In case you missed it, Oct. 29 was National Hermit Day. There’s very little backstory. Google isn’t sure when it launched or who started it, but maybe it honors an Irish saint who lived in a cave for seven years.
Sometimes I think I’d be a very happy hermit. Psychologists say humans are pack animals, hardwired to live together. Really? I’m hardwired to buy books, to travel, to love dogs, to write, to pray, to eat chocolate and deny it. Not sure I was born to be in a herd.
Don’t get me wrong: I like people—the interesting ones, anyway.
I can spend hours talking with certain friends and relatives. But sometimes being human takes every ounce of energy I have, and the only way to recharge is to be alone. (This can be a difficult concept to execute when you’re married.)
Blame it on the fact that I grew up in a big family in a house the size of a cereal box. There were people everywhere, all the time—zero privacy.
I cleverly began hiding in the attic until my brothers caught on and claimed it. Then I retreated to the barn, until—again—brother T-Bob evicted me. He installed a cot, a lamp and a radio; my pony, Smokey, would bob his head when the Eagles came on.
In desperation, one day I climbed the maple tree by the cement pond. Peace at last! I’d skitter up with a book, sit on a sloping limb and read until dark. No-one caught on for months, until Mom saw my feet one Saturday morning when I was supposed to be making the beds.
After leaving home, I had college roommates, then lived alone for a few years before marrying. Nice guy, bad match. After the D-I-V-O-R-C-E, I sold the house and bought a condo… two stories, three bedrooms, 2 ½ baths. I lived there alone and used every square inch.
I’d shave my legs in one bathroom, bathe in another and brush my teeth in the half-bath. I stored winter clothes in the master bedroom, summer clothes in another, and kept records, clippings, photos and correspondence in a walk-in closet.
It was bliss. I’d come in at night, lean against the closed door and breathe in the sweet scent of solitude.
Whenever people asked, “Why do you need all that room?” I’d answer, “Because I do.” (They were the same people who said, “You need to get a roommate.” Nope.)
In North Carolina, almost everyone’s heard of the Fort Fisher hermit, a man who lived in a windowless World War II bunker on a salt marsh. Robert E. Harrill became a hermit in 1955 at age 62, after a divorce and an involuntary commitment to a mental hospital (!) He hitchhiked 260 miles from Morganton, N.C. to the Cape Fear coast.
He was alone. He lived off the land. He was happy.
Then people started visiting. Did they ever. An estimated 100,000 people signed Harrill’s guest book (a hermit has a guest book?) over the years. He became the second most popular tourist attraction in the state, bested only by the USS North Carolina battleship. I’m not sure how he called himself a hermit by that point, but I don’t judge.
“My life here goes up and down like the tides of the sea... Only nature determines my existence,” he said.
He’s buried in a Methodist church cemetery, beneath a headstone reading, “He made people think.” There are worse epitaphs.
The hermit’s bunker is still standing.
Come to think of it, so is my maple tree.