of time narrowing down to the present moment. I was not regretting the past, sad about tomorrow, or wondering what I might do next week. I was only here, only now. But the biggest lesson of all was how easily we delude ourselves when we are so sure we know all of the information. To this day, whenever I am upset or worried, I think about that afternoon and remind myself to be patient and to recognize that I may think I know what’s happening and how it’s all going to end up but in reality I may not have a clue.