SOLITUDE IS hard to come by these days. While there is not yet a law against being alone, there are roving vigilantes who sweep the hinterlands to see to it that none of us goes unattended for long.
There is a parking lot at Walden Pond, and the water isn't fit to drink. Should you go to Innisfree and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made, and Irish building inspector no doubt would straightway come stomping through the bee-loud glade.
Helicopters hover over the hovels of Alaskan hermits. Singlehanded trans-Pacific sailors fret through the night for fear of freighters.
If such far-ranging adventures find the search for solitude futile, what hope is there for the suburbanite, whose scope is limited by time, money and responsibilities, for a few days of Yeast's "peace that comes dropping slow"?
He has hiked far into the Eastern mountains only to be badgered by Boy Scouts. He has trekked along the sandy wastes of the Outer Banks and nearly been run down by dune buggies. He has been panhandled by a drunk in the interior of Great Dismal Swamp and deafened by an airboat in a Potomac River gorge too strait to pass a canoe.
But last week the suburbanite hoped he had found the answer. There is a Chesapeake island where nobody lives and hardly anyone ever goes. It is a long boat ride from anywhere and there are a dozen more attrative places along the way. It has few trees and little potable water. Storms and mosquitos scourge it. There isn't even enough driftwood for a decent campfire. The owner reluctantly agreed to let the suburbanite sojourn there briefly, if he promised not to tell where the island is or disturb the nesting birds.
The ride out was bracing. Around Washington the horizon is seldom more than a few hundred yards away because of hills and buildings and smog; out on the broad water the eye can see as far as the eye can see. It imposes a more fitting scale. As the boat hummed toward the island a tiny bird perched on a stick jutting from a mudflat grew into an imposing osprey on a stout piling.
A Robinson Crusoe fantasy began to build as the owner showed the suburbanite the lay of the land, until suddenly strangers appeared in paradise: three fisherman, hauling their enormous catch. There was a brief exchange of pleasantries, the owner curbing his tongue because there is, realistically, no way to keep such local men from intruding on the wildlife sanctuary he is trying to make of the island.
Soon they were gone, and the owner also, and the suburbanite set about making camp. The rented tent was somewhat complicated and the wind was blowing half a gale, but finding a sheltered spot inland would have meant going out of sight of the water, which he was unwilling to do.
Night was drawing close before the freeze-dried supper was ready; as he hunkered down in the blowing sand to eat it, a voice behind him said:
"You're not supposed to camp here." who had been a homeward-bound fisherman who had seen the tent and come ashore to investigate on behalf of the owner, whose love of wildlife he shares; the food was cold of wildlife he shares; the food was cold by the time he had been persuaded that the suburbanite's presence was proper. Mosquitos drove him away and the suburbanite into the tent, from which he tried to watch the stars but fell asleep.
In the morning the owner was back, bringing more water. He led the way along the beach, pointing out the bare nests of oyster catchers, and though wax myrtle thickets from which raucous snowy egrets and thunderous clouds of glossy ibis rose. They fished, fruitless along the beach, which bore evidence that the trespassing fisherman of the day before were back. They found the whitened bones of deer and a still-warm rabbit that had fallen prey to an unseen hawk. It was magnificent, but it was not solitude.
In late afternoon the owner left. The fisherman had also disappeared, and the suburbanite went back to the beach to try to catch supper. A passing boatman waved. The suburbanite waved back, and the boat immediately angled in to the beach.
"Saw you wave and though you might need help," the man said. He seemed surprised and perhaps miffed that the suburbanite wasn't particularly interested in talking, eventually went away, leaving the landscape bare again.
A small, very small, red channel bass blundered onto the hook just in time for supper. As the suburbanite headed for camp another boatman came waving by. He affected not to notice, but soon the boat was pulling up into the beach. "You didn't wave, and I wondered if you were all right," the man said. He offered the use of his very small penknife for cutting up the baby drum. He disparaged the suburbanite's choice of bait and tackle. He might never have gone away had not the rising tide begun to batter his boat.
It is hard to clean fish on the sand in the dark. The suburbanite was not at peace when he crawled into his sleeping bag. He resolved to lie low on the morrow, his last full day on the island, and watch birds.
A flock of what used to be called Baltimore Orioles woke him at 4 a.m., and even the mosquitos could not mar the beauty of false dawn and sunrise. A yellow-throated warbler was good enough to stay within a few feet while the bird book was taken out to confirm the identification.The warbler hung right in there, in fact, until the damn fisherman came slogging and hallooing through the sand.
"Saw your tracks on the beach and no boat around and thought you might need some help," he said. "Say, you wouldn't have a little more coffee there, would you?"
He was the first of the day's five visitors. It was a relief, almost, when the pickup boat arrived next morning.