Lynn Darling’s new memoir begins with a simple declaration: “A few years ago, the summer my only child left home for college, I moved from an apartment in New York City, to live alone in a small house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of Central Vermont.”
Exploring her disorientation in moving from one life to another, Darling, who had lost her husband a decade before, embarks on a journey to find the essence of who she is.
Along the way, she embraces the language of travel, beautifully deploying metaphors about direction, maps, and the concepts of waykeeping and wayfinding: Waykeeping, Darling explains, is the basic ability to stick to a route by recognizing familiar landmarks and signposts along the way. Wayfinding accesses a deeper capacity for being completely self-reliant in navigating a landscape. “We start out in life learning the first,” Darling writes, “with luck we end up knowing something of the latter, to the extent that accident and blessing give us a choice.”
Her first order of business involves wrestling with her idiosyncratic little house in Woodstock, Vt., that she calls “Castle Dismal.” Making Castle Dismal livable for body and soul gives way to a determination to inhabit fully the very landscape that isolates the house. Wandering becomes a survival challenge as well as a test of will.
In an age when most of us rely on a GPS or smartphone to make our way in the world, Darling’s longing to get lost on purpose, to wander alone replaces bone-wearying loneliness with a joyful solitude.
Just as she starts to carve out a daily routine with her yellow Lab puppy and people she meets in Woodstock, Darling is diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer challenges her to bring together “whatever understanding I gained about direction, about orienting myself in an unfamiliar world.”
The disease also creates a “survival situation” for Darling the wayfinder — a situation in which the best training and the fanciest equipment won’t necessarily lead the way home. Quoting an expert on “deep survival,” Darling notes that it’s ultimately what is in the heart and not the backpack that ensures survival.
There have been many accounts of conquering nature and disease. But Darling melds her extreme adventures in the woods and in the doctor’s treatment room with brilliance and poetry.
One night in Castle Dismal she sees an “old bespectacled egg-headed man,” which turns out to be her own reflection after her hair has fallen out from chemotherapy. She calls “this new version of myself” Augustus Egg after a Victorian-era painter. He is her guide through the unknown yet distinct terrain that a cancer patient passes through.
Lessons learned and wisdom earned culminate in her time at the Wilderness Survival Center, where she goes to develop “the ineffable ability to read the landscape.” Instead, her no-nonsense guide, Marty, emphasizes that direction and orientation have more to do with knowing where you have been than where you are going, and it involves dealing with the world as it is and not as we wish it to be.
As she delves deeper into the woods, Darling writes: “Direction was not beholden to grace or instinct; it was a puzzle that yielded to preparation, precision, and patience, to self-knowledge and a large dose of humility in the face of the unknown.”
Gaining humility in the face of the unknown aptly describes Lynn Darling’s wonderful memoir. The fanciest GPS in the world cannot guarantee our safe arrival. And extreme adventures in mid-life don’t follow a straight path. Our starting point is who we are in the here and now.