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October 2005

Wide Awake And Dreaming

The author sets out to camp in New York's Central Park--and winds up roused by matters of life and death.

I met Victoria in 1988. We were grad students in Iowa, studying poetry. Victoria was brilliant and eccentric. She liked to drive into the countryside and wander into derelict farmhouses. She had a penchant for locating abandoned roads and train tracks, and for following these weed- and rubble-strewn trails to vantages that seemed as remote from human activity as any place in the deepest wilderness. These old homesteads had once been laboriously carved out of nature. Only now, nature was taking them back. This was the outdoors to which Victoria introduced me: a landscape through which people had once passed, and which persisted when the people went elsewhere. I was 23 and found Victoria to be utterly mysterious. She knew all about philosophy and literature but she was also a natural athlete and thrived in the outdoors. She and I bought our first mountain bikes together in Iowa and would hack our way through fields and across creeks. I had been raised in cities. Victoria taught me some of the freedom of uninhabited spaces. She was the last best friend of my childhood, of that moment just before the tenor of friendships seems to change, and the intense and all-consuming and occasionally wild adventures of youth become grown-up and reasonable. When Victoria finished school she moved to Montana. A year later, I followed. We stayed close for a while. She took me cross-country skiing for the first time and introduced me to the river valleys around Bozeman. She had gotten interested in birds and pointed out to me the presence around us of wildlife I hadn’t seen before. It was as though she had learned the birds’ language.

I fell out of touch with Victoria for about 10 years. Then, late last year, I heard from a friend that she was sick. She was suffering a lot, I was told, and she didn’t want old friends to contact her. I tried to call her a few times but heard nothing back. Finally I sent her a letter. A few days later I got a call telling me she was gone.

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