I was 56, happily married to the woman I'd met at my 50th birthday party, father to three wonderful grown children and—in our now-blended family—delighting in my wife Janet's equally wonderful grown daughter. Raised in Midwestern farm country, I was living a comfortable existence in Washington, D.C., long since adapted to the constant tumult and jerky rhythms of big city life.
Yet here I was, standing in my bedroom that evening more than a dozen years ago and announcing to Janet, "I've got to go to the wilderness. Alone. It's been something I've been carrying in the back of my mind most of my life, and if I don't do it now, while I'm still able, I'll never do it." Now, if this sounds like something very akin to a midlife crisis, then—looking back on it—I'd have to say, as cliché as that sounds, there's some truth to it.
But there was more to it than run-of-the-mill midlife angst. I felt that my busy life had nearly swallowed this transplanted Iowa boy whole. It was as if, in the words of the old Tennessee Ernie Ford ballad, I owed my soul "to the company store." Like so many of the people I knew, I'd slipped into some sort of Faustian bargain, in which the seductions and satisfactions of my regular routine had removed me from feeling I had any connection to the natural order of things. Sure, my life was full, but maybe too full—like a warehouse continually being restocked until it was bursting at the seams.
At the same time, having come to within hailing…