Telling Times

Psychiatrists and anesthesiologists, among other healthcare professionals, use a three-pronged approach to determine the degree of disorientation of a patient: location, time and identity. They ask the patient (in slightly varied forms): Where are you? What time is it? and What is your name? For the moment, just keep those three questions in your mind.

Recently, I went on my first wilderness canoe camping trip in the woods in Northern Maine. My partner (who had camped extensively before this trip) and I were miles and miles from other people. It took us two plus hours in a van to get to our canoe drop off point. It’s worth asking at some point what possessed me to take this trip but let’s leave that question for another blog.

I thought we had everything one could need for five days in the wilderness. We packed everything from iodine pills (to enable us to have clean water and eradicate Beaver Fever – the latter being something I did not know even existed) to marshmallows for S’Mores (my personal food addiction). We had dehydrated food of all sorts (none of it particularly edible in my view) and Advil, considering I had had recent wrist surgery among other ailments and my partner had hurt his right shoulder playing golf. We had quick drying clothes and towels; we had headlamps; we had toilet paper carefully preserved in zip lock bags.

We left our “normal” more formal clothes packed away in our rental car and we locked our cell phones, which would have been inoperable in the woods, in that same car. We left our car keys with the outfitter for safekeeping. Our credit cards and money stayed behind too; there’s not much use for them miles from stores and people.

In essence, we left the accoutrements of our “modern” life behind.

We were sure we had everything we needed for a 30-mile canoe trip over four days. Our outfitter provided a map (sealed in a baggie too) designating what seemed like a clear straight-ish paddle across rivers and lakes to our designated take-out point days away. The outfitter and driver kept saying: “It’s impossible to get lost on this route.”

To be sure, given that it was my first such trip ever (and those who know me personally know that I would have been the person voted least likely to manage without amenities like a toilet, hot shower and bath and a hair dryer let alone make-up and changes of clothing and high heeled shoes), I didn’t know what else we would need. And, I relied on my partner to know what needed to be packed in that gigantic metal-framed backpack of his (in addition to a tent).

We hadn’t paddled more than 1000 yards on that first afternoon when I asked: “What time is it?” I asked because I knew we have several hours of canoeing ahead to get to our first camping spot and we had launched quite late in the day. My partner was silent. So, I asked again in slightly different words, “How does one tell time in the wilderness?” Silence.

Well, there was good reason for that silence. We did not have a cell phone, our usual way of telling time. We did not have a watch or clock with us (something of an omission from my perspective). We had no device whatsoever to tell us the time of day. There were no people to ask. There were no billboards or stores.

We had to tell time the old-fashioned way – looking at the sky and its color and following the sun (hard to do in bad weather including fog and rain). We had the moon and stars and our own body rhythms to guide us.

I had expected that camping would be a dramatic change for me. But, it never once occurred to me that I would not know what time it was, and time is one of those telltale items to determine one’s level of disorientation as the lead-in questions to this blog suggest. Just think about this: in hospital rooms and ICUs, there are a myriad of clocks on walls so patients can get some sense of time, a sense of reality in a foreign and threatening environment. So too in institutions for the mentally ill. Knowing time is one way of grounding oneself.

I suppose I could have gotten mad but seriously, there was not much use in that. Instead, I had to adjust. And, speaking of adjustment, I had never been without a mirror for days at a time – one key to one’s identity is seeing oneself. And the map from the outfitters was far from accurate. Distances were not accurately shown and landmarks looked quite different from the odd markings on the map.

In short, we did not know exactly where we were at any given point; we did not know what time it was (well, we know ranges as in: “It is somewhere between 3:00 – 5:00 a.m.”). And I lost the usual measures of my identity from how I looked to the work I did.

The three “disorientation” questions would have to be answered in the negative: I did not know where I was exactly. I did not know what time it was exactly. I did not know who I was exactly.

But, here’s the odd part. Instead of finding myself totally disoriented, I felt more oriented that I had ever been. In the absence of location, time and identity, I found myself more grounded than when I am living and working in time constrained ways in Washington DC (in admittedly crazy times). Those three tests of disorientation were inverted for me in the wilderness; my answers were the opposite of the expected answers and they signaled orientation, not disorientation.

One thing that did happen is that I started recalling all the adages and phrases we use about time as I paddled: Time will tell; Time flies; Time is of the essence; Race against time; Ahead of one’s time; Behind the times; Bide your time; Take your time; Test of Time; Time tables; Internal time.

And, the more I thought about time during this trip, the more I appreciated not having a way to tell time precisely. Funny how a foray into the wilderness without a timepiece produced clarity and a deep sense of time. And one lesson learned: I need to go into the wilderness more so I can tell and use time better.

Readers might consider doing the same.

Note: A deep thank you to MW who pushed me to go camping with a myriad of assurances about how positive an experience it would be and with whom I discovered a part of me I did not know even existed. Remarkable actually. And, I would still be in the wilderness (in several senses) but for his presence.

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