Absolute Zero / by Patrick Mainelli

I woke up early. I try to wake up early, get at the day, make the most of myself, but I rarely do anymore. I’ll set the alarm then hit snooze four or five times until finally I’m left with no choice but to put my feet on the floor and start the day. On New Year’s morning, though, I managed to do it. I was up, dressed, and drinking coffee while the rest of the hemisphere was still in bed cultivating hangovers from the night before.

I had been depressed. The dark was to blame, maybe, or the long hours trapped indoors. The internet and news surely didn’t help. Or maybe my life was to blame. Maybe every decision I ever made had been the wrong decision. Maybe there was some singular thing I was supposed to be doing with my life and I was failing, with every press of the snooze, to do it. Midwinter reasoning, maybe, but the only reasoning I had.

I thought maybe a walk would be the cure. In the pre-dawn dark at the start of the year, I could take a walk in the woods and reset. There was, this year, the minor thrill of the forecast, which predicted the coldest January 1st Omaha had seen since 1887. Perfect, I thought. A walk through that. It was exactly the kind of needlessly tedious pursuit I am, as a rule, most enamored by.

And it got me up. I pulled on two coats, left some food out for the dogs, and was ready to go by 5:00. When I opened the back door to leave I saw then heard, in immediate succession, the cold full moon hanging over the horizon, and seven gunshots firing a few blocks away. Whatever omen this was for the new year, I preferred not to imagine.

It was a 20-minute drive to the forest. If I walked quick I could cover a mile and a half and make it to the edge of the bluff in time to see the sun come up. It was a spot I had passed many hours, actually. Sitting in summer between the oaks, walking through the valley, idling.

Hermit Jim had lived here. Today, the land is inside the 1,400-acre jurisdiction of Fontenelle Forest, but for a long while Jim Baldwin, made his life out here alone. His father had owned the land: oak savanna forest and grassy bluffs hanging over the Missouri floodplain. After coming home from the infantry of World War One Jim moved in, sleeping in mud caves and clapboard huts with dirt floors. From his vantage in the woods he would see America, over the next forty years, fall into the Great Depression, invent jazz, fight the Nazis, fight the Koreans, buy televisions, buy cars, and elect seven presidents.

A lot of his shit is still there. Trash mainly—cookware and coffee tins, unrecognizable slabs of rusted metal. But more substantial evidence too—a crippled windmill, an old hand cart, his typewriter, his bed.

I parked the car as the sky started to purple. Pulling the scarf over my nose, I went in. It was, as predicted, very cold—20 below; minus 34 with the wind. I walked fast if only to warm my blood. The heat of my breath vented through the scarf, fogged my glasses, and immediately froze. I wiped the lenses clean, scratching at the ice through my glove, but it was no use. I folded them, put them in my coat pocket, and walked on in a blur.

What was the point, I wondered? Why take a walk? Was it in the seeing; the looking around? Was it the feeling of my legs, lungs, blood at work, yielding to my will? Was it the end-of-the-world quiet that snow-heavy 6AM wears like a shroud?

Yes, all of this. There was also, though, a certain pointlessness that was, in itself, part of the point. All that driving and parking and walking, and then turning around to do it all again in reverse, ending up exactly where I began. No different. The same life, the same house, the same decisions irrevocable.

Although he lived like an exile, Hermit Jim was widely known. Boy Scouts from Camp Wakonda (whose dirt parking lot I had just borrowed) would regularly walk up to Jim’s, asking to be entertained with Indian wisdoms and stories of wildlife. The engineers on the Burlington line that still runs under Jim’s lookout supposedly dropped magazines and newspapers regularly for his amusement. For many of his years alone, Hermit Jim enjoyed the rare position of being both inscrutable recluse and beloved member of the community.  

There is nothing radical, really, about living alone. Jim farmed some simple crops and kept enough chickens to meet his meager needs, just like people have done for centuries, like they still do all over the world. But by the 1950s, to be living alone, bearded and dirty in the woods, just a few miles outside a Middle America city of more than a quarter million reasonable people, was to have made an extreme choice.

jim baldwin.jpg

Of course, the obvious question in any hermit story is What sent them away? Was there, for Jim Baldwin, some lingering horror from his months in the trenches? Was it a political decision, refusing to participate in a society he couldn’t stomach? Or did he simply love the forest? Was falling asleep every night across the bulging roots of living trees simply, obviously, the best option a person could take? Did he come out here only to disappear, to remove himself from the trial of playing the role of a person among people?

Or do I project?

As I walked in the frozen dark, the thought of disappearing, by will or by accident, occurred to me only as a relief. This is the gift the cold provides—this needling reminder of the flimsy absurdity of our lives. On mornings as cold as this one, cell death in exposed skin begins in about 30 minutes. At 20 below, if you’re not dressed for it, a surprise wind could quickly become the very breath of death.

Jim lived in the woods, season after season, until he was 70. The cold got him. The winter of ’61 proved especially bad. When some Scouts trudged through two feet of snow to check on him, they found the old man incoherent and frostbitten. They had to carry him out. He left the woods by ambulance and would not return. After thawing out in the hospital for a few days he moved in with his sister in Bellevue, and died there a few years later.   

How strange those years must have been. The toaster. The telephone. The alarm clock. I imagine he hated it, that he spent his last days lonely for the slow hum of the woods. But who knows. Maybe he loved it. The furnace. The record player. A shower whenever he felt like. Is it possible that in the winter of his life Hermit Jim was driven to wonder whether he had, in fact, made the right choice, been the right person, lived the right life?

I made it in time to see the sun take its first slow look at the year. I walked around a little, poked my toe among remains of this stranger’s life, took some pictures of the sunrise with my phone. Later, if one proved a good enough approximation for a life well lived, I would post it to Instagram. 

Last summer I spent a full day at Jim’s, walking along the ridges he’d carved in the bluff, reading beneath trees that once must have framed his living room. After the first few hours, things change. Time moves more slowly; the day starts to feel like it could stretch on into eternity; a woodpecker attends to the bark above your head and the world goes away.

What kind of person would you become if this were the everyday? What depths of silence would you eventually learn by heart? What joyful void would your mind inhabit?

In June 1959, two summers before the cold and snow drove him out, some Boy Scouts showed up at Jim’s, asking to see how an Indian campfire was made. While the hermit was bent to the ground rubbing sticks together, one of the boys hit him with a club in the back of the head. The kids screamed, no doubt, when the old man’s eye popped out and rolled away through the dirt. At that point they could only run.  

After spending a month in the hospital and ultimately losing the eye, Jim was given a hero’s return. A limousine brought him to the city center of Bellevue where the mayor, members of the Air Force, and dozens of Boy and Girl Scouts were waiting. The Omaha World Herald reporter on the scene observed that Jim “literally danced from the car to the curb,” singing songs and laughing with the kids for over an hour. Before climbing into the Air Force helicopter that would ferry him home, Jim told the paper that the loss of his eye might actually “come in handy.” He explained: “I’ll put in a blue marble when I’m happy and a red marble when I’m mad.” When prompted for a rebuke to his attackers, Jim could only demure: “I’m not mad at anybody and never have been.”  

Dark walks in the woods, meditation, certain species of mushroom – the world was full of paths to appreciating the fundamental chasm at the center of everything. But could they ever bring a person to a place like this? Delirious with forgiveness. Unwanting for even an eye. Accepting.

By 8:00 the sun was fully up. It was the start of the year and I was already dressed. Cold, hungry, and almost bored, I could only turn for the car.