The Deepest Wilderness: UBC student was a ‘missing person’

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Robert Singley, PhD candidate in composition at the UBC School of Music

There’s something wrong with Glastenbury Mountain, at least according to local lore in Bennington, Vermont.

Many people, especially watchers of the paranormal, have ominous theories about that stretch of the Appalachian Trail. A number of people are said to have gone missing there.

But none of this fazed Robert Singley, a PhD candidate at UBC, who used to hike the trail when he lived in Bennington. That is, until the day he too got lost in the woods.

Two years ago, while hiking back to his car, Singley became disoriented.

“I still think I was sucked through some sort of time space continuum,” said the composer, who channels his long hikes into creative impetuses for his music.

“All I know is that it got dark. It got foggy,” he said, adding that head lamp he’d brought with him wasn’t working. “I followed the trail for as long as I could see it, but then I lost the trail and I was totally alone in the woods.”

As his girlfriend worried at home, Singley struggled to find his way out of an area with an eerie reputation.

Some call it Bennington’s triangle, a reference to the mysterious Bermuda triangle. Others tell tales of a Bennington monster. And still others refer to Native American stories of rocks that swallow people up in this place where the four winds meet.

Regardless of which stories Singley believed, if any, there was no doubt he was in for an unusual night.

Robert examines the type of wood that "saved his life." Photo by Frank Singley

Next came the rain. The young American’s attempts to make a fire became futile and he eventually lay down from exhaustion.

“Later I started to shiver and I knew I was starting to get hypothermia,” said Singley. He got back up and started to look for kindling. Instead he was alarmed to find animal bones.

But somehow, in this precarious situation, Singley found a way to calm himself.

Listen to Robert Singley explain what was going through his head that night, and why he turned it into music:
An excerpt of his wilderness-inspired string quartet [audio here]

In the end, Singley managed to survive the night–largely thanks to finding a birch tree with highly flammable bark and coming up with wilderness-inspired musical ideas. In the morning, he ran into police that had been searching for him, and the local newspaper featured his story as an escape from danger.

But Singley heard his experience differently: “It was a magical experience, quite life affirming,” he has written.

In fact, in his work as a composer, he has tapped into the “non-directionality” he felt that night, creating music that is not heading in any direction–as in Escher’s staircase–and that values the journey as a series of individual steps.

“Getting lost really solidified these ideas for me, of just being happy wherever you are.”


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