George Washington often longed for his “own vine and fig-tree.” Extending this desire to the country at large, he looked forward to the day “when everyone (under his own vine and fig-tree) shall begin to taste the fruits of freedom.” To the Marquis of Lafayette he wrote in 1784:
I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments, of which the Soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame, the Statesman whose watchful days and sleepless nights…and the Courtier who is always watching the countenance of his Prince . . . can have very little conception.
Taking to heart Socrates’ maxim that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” Washington valued time for quiet and reflection. But in our busy, distracted, and struggling lives today, we rarely have time for “tranquil enjoyments”; it can be difficult to find time to examine much beyond our daily calendars, let alone a moment to catch our breath and look inwards.
Living and working in the middle of nowhere, as I now do, is no less busy, nor is the struggle less acute — but it is certainly less distracted. Life is hard, requiring constant work and maintenance just to keep up with the ever-changing conditions. My remote cabin in the mountain woods of Colorado — at 10,000 feet, beyond a Forest Service gate, and barely on the grid — is a world of work. But it is amazing how much life examination can go on as you supervise a septic tank being installed, monitor the water system, figure out electrical wiring, and manage wildlife, trees, and 20-year-record snowfall.
It could never be described as an easy life, but from the hardships I have gained so much. As Washington wrote after his army survived the bitter winter of 1777 at Valley Forge:
Ours is a kind of struggle designed I dare say by Providence to try the patience, fortitude and virtue of Men; none therefore that are engaged in it, will suffer themselves, I trust, to sink under difficulties, or be discouraged by hardships.
That winter at Valley Forge was miserable. Poorly supplied, underfed, badly clothed, and enduring the wet conditions that encourage disease, more than 2,500 American soldiers died. Yet all was not lost: Having the entire army huddled together in one location afforded General Washington a profitable opportunity to instill discipline, raise morale, create unity, and train the disparate, ragtag soldiers who composed the Continental Army into an efficient force — to create an army capable of winning our Independence.
For me, too, it started with the discipline and training I had quickly to learn. Consider replacing a septic tank: having only ever lived in a city, discovering life on a septic and well system was a revelation; I discovered that water source and disposal cannot be taken for granted or ignored, but must be constantly monitored and maintained.
It took me six months until I was able to do all of the maintenance on the water system by myself — and the sense of accomplishment far exceeded the first time I heard the Speaker of the House read the words I had written on the floor of the U.S. Congress. It was my finest hour.
Or perhaps it was when the furnace failed, and then the well pump. Or when the client payments no longer matched my expenses, and I learned about bartering and “handshake” payment plans. Or when the snow started and did not stop. Or when I had to hike to the cabin, dragging my groceries on a sled behind me. Or when the snow avalanching off of the front roof damaged the deck, and that off the back roof damaged bath vents and the porch below. Or the weekend I shoveled more than three feet of snow despite injuries.
Or perhaps it was the two-week period that began with a wildfire, continued with flooding that threatened the only road out, and ended with six inches of snow on the morning before the summer solstice.
I will admit that, on that morning, the mountains almost got the better of me.
And I thought back over the last 15 days, over every day since the beginning, and looked up at the grey expressionless sky, still spitting snow down on my upturned face, and asked what in the world God was trying to tell me . . .
In the silence, in the deafening silence of the swollen river rushing by and the snow falling in heavy wet clumps from burdened trees, I heard . . . myself. And realized that was when.
It is said that at Valley Forge, “for Washington, his men, and the nation to which they sought to give birth, a decisive victory had been won — a victory not of weapons but of will.”
A year at 10,000 feet gave me a decisive victory of will, an ability to not sink under difficulties, or be discouraged by hardships. In return, I achieved the solace of tranquil enjoyments and an examined life; a life more connected than my previous one of networking, money, and technology.
So as I get ready to go to the closest town, to witness their haphazard Independence Day celebrations — the car bowling and random fireworks set off over beers fizzing open and bonfires burning — I know I am celebrating so much more this year: Not just our nation’s independence, determined spirit, and tasting of the fruits of freedom, but also my own.
— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in politics, is a freelance writer with two books — and several renovations, repairs, and natural calamities — under her belt.