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Dec. 9, 2021

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Vancouver author’s memoir describes 3-year sojourn in backwoods cabin

Stephen Altschuler published “Into the Woods … and Beyond”

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

Spending the past pandemic year-and-a-half stuck inside a small east Vancouver apartment really didn’t faze author Stephen Altschuler. In the late 1970s, Altschuler opted for a stretch of self-imposed exile from the world of people that was much longer and much lonelier.

“I spent three years living in a cabin that was 12 by 16, and the only convenience was that the outhouse was attached,” he said. “After a while, that small space started looking like a whole universe to me.” 

Altschuler’s introspective journeys through the New Hampshire woods — and through his own searching psyche — are the subject of his poetic memoir “Into the Woods … and Beyond” (Sacajawea Press, $14.99) released earlier this year.

Altschuler said he grew up deeply introspective and prone to anxiety and depression. When he was in high school, the one pursuit that seemed to fit his introverted personality and bring out the best in him was that game of individual concentration and momentary perfection: golf.

“I think golf saved my life,” he said.

A Philadelphia native, Altschuler studied psychology in college, then was drawn to meditative Buddhist philosophy and Zen training. He worked both as a state-prison social worker and as a freelance features writer for Yankee magazine.

After a painful divorce, Altschuler decided he needed to heal his heart and work hard on his writing. That’s when he accepted an offer to pay nominal rent for that unpowered cabin on the side of a mountain in southwestern New Hampshire. But, he said, his grand dreams of long hours devoted to nothing but writing turned out to be unrealistic.

“(T)his was no idyllic writer’s colony … No, with water to fetch, wood to haul, cut and split, and food to store and prepare without gas or electricity, earning a living became much different from punching in and getting a paycheck every two weeks.”

Tough as it was, Altschuler wound up staying in that cabin for three years. His fellow meditators, soul-searchers and nature lovers will find much to cherish in “Into the Woods … and Beyond,” which echoes Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” the early American classic about living solo in the forest.

Altschuler draws life lessons — and life riddles — from the smallest, plainest incidents and outdoor challenges: how to defeat thieving woodchucks and nibbling mice, how to dislodge a boulder when digging a root cellar, how to socialize satisfyingly with uncaring cats, how to keep heavy snow from breaking down your door.

And, how to deal with solitude. Like Thoreau, Altschuler never intended to be a total hermit, and “Into the Woods … and Beyond” outlines his many forays back to civilization — to shop, to visit friends, to help raise a neighbor’s barn, to try night-shift jobs and even work as a golf instructor at a nearby resort.

The former features writer also struck a deal with a local radio station to write and record his own five-minute, twice-weekly, autobiographical radio segment called “Backwoods Cabin.” It was up to Altschuler to raise his own sponsorships. He’d write and read ads for local stores on the air in exchange for food, equipment and, eventually, the wood stove of his dreams — which made life in the cabin a lot comfier. 

“It struck a chord, the show did, and people, including kids, would stop me in town, after recognizing my voice, to ask if I was ‘that Backwoods Cabin guy.’ It was fun to do,” Altschuler writes. It even made him feel like he was contributing to the community

The short segments he wrote for “Backwoods Cabin” supplied much of the material and structure for “Into the Woods … and Beyond,” he said, which is presented in 57 brief, bite-sized chapters.

Eventually, he got too comfortable being a hermit, and decided he’d better return to civilization before he could never come back, Altschuler said during an interview with The Columbian. Having tested his limits, calmed his anxieties and proved his resiliency, the deep introvert made another discovery: He missed people.

The final chapters of “Into the Woods … and Beyond” outline Altschuler’s return to city life, his marriage and his 2019 relocation to Southwest Washington. It skips over several spiritual books he wrote and published in the meantime, from “The Mindful Hiker” to “The Mindful Golfer: How to Lower Your Handicap while Raising your Consciousness.”

(The state of your golf game is the perfect indicator of the state of your psyche, Altschuler said: “If you’re doing well with your golf game, you’re probably satisfied with life.” And if you screw up one shot, are you fated to carry that failure around in frustration so it ruins the rest of your game — or can you bounce right back, stay in the present, return to form?)

After overcoming serious health challenges in recent years, Altschuler said his whole approach to life is a mindful, Zen-like cultivation of gratitude and appreciation for everything — even misfortune and disease.

Without cancer, he said, he never would have retired from a demanding social-work job that probably would have killed him. Instead, his diagnosis prompted him to move to Vancouver with his wife and focus on his health and his writing. In addition to spiritual takes on life (and golf), Altschuler posts his photography and a fiery, left-leaning political blog at www.stephenaltschuler.com.

“I’m 75 years old and I still have hopes and dreams,” he said. “I’m excited about writing, I’m excited about my other goals, and I’m still having fun.”

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