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Arkell's Ark: The Retreat

...For some reason I have this apprehension that borders on fear, of being alone. There are no neighbours or comforting lights within sight, no laptop, no television and apart from the crackling of the fire thereís complete silence...

Ian Arkell spends thoughtful time on his own in an Ardennes forest cabin.

I drop them off as what is left of a weak winter sun starts to disappear over the hills above the town. I am just the chauffer on this occasion. They are taking advantage of a magazine offer to spend the weekend at Spa, a major resort town in the Ardennes. Women only, my wife and her daughter; a weekend of natural therapies, skin care, massage and the sort of stuff of which Iíd tire in a few minutes. But Iím not invited, so whether Iíd tire that easily is academic. A friend has supplied the key to a cabin, which he acknowledges is Ďbasicí, ďin the hillsí, Ďbut easy to find if you follow directionsí.

As I start climbing the hill out of town, the first snow starts to drift lazily across the windscreen and I double check my friendís instructions and turn off the main road onto a track. Although itís still light down in the town, itís almost dark in the forest and after ten minutes and several wrong turns, I find the crossroad I was looking for.

The last house was halfway up the hill and Iím feeling very lost when the cabin appears way up a long pot holed dirt track. ĎBasicí turns out to be a reasonably accurate description. The cabin is surrounded on three sides by forest and I would imagine that in the spring and summer it is a mass of colour with birds, deer, wild pig and birds to wake you in the mornings. Itís a single fronted timber place with a veranda across the front with a carport at the side. The last fifty metres is steep and the little Peugeot complains as it slips and slides its way towards the carport. Iíve parked too close to a pile of wood a metre high that lines the entire side of the carport and it takes some serious efforts to squeeze out.

ĎThereís power and there should be plenty of gas. TV receptionís crap but itís nice and quietí. Well, thereís no power and the gas dies after five minutes. Itís five, dark and Friday night so the chance of getting anything organised any time soon is remote. Inside itís just one large room with a smaller one out back that contains a toilet and a shower. In the centre of the room is an old woodstove surrounded by three battered lounges. I was told it used to be a hunting lodge. Sort of place where years ago a group of guys would spend the weekend killing everything in sight, including brain cells, without too much regard for housekeeping. The stove has a crack in it but should do the job.

I unload what I have, make sure the lounges donít support any wildlife and work out how to get a feed and a coffee going. I now see why thereís so much wood in the carport. I scare up some candles, an old oil lamp, the sort my grandparents might have used and organise some light. Thereís nothing in the refrigerator other than a plastic container of something that was probably once meat. Thereís also some coke and a few cans of Stella. In my pack Iíve brought lots of pasta, sausages and bread. I also took the precaution of bringing along a couple of bottles of local red. Just in case. Itís been six weeks without a drink. No particular reason, certainly not part of a 12 step tango but simply trying to get into something resembling shape.

The fireís roaring in a few minutes and Iíve dragged a heap of wood in from the carport. I mix half a can of baked beans in with the sausages, cut up an onion as well, and things are starting to look up. Think Iíll forget about the kilos for just this weekend as itís been floating between10 and 15 degrees below at night this last week and Iíll need inner warmth as well.

For some reason I have this apprehension that borders on fear, of being alone. There are no neighbours or comforting lights within sight, no laptop, no television and apart from the crackling of the fire thereís complete silence. There are no curtains just shutters that seem stuck but that can wait until tomorrow. I canít help smiling. Iím sneaking up rapidly on seventy yet itís taken a lifetime for me to realise that procrastination is much maligned and that most things can in fact wait until tomorrow. And that many things, if ignored, will go away completely.

My sleeping bag is supposed to be good for 20 below, so I spread that out on the largest lounge and try to read some Wodehouse. After a couple of hours Iím reading the same page two or three times and wondering why Bertie keeps repeating himself. And why one of the bottles is almost empty. I take a peek outside just after midnight and find the snow is a lot heavier than before and that the road has disappeared. Itís total darkness with snow swirling in all directions and after just a few minutes outside my beard is almost frozen. Thereís a paradox here in that while Iím absolutely alone in this beautiful place and despite the joy of the moment, thereís still a flicker of apprehension, as though in some way the isolation is a threat.

But gradually the joy wins out yet I wonder if the sharing of this moment with someone you love would enhance or destroy the experience. Or are such moments memorable because of their solitary nature. I donít want to let this moment go. Like waking from a magical dream that falls apart and fragments each time you try to grasp it.

I stir sometime round three and drag myself outside again to accommodate a troublesome prostate. The water in the toilet cistern is frozen and flushing isnít an option so there could be challenges ahead in the morning; but some bridges are better uncrossed until absolutely necessary. The snow seems to have stopped but even with thick woollen socks, the floorboards are freezing. The sleeping bag is holding up to expectations and after some more wood on the fire, I slip back into the bag and try to recall when things have been better or Iíve been more content. I canít and drift off, not waking until round nine thirty.

After a quick breakfast I decide to go for a walk. The snow is still falling although itís light and so after a brief flirtation with common sense, I decide to head up the hill behind the cabin. The hills around here are part of a large forest with tall trees like winter scarecrows reaching into a white sky. In this half light itís the stuff of wild imaginings. I get the feeling that living alone for too long could either lead to madness or enlightenment. I think about this for a moment and wonder which path Iíd take.

At the top of a hill there are more hills and valleys, endless rows of trees and a landscape covered in snow, devoid of tracks, roads, fallen braches, or any form of life. After struggling through the snow for a while and sinking up to my waist I decide to head back. Unfortunately, the cabin is not where I left it. I appear to have misplaced a perfectly good cabin. Thereís a second or so of fear when I realise Iím lost. I have nothing with me, no phone, no food, nothing.

I have to be honest and admit to a moment of panic. Eventually I manage to sit down and try to think of what to do. Iím still warm and the adrenalin has kicked in and is keeping me going. Luckily I was smart enough to throw on more clothes than I need, so while keeping warm is not an immediate concern, staying alive may prove to be more of a longer term challenge.

I have watched these survival shows on Discovery channel sometimes and have often wondered how I would fare in an emergency. Could I eat a spider? Suck moisture out of a lump of camel crap or a sheepís eyeball? Luckily thereís little evidence of a spider population and thankfully even less evidence of camels or sheep, so I wonít have to make any tough choices just yet. Every tree is the same as its neighbour. Any tracks I might have left are now covered by snow. There is absolutely nothing I can use as a reference point and I realise quickly that at times like this, imagination can be your worst enemy. Iím not so much scared as almost resigned, cursing my stupidity and totally at a loss as to what I should do.

I try to work out some sort of grid pattern to search and spend half an hour without any result. And the panic kicks in again for just a moment. Then I see a tree which against all rationality looks familiar. There are tens of thousands of trees and they all look the same. But I trudge through the snow and when I reach the tree I look down a hill and see a vague irregular shape in the gloom. Itís the cabin.

Ten minutes later Iím busy with the fire and warming some gluhwein which someone has overlooked in a cupboard. I realise how easily overconfidence and lack of focus can kill people. There are certain ways of leaving this earth that are more desirable than others. Freezing to death is not one of them.

I spend most of the afternoon fixing the shutters, cleaning and sweeping the front veranda. Curled up on the lounge again with Wodehouse, I decide to celebrate my close call with another glass of red. I drift off and wake up to find the fire needs more wood. As Iím gathering some small pieces of timber, a fox appears from behind the corner of the cabin, struggling through the snow. I would have thought theyíd all be tucked away for the winter or something; telling the kids stories and enjoying life underground. He sees me and stops for a moment. I stay still and we watch each other for about five minutes. I want to grab that plastic container of meat or whatever it was but Iím worried he might disappear. After another couple of minutes I move slowly inside the house and grab the container. Mr Fox is still there and I throw the meat in his direction. I take the container back inside and when I come back out heís gone.

You realise how tied up you become with possessions when youíre alone in the middle of nowhere. Priorities change, the hierarchy of needs kicks in. Warmth, shelter, food and water. Self-actualisation doesnít seem that important at the moment. Although I do manage some time meditating, gazing at the fire and trying, too much as usual, not to think instead of just letting the thoughts arise and disappear. Thoughts about the frozen toilet arise. And arise. But itís still a bridge too far so I throw on an extra jacket and wrapped up like the Michelin Man grab an old chair and sit on the veranda and enjoy the last few moments of winter sun. Thereís little warmth to be had but thereís some psychological value at least.

The isolation, the lack of human contact, is not as threatening as it was yesterday; itís given me a chance to spend some quiet time thinking and I reflect on the people, places and the events and circumstances that have shaped my life and how Iíve come to be alone and snowbound in a forest in the Ardennes. Itís not a negative process as introspection can sometimes be. To some extent itís possible to stand back and view the whole process objectively; accepting it as being a part of my life, neither good nor bad, merely a set of circumstances. I had mixed feelings about coming here, perhaps a little scared at the prospect of being by myself for a few days, not completely comfortable with my own company and not always liking the guy with whom I would be sharing this cabin.

The sun disappears and after giving the fire some encouragement Iím about to close the shutters and ask myself, why? Sure, it will help keep the heat in but is that the real reason? Iím in the middle of nowhere, thereís no way in or out of here at the moment, the only sign of life has been Mr Fox, so it seems stupid to worry about closing some damned shutters. I could have easily ended up under a snow drift earlier; staying there until the Spring and now Iím worried about the likelihood of someone looking through the window at night. So what? Theyíd see an old guy snoring in front of a log fire, happy with his world. So the shutters stay as they are and despite a few reservations, the door is left unlocked as well. This keeps up thereís a serious chance I could relax.

My last night alone and around midnight a wind comes up threatens to take the roof off. I drift off easily but itís a night of wild dreams fuelled by too much red. The rain starts just before daylight and I wonder if Iíll be able to get back down to town again or if thereíll be too much slush and ice. Maybe I wonít be able to get a parking space to pick up the family. And will there be too much traffic on the way back to the coast? And the usual one hundred and one Ďwhat ifsí and Ďmaybesí we tend to agonise over which usually resolve themselves anyway.

I put off leaving the cabin until as late in the afternoon as possible, sitting in the car waiting for the heater and demister to do their job. Finally I reverse too quickly into a snow bank and then shoot forward almost going over a two metre fall into a drain while the steep descent down the driveway becomes a controlled slide. On the way down the hill about 100 metres from the cabin I wave goodbye to Mr Fox as he treads gingerly through the snow. I would like to spend another season here and watch as the trees come to life, their limbs covered in soft green growth, full of birds singing to each other celebrating the sunshine and watch as squirrels chase each other round the cabin.

Itís been magic, this privacy, this absence of people and stimuli. But to embrace this sort of solitude in the longer term is another thing. I think that perhaps the prolonged silence would be the real challenge.

Could I handle another three months or so? I donít know. I have serious doubts. After years of introspection and denial, Iím starting to understand myself and my role in the scheme of things. But I know from conversations Iíve had with a number of people that prolonged winters and darkness tend to ferret out the depressive tendencies and weaknesses in oneís nature.

I suspect you need a fair degree of psychological strength to spend any sort of meaningful time alone. Some people might take to it like the proverbial duck to water and rejoice in the solitude coming out the end a better person. Conversely for those without that inner strength, that fine line between enlightenment and madness might become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

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