I got up at 4:30 a.m. that morning and made pancakes from boxed mix while my fellow cowboys, Luke and Ainsley, brought the horses in. From the grimy window in our mouse-infested eating cabin, I watched the stars fade, slow and soft. The hiss of the propane lamp and stove was loud and comforting, the only noise until their boots and cold out-of-breath voices came tumbling into the small space.
Breakfast on the mountain was always quiet, our abdominal muscles still clenched from the early-morning egress from our warm sleeping bags. I asked them if they would be okay all day by themselves, and appreciated their smiling response: “We’ll be fine, Hannah, don’t worry so much.”
So after breakfast — pancakes with thick slices of solid butter and jam — I packed my bag with a can of tuna, four protein bars, two bottles of water, a navel orange, and three maps. I tugged on hiking boots and patted the saddled horses on my way out.
After I left Luke and Ainsley, I headed to Wild Horse, the highest-elevation pasture on the Deep Springs’ Crooked Creek allotment, hoping to explore the land that drought had rendered unusable the previous summer. The pasture itself is a wide plateau more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
I stopped there, on a thin spit of rocky land just below the summit of Buck’s Peak to eat my first granola bar and feel the sparse air. Then I scrambled down the wall of a canyon marked on one of our old maps as having water and headed downstream.
Near the top, a small stream trickled from a little hummocky spring. But past noon, I found myself in a deep, dry ravine. The walls were steep and there was little food; I wasn’t going to find anything I could use.
I wanted to cover new land on my way home, so I made an idiotically sharp right turn and began ascending the western canyon wall. Dizzy with the heat and solitude and strangeness, I sat down cross-legged in the dry grass and coarse dirt on the crest between my canyon and the next.
My backpack was damp and my dust-colored snap-button shirt stuck to my spine. In the direction I came, the land soared upwards towards alpine granite and greenery. Below, a web of canyons sloped through high desert, and the Sierra poked up, capped in white, to the west.
That was this past August. I’d spent the last three years as a student at, and then employee of, Deep Springs College. The college is both a utopia and a grueling social experiment. Twenty-six students, all between 17 and 23 years old, read Kierkegaard, govern each other, and perform both glorious and heinous chores on the college’s farm and ranch.
This summer, my job title was “Senior Returning Mountain Cowboy,” and my life was absurd in the childhood fantasy way — two close friends and I lived without running water, electricity (read: refrigeration), supervision, internet, mealtimes, or psets. Our only homework was the daily recording of events in the “Cowboy Journal,” volumes of which stretched back years in leather-bound journals.
We loped horses through alpine meadows, skinny-dipped in the creek, screamed with rage and ecstasy on mountain tops, and ate Oreos by the pound. We worked 100-hour weeks and routinely hiked 15 miles before a meager lunch. Our feet blistered and our hands bled, cut up by barbed wire. Our task was to steward 150 cow-calf pairs and seven horses. Seldom did an hour pass without a micro-emergency.
And then, like any dream, it ended. On Aug. 26, my boss picked me up in a big white truck and drove me back to Deep Springs College, along the slowly improving washed-out dirt road, which fades to asphalt past the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest and down into the deserted Deep Springs Valley. The college is a tiny oasis on the eastern side. I stared out the window for the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive. My boss, a kind and weather-hardened cowboy, was not good with crying women.
The next day, a friend and I drove across California to my childhood home in San Francisco. We talked about the highway fences, how before Deep Springs we’d never really seen them. Now, all that work — each post to pound into the hard ground, wires stretched one by one and then clipped to the T-posts — stood out like neon on the uniform yellowed grass of late summer in the Central Valley.
I then had one day to pack, get a haircut, and remember what it was like to talk to people who weren’t Luke and Ainsley. On Aug. 29, I landed in Boston for the first time.
I felt like I had entered a thick and strange haze. Daily showers made me feel unnaturally clean, and I missed the smooth arc of the sun across the sky. I felt like a space alien walking down a crowded street and making small talk after class.
I still think often of that day hiking below Wild Horse, of the feeling of being lost in physical space.
Sitting on the crest between the canyon I’d come from and the canyon I hoped to explore, I opened my can of tuna with my leatherman, ate half of the fish, and buried the rest in the sand. By then, halfway through my second summer in those mountains, I knew I could get myself home.
But I’d overestimated my endurance; I was too tired to finish my food. After six hours on new and uneven terrain, I feared the uphill walk to come. The cloudless sky and distant peaks were entirely silent. What if a canyon led somewhere unexpected? I noticed every breath, every footstep, every heartbeat. Out here they marked me as exotic and foreign.
Still, I kept moving. I descended into the next canyon and began hiking upwards. This terrain was more familiar, and then, around a soft turn, I began to hear running water. A quarter mile later, a waterfall poured from the cliff itself. A bramble of rose bushes grew at its base. I’d seen this uncanny spring before, following cow tracks early in the summer.
I could find my way home. I could move on with my life. Maybe I could even drive to San Francisco, move to Cambridge, and start a new trial with Hegel, penny loafers, brick sidewalks, and new people.
I’m in the middle of that journey and, to be honest, I still wake some mornings with my abdominal muscles clenched. I don’t feel quite myself in ripped Wranglers or miniskirts; Widener is palatial and strange and I don’t understand the logic of the paths through the Yard. But the fog of leaving is starting to clear.