Herb Goes Hermit
Herb peered over the top of his cubicle, mesmerized by the agonizingly slow movement of the minute hand on the clock at the far side of the room. In his one lone, exhilarating act of defiance, he had tossed his watch into the waste basket in the company cafeteria years ago. Everything else in his life was constraining and suffocating. As illusory as it was, Herb could at least imagine he was freed from the bonds of time.
Time. 34 years = 408 months = 1,768 weeks =12,410 days = 297,840 hours = 17,870,400 minutes. The last 20 minutes would be the most painful for Herb- anxiety soars as the moment approaches. In twenty minutes Herb would walk out that door for the last time, liberated from the mind-numbing, torturous tasks he had so long endured.
Herb hated his job, but not quite as much as he hated his boss and his coworkers. Punching out at the end of another miserable day at work brought little relief as he also hated his neighbors, their noisy, bratty kids, and their incessantly barking dogs. He was particularly burdened by old man Johnson’s rooster which faithfully announced the arrival of every new day a half hour before sunrise.
The feelings were mutual. Herb’s going away party would be held the week after he left. Kids forfeited their baseball whenever a foul ball sailed over his fence. Conspirator theorists might even have suggested the dogs and the rooster, even though situated on opposite sides of Herb’s property, were running a tag-team operation designed to drive poor Herb, in layman’s terms, “woo-woo”. There was no salvaging Herb’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Twenty minutes. Each jump of the minute hand took forever as Herb’s mind bounced back and forth from the scourge of his painful past to the peaceful, soothing, serene thoughts of the wondrous future that loomed just over the horizon. He had it all planned out. Walt had Disneyland; Michael had Neverland; Dolly had Dollywood; Herb would have his Herbville.
Having no friends, no interests, and no pleasures, Herb stashed away a small fortune during his working years. As such, he was well positioned to acquire his Shangri-La, his Camelot, his Promised Land- a one-room cabin on a remote 50-acre parcel in the Montana Rockies. The nearest sign of civilization was the aging town of Butte, affectionately referred to by the locals, and by some phonetically challenged visitors, as “Butt”. With the mindset of a junior accountant, Herb had meticulously prepared for his great escape- a small wood-burning stove, stockpiles of firewood, flintstones, oil lamps, oil, tin cutlery, hunting and fishing equipment, and a moderate supply of bomb shelter-style food rations in case his hunting and fishing efforts proved inadequate. He made one concession for the sake of a possible medical emergency- a cell phone and a solar-powered charger. Herb and his hideaway cabin in the wilderness would be a self-contained unit; he had no further need of anyone or anything. Good riddance, world.
Herb hatched his plan five years ago, right after he got a new, even more intolerable boss at work, and his canine-loving neighbor brought home two rescue German Shepherds that added volume and consistency to the cacophonous nightly bark-a-thon. He found his little piece of paradise in an ad in Wilderness Living Magazine, and he spent all of his vacation time making the place ready for the move. Herb supplemented his very limited survival skills with books and Internet searches. With his remarkable lack of commitment to the task, the workday provided ample opportunity for Herb to research life in the wild. He even picked up a few helpful tidbits by streaming a little Rambo online. Herb was as prepared as any unprepared guy could be for wilderness living.
At 5:00 PM Herb was out the door faster than a kid heading for summer vacation. He drove straight through, Minneapolis to Butte. His final stop was Big Bertha’s General Store on the outskirts of Butte- “Everything You Need Under One Roof, And More.” By this time in the process, Herb had befriended the young man behind the counter.
“Today’s the big day, Seth. I just filled up with gas, you know, in case of some kind of medical emergency. And I’ll need a few more cases of beer. Could you throw them in the truck?”
“Will do, Herb. Are you sure you’ve got everything you need?”
“This will be as bare bones. I want to live like the early pioneers, free of all the crap society throws at us.”
“And what about that pistol I suggested, you know, for those long walks in the woods you talked about? There’s Grizzlies up there, you know.”
“No, I’m good.”
“And Mountain Lions.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well, not a Dirty Harry gun, maybe just a little one.”
“Ok, a medium size one.”
Herb teared up when he saw the cabin. Sometimes the anticipation far exceeds the actual event, but not in this case. Totally relaxed, at peace, far from all the tribulations society had inflicted upon him for so many years. He was what he had dreamed about for so long, a happy Herb.
Hopefully, we will all have that one great moment in time, a defining instant that can be called upon from our lockbox of memories to bring a smile even in the most difficult of times. Herb’s moment was rooted in the crass, the most primitive of actions to be found in the human experience, but nonetheless, it was as glorious an event as one could hope for. Immediately after unpacking the truck, Herb walked out his front door, gazed upon the vast valley below, took a few deep breaths of the crisp, cool air, and peed. Functional and symbolic, the exhilarating feeling of the freedom to do whatever he wanted, as well as an overt expression of his distaste for the world below. When the deed was done, Herb triumphantly raised his arms above his head, Rocky at the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Ali leaping atop the ropes after Liston failed to answer the bell, Jack declaring he was King of the World at the bow of the Titanic. Oops, maybe you don’t want to go to the Titanic thing, Herb.
Quiet. Peace. Nothingness. Herb, the cabin, the mountains, crisp clean air, the moon peaking in and out of wispy white clouds. And no people, no rooster, and no barking dogs. Some pilgrims wander through the wilderness to find salvation; Herb found his in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, the body operates on a separate track from the mind. Herb’s state of mental bliss was interrupted by nature’s call. < Warning: The following descriptions may be disturbing for some readers.> No, Herb had already gone pee-pee. Now it was time, as delicately as can be stated, to go… poo-poo.
Herb read all about the early pioneers using leaves for…shall we say, cleanup. Herb realized his first miscalculation as he walked through the stand of tall pines toward the outhouse. Pine needles and leaves, similar in purpose when they are on a tree; not so much after they’ve fallen to the ground. Nothing in Herb’s research noted the dearth of leafy trees at higher altitude. Herb’s first visit to his new bathroom was…unpleasant.
The splash of stars across the night sky was spectacular. Herb sat on a fallen log, taking it in all in, a heavenly panorama of sheer wonder unknown to those who dwell within the glow of bright city lights.
Herb smiled as he snuggled under his quilt. He felt a great sense of relief over all he had left behind, but surprisingly, he had trouble sleeping. He was on edge the whole night as he kept waiting for the disturbing sounds of the barking dogs. And under the spell of some form of subconscious anticipation, Herb awoke the next morning a half hour before sunrise.
A sheepish Herb entered Big Bertha’s the next morning.
“Herb! What are you doing here?”
“ I guess there is one more thing I could use.”
“Ha…ha, ha…ha, ha, ha…”
Herb, seeing no humor in the purchase, quickly grabbed voluminous amounts of toilet paper, and headed back to his little piece of paradise.
Herb’s seller had boasted of the good fishing in the trout stream that bordered the property, but he (cleverly) neglected to disclose the competition. Even before he wet his line, Herb felt the menacing gaze of the grizzly bear just a hundred yards downstream. His first thought was he didn’t think a bear could be that big. His second thought was the gun sitting on the floor next to bed. Herb hurriedly gathered his gear and left today’s catch to the bear.
Meals placed on your table at a restaurant may not look as good as they did in the picture on the menu. Meals pulled out of a box previewed only with written descriptions may appear even less appealing when held in your hand. After a lengthy review of his options, Herb went with the “Black Bean Burger.”
Herb felt good about starting his cooking fire in the mode of Daniel Boone.
Scritch, scratch, click…scritch, scratch, click…scritch, scratch click. God dammit. Scritch, scratch, click…scritch, scratch, click. You’ve got to be #@*! Kidding me.
“Hey, Herb, what do you need?”
“Just some matches.”
“You came all the way down here just for matches?”
“Matches, Seth, matches.”
Herb managed to down the Black Bean Burger with the help of a few beers. He couldn’t help but note that tonight would have been pizza delivery night from Felipe’s back home.
The prospect of fishing was akin to Herb’s temptation to misbehave in grade school. He had never seen a nun whacking a kid with a ruler, but the reputation for such acts was enough to keep him in line. Likewise, Herb had never seen a man ripped to shreds by a grizzly bear, but recalling such reports was sufficient deterrence to keep him from the stream.
Plan B- hunting. As Herb had never done it before, it may have been imprudent for him to rely on taking down big game for his subsistence. Herb figured he should get a little practice in.
The guy at the sporting goods store showed him how to load his hunting rifle, but Herb’s hands were shaking as he put the bullets into the killing machine. He stood just 20-30 yards from the target, raised the rifle, aimed, and fired. The shockingly loud bang and the jolt to his shoulder scared him to death. Maybe hunting wasn’t his thing. He could acquire a taste for the bomb shelter food.
As nightfall drops in temperature in the mountains can be extreme, Herb tried to limit his outhouse visits to the daylight hours. Going pee-pee wasn’t an issue, as one of the benefits of his new life was he could now pee anywhere. Going…poo-poo…was the problem as Herb’s butt was not accustomed to making contact with freezing cold surfaces. The sound of howling wolves in distance only added to the discomfort of the experience.
Boiled potatoes, powdered milk, Black Bean Burgers, crackers. Herb wasn’t a prayerful man, but he was thanking God for beer on a nightly basis. One night he put in a call to Big Bertha’s.
“Hey, Seth, does Butte have any pizza joints that would deliver up here?”
Short walks through the woods. Even though Herb packed a pistol whenever he strayed far from the cabin, he feared the odds of hitting a wild animal in full attack mode would be slim. He stayed close to home after sundown as the howling wolves in the pitch-black darkness unsettled his nerves.
Quiet, then it got even more quiet. Herb had grown tired of debits, credits, reruns of Colombo and Gunsmoke, traffic jams, wait lines at the grocery store, barking dogs, and a crowing rooster. Could he now grow tired of nothing at all?
The evergreen branches covered with snow brought extra beauty to the setting, but the cold temperatures created more challenges for Herb. He was making more frequent trips to the wood pile, brushing the snow away, and kicking logs to free them from the pile. Herb moved his bed closer to the old wood burner, and he and his blanket became one.
Sometimes the scales are tipped with that proverbial last straw; sometimes it comes with a ton of bricks. Shivering in bed, Herb felt a little something else going on. It was just past midnight, the snow was falling, and a fierce wind was blowing. The last thing Herb wanted to do was make a trip to the outhouse.
It is a known fact that the coldest experience in life is a bare butt placed on the ice-cold surface of a seat in an outhouse in winter. Herb will attest to that. As Herb opened the door, ready to race back to the cabin, he saw them approaching, first one, then two, and finally a third. His research was correct- wolves do hunt in packs.
Herb slammed the door shut, breathed a sigh of relief, and snuck a peek out the half-moon cut in the door. The wolves were drawing closer. Oh my God, Herb! They know you’re in there.
He looked, they were gone. He looked, they were back. They were circling the outhouse. Herb about couldn’t breath. He thought if he stayed perfectly still, they’d leave. And then scratching, clawing at the walls, at the door. It finally occurred to Herb to fasten the small, rusted hook on the door into the eyehook on the door. The hook immediately broke off.
Herb grabbed onto the wood slat running across the door and held on for dear life. He couldn’t believe he was being hunted Jaws-style by three freaking animals. The door swung outward so he just had to keep the banging from creating a sliver of an opening for one of the beasts to stick its head through. He once again pictured his pistol resting comfortably on the floor next to his bed.
Repeated failed attempts to gain entry seemed to only anger the attackers and intensify their efforts. Growling, snarling, frenzied clawing at the door and walls. Holy crap! One was digging at the base of a wall! The sight of a paw under the wall nearly gave Herb another poo-poo moment.
Suddenly quiet. He prayed the wolves had left. But even if they had, would he have the nerve, the courage, the requisite speed and energy to make a run back to the cabin? Herb looked out the half-moon cut in the door. The wolves had not left. They were lying down just 10 feet from the door, their fur flecked with snow and flickering in the wind. All eyes were on the outhouse. Herb was under siege.
He began to tire. He sat down on the floor, never releasing his grip on the wooden slat. Herb was so terrified he didn’t notice the drop in his body’s core temperature. He had only thrown on a pullover sweatshirt for what should have been a quick trip to the outhouse. He now wished he had researched just how long a body could survive sub-freezing temperatures.
He recalled one interesting and hopefully helpful hint from his research. When confronted by a dangerous animal, a mountain lion, a bear, or perhaps a dog, make yourself look big…and scary. The tactic seemed risky to Herb, but he could feel his joints tightening up, and his fingers getting numb. He feared freezing to death, and the writer of the article had impressive credentials. He’d give it a shot.
Herb stood up and took a look. The wolves were still there. As soon as he opened the door, three heads in unison turned toward Herb. He raised his hands high and let out a primordial scream. Unfortunately for Herb, the wolves had not read the same article, and snarling, growling, and flashing their teeth, they charged at Herb. They hit the door just after Herb managed to get it closed.
Herb assumed his sitting position, holding onto that life-saving slat, and fought to stay awake, struggling to survive. Throughout the night, he drifted in and out of consciousness. Strange thoughts, dreams, nightmares, and hallucinations, visited poor Herb. He wished his outhouse were built of stone rather than wood, recoiled in horror as “Two-Socks” turned on Kevin Costner and went for his jugular, and saw himself as Little Red Riding Hood running through the woods. All the while his body temperature continued to drop.
Irony. A rooster. Did a rooster somehow appear in the area? Or was it part of his mind flipping around haphazardly from the cold and lack of sleep? They say some people dream in color; maybe Herb dreamed in sound. Either way, it was the morning crowing of a rooster that awakened Herb that day and saved his life.
The wolves weren’t in sight, and Herb understood that to stay was to die. Arms and legs grudgingly cooperating with the hazy signals being sent from his barely functioning brain, Herb rose, pushed the door open, and trudged through the snow to his cabin. He hurriedly threw on some warmer clothes, grabbed the keys to the truck, and after a long, wistful look at the cabin, he was headed down the mountain.
Herb stumbled Frankenstein-like into Big Bertha’s, disheveled hair and eyebrows covered with frost, his jacket buttoned unevenly, a fur hat tilting sideways on his head. He had the look of a crazed man.
“Jesus Christ, Herb, what happened to you?!”
“Nothing. I just had a bad night.”
“I guess. Are you ok?”
“Yeah, I’m ok.”
“What do you need?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering if you knew anyone who wanted to buy a cabin in the mountains.”