I am currently in a state of limbo waiting for things to change over which I have no control. I’m in a holding pattern, unable to make progress. I feel like all I’m doing is converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.
This metaphysical hunkering feels similar to the hunkering I did during a three-month NOLS expedition in the Alaska wilderness in 2008. We spent a lot of time hunkering in our tents on that expedition. Sometimes because of weather, like the three soggy days spent camped by the side of a gravel road waiting for the rain to stop and the river to subside so we could wade across. On other occasions we hunkered while waiting for food or rescue.
Our first hunker was spent next to a makeshift runway we had built in a humid valley, waiting for the clouds to lift so a small plane could land with our rations. We had already been without food for two days, having been unable to get to the site where we had planned to meet the plane for our re-ration. Instead we bushwhacked through a dense forest and traversed a raging river to find a spot where a plane might be able to land, and cut down small trees to make a runway.
Hiking through the forest and cutting down trees while the hunger gnawed at us was hard, but the waiting was harder. When you’re working towards a goal, you know that the change you want depends on your efforts—we knew that the plane couldn’t come until we built the runway. But it was harder when the plane didn’t come even after we built the runway. We lay in our tents to take refuge from the bugs, sweating and sleeping and reading. Every time we stepped outside we looked to the sky, hoping that the low clouds would dissipate, the wind would be favorable, and we would hear the whine of an approaching engine.
In this present hunker, I’m waiting for things to change that will be a much-needed regime shift for our family: a new job, a new house, a move, and many other changes that depend on these. Our current situation is unsustainable and nearly unbearable. My husband and I have done (and are doing) everything we can to move forward, and now there’s nothing to do besides hunker and wait. Every day we hope that the clouds will clear and a plane will land on the runway we have built.
The biggest hunker of that wilderness expedition came after many days of hiking and many disappointments. We were camped below a mountain pass, waiting for a helicopter to come evacuate two injured members of our group—one of them had a broken leg—and also waiting for food again after making an eight-day ration stretch for twelve. We had already done the hard work of hiking to the best possible place where rescue could find us. Now it was up to the weather to determine whether a plane could safely land.
We made the best of the days spent hunkering. We rested, entertained each other with stories and games, and tried to appreciate the beautiful place that surrounded us while we were hungry and hurt and scared. We tried to imagine that the hunkering was the expedition and not an in-between place, that it was part of the experience and not something to be merely endured.
Because when you’re hunkered, you don’t know when the end is going to come. Sometimes the hunkering is over suddenly, as you see an approaching plane and hear the pilot on the radio. Sometimes relief comes in stops and starts. The rain ends, you move your campsite a few miles down the road, but the river is still swollen and uncrossable—so you hunker again. You could spend so long hunkering that the entire experience passes you by, and spend so much time waiting for something to come that you miss the beauty that surrounds you.
And then sometimes you hunker and hope and wait, and the message comes and it’s not what you want to hear: the rescue plane isn’t coming, you’ll have to hike over the mountain pass with your injured, and the food isn’t coming either but it will be waiting for you on the other side. And when that happens, you realize that the hunkering wasn’t waiting for rescue as you had thought, but waiting to gain enough strength so you could rescue yourselves. So you do.