Published on August 29th, 2023 | by Caroline M. Grant1
It’s the third month of quarantine and I’m watching Alone.
It’s the perfect show for our time. Ten men are dropped—by float plane, boat, or helicopter—onto Vancouver Island and left to fend for themselves. Last one to call for rescue wins half a million dollars.
Like anybody sheltering in place, Alone’s contestants are cut off from family and friends, struggling to stay healthy and safe.
Unlike most of us—certainly unlike me—they’re also facing more primal challenges. They carry nothing but the clothes on their backs, ten pieces of basic survival gear, and forty pounds of camera equipment to film their experience. They have to build a shelter, find water and food, and—as if that weren’t enough—contend with the island’s lively population of bears, cougars, and wolves.
The contestants have left behind wives and children. A couple are missing their partners’ pregnancies! They are rugged survivalists and not like folks I encounter in my regular life. But regular life has been upended, so I may as well open it up to new things.
Besides, I have loved wilderness adventure stories since I was a kid reading Caddie Woodlawn and My Side of the Mountain. My imaginary play involved building twig structures and acorn-cap cooking pots. My first cookbook was Mud Pies and Other Recipes, which suggested dishes like Pine Needle Upside Down Cake to make for my dolls. I’ve always enjoyed spending time in that gap between what I would do and what people can do. Eat an oily bird that got trapped in your fishing net, because you’re that hungry and also not wasteful? Make a boat out of a tarp and hope it’ll float you across the bay? No thanks, but let me just pop some corn and settle in while the guys on Alone grit their teeth and go for it.
Alone isn’t pretty. The contestants are filthy, as is what they eat. One guy starts hallucinating from brackish water (who knew?); another gets sick from a bad mussel. I’m not too squeamish, but I have to watch through my fingers when one man pulls the skin off a mouse as if tugging off its tiny jacket. I feel bad for them, but that’s part of the pleasure: the satisfaction of witnessing discomforts so different from my own.
Alone’s pleasures aren’t all about the schadenfreude. What is especially delightful about it, what is as aspirational as any glossy travel show, is right there in the title.
My house is full. The teenagers did Zoom school and now spend their summer days lounging on their beds, headphoned and laptopped, the eldest uncertain about starting college in the fall. They don’t ask for much, but their passivity gets under my skin. Meanwhile, my dad, who moved in just before his assisted living community closed itself off from the world, exudes vitality: he writes his memoir; he revises a novel; he works a jigsaw puzzle and still one day finds me and says, “I am at loose ends! I have nothing to do!” His energy rises like steam from a freshly-baked loaf.
I hide in the kitchen. After graduating from Mud Pies to edible ingredients, I realized baking is a great way to navigate a crisis. The precise measurements, the logical steps to a delicious end. When things spin out of control or stretch—like our quarantine—unpredictably into the future, baking defines time and space.
My sourdough starter (not a pandemic project but old enough to start school) is getting a workout. The oven barely cools between the loaves of bread, trays of crackers, and pans of fruit-studded upside-down cakes, not to mention pita, bagels, matzoh and naan. If it calls for flour, I’m baking it, and even with the five of us home all day, I give away as much as we eat. We buy stoneground grains, speciality pastas, and fancy Italian canned vegetables from a restaurant struggling to stay in business. It’s embarrassing how well we eat but cooking passes the time. At dinner, I offer Dad more pasta and he looks at me quizzically; “We called it noodles when I was a boy.”
The guys on Alone subsist on silvery minnows and limpets the size of my pinky nail. They gnaw gratefully on dull green ropes of bull kelp. One spends so much time building a finicky mousetrap—three sticks and a rock—I’m sure he’s expending more calories than he gains from his two-bite prize, but he savors his fire-blackened morsel. Another ruefully eats a cormorant he finds tangled up in his gillnet. He remarks that the lack of simple sugars is slowing him down and I take stock of the five different kinds on my shelves. “I’ve got your simple sugars right here,” I think, as I measure some into a bowl.
But food, shockingly, isn’t a priority for these guys—it’s a distant third after shelter and water. The men scout locations and drape tarps over ropes for simple tents. They gather leaves and moss for bedding and insulation. I look around my comfortable house—its walls and roof dramatically sturdier than the shelters on Alone—and I am grateful, but: I kind of want to run away.
My husband hangs a hammock for me from our balcony. I climb in with my book and a blanket, pulling up the sides against San Francisco’s cold summer wind. I sway back and forth, a kid in a fort, and lose myself in the story. For a few moments, I feel very far away. Not Vancouver Island-away, but enough.
It’s odd to be envious of the guys on Alone, who are cold, hungry, and legitimately frightened of being eaten by predators. Partly it’s that their experience predates the pandemic; they’re not facing the end of school, the economic collapse, the politicization of mask-wearing. But also: no one’s snuck emergency chocolate onto the island; no one carries a weapon to defend against the bears. They chose to play this weird and uncomfortable game, and they play by its rules.
And if they want, they can escape. Each holds one piece of equipment more precious than any firestick, knife, or granola bar: a satellite phone to call for rescue. One, terrified by the bears nosing around his shelter at night, uses it the first morning; four more tap out that week. For the ones who settle in for a longer haul, the biggest challenge turns out not to be hunger, predators, or frostbite, but loneliness. They miss their families.
These guys give me a different perspective on my crowded house and renewed sympathy for my beloved, irritating family who, cut off from their peers, are alone in a way they never chose.
When I was little, absorbed in my adventure book, I’d sometimes startle and need to check in on my family, running from room to room to confirm I hadn’t somehow been left behind. So, now, I climb out of my hammock and do a lap around the house. The kids each lift a headphone and smile in response to my wave; Dad invites me to join him at the puzzle. I meet my husband in the kitchen and we start dinner. Later we’ll gather at the table and see how many kinds of pasta we can name.
So although I’ll still sometimes wish to be by myself, I’m glad I’m not alone.