The Peculiar Case of a Modern-Day Hermit
Categories: Life Stories
These symptoms include agitated and self-destructive behavior, anxiety and hypersensitivity, auditory and visual hallucinations, and, in some cases, a permanent intolerance to being around others.
Yet, while all this may be true, it's also the case that some people not only thrive in solitude, they discover meaning from being alone that they may not have found in ordinary life. Richard E. Byrd, for example, was a British naval officer who manned an advanced weather base alone in the Antarctic during the winter of 1934. During the long polar winter he developed an intense feeling of oneness with the universe. In his memoir,Alone, he wrote: "It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of man's despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day and night."
So which is it: Does solitude destroy the human psyche, or does it allow us to see the world clearly? These contrasting views are perhaps best illustrated by the story of two competitors in a 1968 yacht race to become the first solo sailor to go non-stop around the world. The first of them, Frenchman Bernard Moitissier, fell so in love with the solitude he abandoned the race altogether to sail through the Southern Ocean and on to Tahiti. For him, being alone was its own prize.
The other competitor, Donald Crowhurst, had a profoundly different reaction to all the alone time. He encountered problems with his boat not long into the race, and drifted aimlessly in the Atlantic for months, concocting false reports of his position. After he disappeared from radio contact, his boat was eventually found abandoned in the Sargossa Sea, with no sign of Crowhurst on board. What was found, however, was a 25,000-word diary that documented the English sailor's slide into madness. The solitude had, apparently, driven him out of his mind.
With the barman's directions, I went to the mine to find Virgil. It was about two miles from the road at the end of a steep rutted track. An abandoned cabin stood by the track above an embankment packed with excavated rock. Behind the shack, the front half of a rusted truck sat at a tilt in front of a mine entrance, its bodywork riddled with bullet holes.
Beyond the cabin, the track looped up behind the mine until it met a fork in the road. Nearing it, I saw a shadow of something cross a Juniper plant by the roadside. I walked on a little until I could see, along the path that led to my right, a man standing in profile holding a wheelbarrow. It was Virgil.
His beard was shorter than in the photo and he wore a grey pullover that hung limp over his sleight frame. He wanted to know if I had brought him beer and when I told him I had, he said he knew he liked me from the moment he saw me. I told him about a woman I met in Cleator, who had told me she thought Virgil was more free than anyone she knew. He shrugged and said he couldn't care less what others thought.
"I didn't come here to prove a point," he said. "Most those folks've never seen me sober. No joke. I'm the village idiot."
He invited me to stay and talk, and over the coming weeks, I pieced together what I could of his story. He grew up in a working class neighborhood in Phoenix, the eldest of six brothers, the son of a truck driver of German descent and a Cherokee woman. He married young, had two kids, cars, dogs—"the whole bullshit," as he put it. Then, at the height of the Reagan years, this first life ended. His wife kicked him out and his children disowned him. He wouldn't say what had caused this rupture but denied it was his drinking. Still, he stayed drunk on the streets for two years.
It was his father who found him, broken and destitute, and brought him to live with him at the mine, where he was caretaker. Later, Virgil would watch his father drink himself to death. After that, he decided to stay here alone.
It had been 27 years since he had seen his children. They would be in their 40s now. I asked if he ever thought of trying to find them.
"That's what you'd do, I suppose," he replied. "Not me."
I sensed a deep well of anger in him. It boiled up sometimes, especially when he drank. During a discussion about politics, for example, he exploded into an uncontrollable rage, upsetting beer cans and stamping his feet.
But the strongest impression he left me with was of someone whose emotional life was incredibly close to the surface. Once he broke down crying without explanation when I asked what seemed an innocuous question about a set of straw hats hung on the wall in his cabin. I wondered if this hypersensitivity was a symptom of the solitude, as in the case of solitary confinement prisoners, or whether it was part of his nature and perhaps what had caused him to retreat from the world in the first place.
There's a line in the 80s cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, when the eponymous hero notes, "Wherever you go, there you are." In other words, you might be able to hide out from the world but you can't hide from yourself. Similarly, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived for years as a hermit and published several books on solitude in his lifetime, once wrote: "If you go into the desert merely to escape from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils."
The last time I saw Virgil, we drank beer and sat on a ridge facing some mountains. It was March by then, and we watched a woodpecker perched nearby on a rusted billycan. Virgil asked me if I knew how the bird knew where to look for food.
"I used to wonder about that," he said. "One day I was watching this motherfucker and he'd keep looking off to the side like he was watching out for something. Then I figured it out: He had his head turned to listen for grubs scratching under the bark. I guess there's smart people who know that 'cause they read it or seen it in a documentary. But how many of 'em learnt it 'cause they seen it with their eyes?"
I nodded. In the rush to fill our days with pseudo-important stuff, most of us overlook the simple truth. Up there on his Arizona hilltop, Virgil might've been tormented by his tribe of devils, but he also knew that one way or another, it's all the same.
"You can burn yourself up thinking," he told me once. "I prefer to keep my feet on the ground, live a day at a time. I mean, you don't see a dog sitting around takin' itself serious and shit."