That summer, a series of visitors paraded through the wall tent where I slept above the glacier. A black-and-white dog named Buddha would wriggle under the zippered front flap in the mornings to take inventory of any new smells and then, soon bored, would wander back into the open air. A square-jawed man from the other side of the river would bike the dirt road—five miles uphill—to spend the night diagonalled across my small bed, bending the mosquito net outward with his long legs. The sound of National Creek, plummeting in the gorge below, entered my tent and stayed. It filled the night with its fuss and fragrance, its mineral vapor, a roaring unseen presence. Moose sidled past with loose hips, and bears with soapberry snarled in their fur, and they never came into my home but the smell of them did: a wet and mushroomy haunting that hovered long after they had melted back into the hill.
Among these visitors, the spiders were the most persistent. These came as a surprise; they hadn’t signed a lease agreement. But as the Alaskan days warmed and widened toward solstice, I pulled a sock from a pile of clothing at the foot of my bed and a wolf spider scuttled out. It was bristly and dark and unfolded out of the fabric like a thing vaulting from a horror-movie blind spot. I shrieked and flung the sock, and the spider scurried free into the dirt and stubbly grass that was my floor.
I breathed in, breathed back out, regrouped myself. I was living in a tent in Alaska, after all: gappy and wind-fluttered and open to all manner of small wayfarers. My furniture was made from rusted mining artifacts I’d collected from the mill downhill, and my possessions were dusted hiking boots and a pair of crampons for the ice and whatever clothing I could fit in a duffel and a few books warped from the wet. A series of disappointments had led me here—away from indoor showers, movie theaters, engagement rings—to the edge of a glacial wilderness where I imagined I could claim a little space for myself. Some honest work, some clean air, a reset button.
I had chosen these things for myself. To leave a familiar job. To stop waiting around for a fizzled relationship to unfizzle. To apply to grad school in a faraway place. To spend the intervening summer working in a mountain range peopled with creatures. To live with spiders.
They were manifold, the spiders. The tent, floorless, was exposed to their comings and goings. They established settlements in my socks, shimmied into unzipped toiletries, nudged their way under my net and startled me in the night, next to my pillow, with their glittering eyes and furred bodies. They were jointed and swift and perennially startling. I hated them and hated myself for hating them.
The man I was seeing suggested that I name them all Charlotte. I didn’t laugh. But when Charlotte—one of them—approached me along the plywood edge of my bed platform several days into the scourge, I sat with her for awhile.
I hoped she wouldn’t come too close, tried to think of her bristles as fuzz. Her egg sack, which she carried like a bustle at her haunches, was silken, blue, and pearly. I learned later that baby wolf spiders ride on their mother’s back until they’re grown, that the mother waits for them to scamper back onboard if they fall off. Charlotte’s eyes, faceted, gleamed like jewelry.
Our relationship stayed tenuous. I dreaded sudden movement, zipped my bags tightly. I erected elaborate hanging systems for my clothes, to avoid disquieting visitations in folds of laundry. But at bedtime, when shadow moved against shadow, I sometimes felt a blush of camaraderie. Here I was. Here they were. Wide-eyed animals in the night, we.
Uncomfortable things still come knocking at my door, now that I have one, in this new, more spacious life of mine. I share my room with them, scoot aside for self-doubt to come trundling in with muddy shoes, leave space in bed for the ghosts of boys who have left and still linger. In the wee hours, my phone glows and rattles and wakes me with calls from family: my mother evacuating down flickering roads, fire engulfing our parched home town, my brother calling to hear a voice as his nears the bottom of his pain subscription and turns to cheaper fixes: crushed pills burned and inhaled, a sharp needle between the toes. Scary things, with their many glinting eyes, crowd close. Do we ever really live lightly, or freely, or alone? Maybe all we can do is to lift our chin and gently, gingerly meet the gaze of whatever eyes stare back.
Though my door now hinges and does not zip, though I’ve long ceded my tent to the winter snows and the quiet aurora and the arachnid neighborhood planning committee, my body still thrums with anticipation. These walls are porous. I’ve come to expect visitors.
Hannah Hindley is a wilderness guide with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in journals, newspapers, and anthologies including The Rumpus, Harvard Review, and Terrain. She is the recipient of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, the Thomas Wood Award in Journalism, and the Bill Waller Award for Nonfiction. She is currently writing about fish, love, and the weird ecologies of urban desert rivers. Follow her: @hannah_the_bold.