Into the Woods

A memoir of two years as a hermit plumbs the modern fantasy of escape.

winter woods.
At one point, preoccupied with observing the changing color of shadows on snow, Axelrod seems on the verge of a transcendent understanding of how to exist entirely in the present.

Photo by Thinkstock

When he was in his late 20s, the writer Howard Axelrod spent two years living in a remote cabin in Vermont. He avoided almost all human contact; his beard grew long and his body grew thin. He went for epic walks in the woods. He had no computer, radio, or TV; he had a phone, but on the rare occasions it rang, he often would not bother to answer it. The kindly local who came by to plow his drive during the winter described him as a “real backwoodsman,” and on the long nights, Axelrod would lie down by the wood stove while memories streamed through his mind—of his boyhood walk to school, say, or some experience from summer camp—as though he were watching his very own TV show. It would make him laugh out loud, and cry.

The Point of Vanishing is Axelrod’s memoir of those years and the odd path that led him to hole up alone in the middle of nowhere for 24 months. The kind of solitude Axelrod imposed on himself is regarded as torture by some prison rights activists and as a threat to mental stability by many psychologists. But it’s also a fantasy. Who hasn’t longed to say goodbye to the incessant, yammering company that crowds our daily lives? Cabin Porn (the popular blog and now the book) feeds this daydream of getting very, very far away from it all. When the Swiss town of Solothurn advertised for a hermit to occupy a cavern at Verena Gorge last year, the mayor expressed his surprise at the amount of interest: “We have had applications from all over Europe,” he reported. (Perhaps Solothurn was not entirely clear on the concept, though, since one of the requirements listed on the job description was “to get joy out of meeting people.”)

The hermiting impulse lives everywhere, but only in the U.S. did it become a national ethos. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden serves as the foundational text for Americans of solitary temperament. The hermits of the Old World went into their wildernesses (of whatever variety) with the idea that they could better examine their souls in the absence of society. The American hermit—from Thoreau to John Muir to Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild—typically believes that truth can be found in greater intimacy with the wild itself. The best life is always to be found in the primeval, and self-sufficiency, rather than self-examination, is the imperative. Thoreau moved into his pond-side cottage not to learn but to prove something to the rest of the world; he already thought he knew better on just about any topic than just about anyone else in creation. As the critic Kathryn Schulz observes in a recent anti-Thoreau jeremiad in the New Yorker, Walden is “adolescent in tone.” Its author, she argues, is “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive.”

The character of every retreat from the world is determined by how the fugitive has experienced the world. For Thoreau, civilization was full of fools who wasted their time and energy on trivialities. Better to make do with less and have more time for reading and writing. Thoreau was, however, no traveler, unlike McCandless and the many young people who regularly aggravate the Alaskans around Denali National Park by needing to be rescued while attempting pilgrimages to the spot where he died. In 2010, a woman named Claire Ackermann drowned in the Teklanika River while making that trip. As Diana Saverin reports in Outside magazine, a memorial built for Ackermann reads, “To stay put is to exist; to travel is to live.” Although Ackermann was no hermit, in McCandless she and many other chronic travelers see a kindred spirit: not so much someone who lived more contemplatively, but someone who lived more intensely than the average person.

Axelrod’s retreat, too, has its own distinct flavor. He lacks the certainty of both Thoreau and McCandless; he fled the world in a state of crippling bewilderment. What makes his book completely mesmerizing—besides his lovely prose, that is—is how exquisitely it balances between the poles of revelation and disintegration. At times, in the depths of winter, when Axelrod becomes preoccupied with observing the changing color of shadows on the snow, he seems on the verge of a transcendent understanding of how to exist entirely in the present. For all the communications technologies he renounces (his retreat took place in the late 1990s, when the Internet was still somewhat optional), the most unsettling lack in his little borrowed cabin is a clock. Axelrod never knows what time it is, the information everyone asks for when woken from a dead sleep. As a result, he relies on communiqués from the natural world, and soon realizes, he writes, that “time was everywhere. Not minutes and hours, not days and weeks, but seasons, centuries, millennia. Time was so much bigger in wild places.” As a result, it comes to seem “bizarre that we’d managed to shrink something so profoundly primal and complex, something so near and so far, into little circular frames with numbers up to twelve.”

Axelrod doesn’t try to grow or forage his own food; he has to make forays to the market in the nearest town for frozen pizzas and ramen packs every month or so. The sensory overload once he steps inside the market after weeks alone in the cabin—Elton John trumpeting from the sound system, aisles of brightly colored packaging populated by cartoon character mascots like the Jolly Green Giant and the Swiss Miss—makes him feel like he’s “traveling through a parallel land, something like Oz.” He can barely remember how to make conversation with cashiers and diner waitresses. Shaggy and shambling, he’s gradually detaching from the human race. When he hears a knock on his door one evening toward the end of his time in the woods, Axelrod gets frightened, then reminds himself that “if there was a crazy man in the woods, a wild bearded loner liable to do anything, I was him. I am the crazy man.”

Is he crazy? No, but he’s not entirely noncrazy either. Entirely noncrazy people don’t get themselves into situations like this. The most obvious mover behind Axelrod’s quest is a freak accident he suffers during a pickup basketball game as a junior at Harvard. A fellow player’s finger nearly gouges out Axelrod’s eye, severing the optic nerve and turning him instantly and permanently blind on one side. This trauma is rendered with meticulous attention to the weird, hot emotional spasms that sweep through you just after something terrible and irrevocable happens: “A tight feeling of wanting to strike back, to throw parked cars out of my way. Why had this happened to me? … I tried to ignore the angry appeal already buzzing inside me: I can do better, give me another chance.”

Of course, Axelrod is better positioned than most to weather such a loss, but even his privilege (“my default future was law school with a grudge”) works against him: As a bright, athletic, but rather aimless student from a well-off family, he’s had little experience with hardship. The sheer randomness of his injury gave him the jumps. “Since the accident, just being jostled on the sidewalk would throw my body into instant turmoil.” It’s little wonder that he finds a solitary life appealing, given that his nervous system refuses to forget that any human being might violate and damage his body at any moment, even without meaning to. Compounding all this is a profoundly unsettling transformation of the visible world. He can still see, but he can no longer perceive depth. This means relearning practical skills, like how to negotiate stairs and how to walk in a group, but it also makes objects seem “weightless, permeable,” a collage of surfaces whose foundations can never be fathomed. Nothing looks real.

Howard Axelrod
Howard Axelrod.

Photo by Sophie Barbasch

Axelrod does graduate and even lands a fellowship that enables him to travel abroad. But a doomed affair with a German woman and couple of years of drifting around leave him oppressed by ephemerality. He worries that he’s adopted a series of false selves to please the people around him. That’s when he began advertising for a hideout in rural Vermont. “Whatever I was going to find,” he tells himself of the solitude he seeks, “however I was going to get my bearings, I didn’t want it to be in relation to anything that wasn’t permanent—I didn’t want it to be relative. I needed to find something that couldn’t be taken away and that I couldn’t leave.” As far as his family is concerned, he is cracking up. They worry. They want to send him copies of Into the Wild. They lose their tempers when he won’t travel to Florida for his grandmother’s 85th birthday, by which point the reader has begun to suspect Axelrod has transitioned from vaguely ungrounded to cosmically unmoored. “Even in my mind,” he writes, “it was becoming harder to articulate what I was searching for and how I might succeed.”

In essence, the plan Axelrod had going in was to tear himself down to a bedrock of certainty and rebuild his relationships to other human beings on that. In the woods he practices by keeping company with snails (frustrating) and chickadees (better), and believes he can employ this newfound sensitivity in his interactions with people. But he hasn’t learned a better way to perceive and communicate, only a different one, and when he makes it back for a family Thanksgiving, he’s humbled and dumbstruck by his relatives, with their dexterity at simultaneously carrying on multiple conversations and passing platters of turkey. “They were a bunch of demigods, capable of doing a thousand things at once,” he marvels. Could he ever rejoin the cacophony of their world, the human world? Does he even want to?

Axelrod really did become the crazy man in the forest, although his impulses were more self-annihilating than homicidal. But that doesn’t mean that, in his humility, he didn’t encounter a great mystery. You can feel its presence in every word he writes. What, exactly, did he do all day? He describes walking through the woods, writing a bit, rifling through a store of memories made so supervivid by isolation they’d sicken Proust with envy. But Axelrod leaves the impression that much of what happened to him in all that nothing can’t be translated into words at all. It’s not even clear where the heart of the conundrum resides: out in the trees or buried deep inside the man himself. Axelrod has gone so far—further than Thoreau and perhaps even further than McCandless—that the two have become indistinguishable, collapsing into each other. What he attempted was indeed insane, way beyond the smartphone-free hermit fantasies that most of us like to entertain now and then. But it was worth it.

The arc of the average memoir these days describes a flight through perversion of some kind (addiction, danger, madness), followed by a reassuring return to the comforts of normality. The Point of Vanishing traces that curve as well, culminating in the moment when, having fallen asleep in the snow, Axelrod realizes that his detachment has finally begun to terrify him. Yet, refreshingly, he never repudiates the extremity of what he’s done. He’s come in from the woods with a strange tale to tell, but what makes you want to stop whatever you’re doing and listen to him is the frosty breath of the wild that still clings to his coat.

The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod. Beacon Press.

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