where the writers are
wilderness

 

The final campsite of the trip was near the head of Buffalo Fork where the stream rolls and tumbles over head-sized boulders with the noise of constant laughter.  I set up the tent at the edge of a handkerchief of meadow defined by willow thickets where a spring creek snaked toward the river with tortured twists and turns.  I'd followed that creek, wading in my stream-crossing Crocs, in an attempt to locate the source spring.  Almost immediately, I startled a trout -- in the ankle-deep water, the fish's dorsal fin marked its panicked writhing like a tacking sailboat -- but after a couple of minutes submerged in the icy water, my feet were too numb to continue.

The meadow was so sweet -- so enclosed, private and without even a fire ring to indicate a passing human presence -- that couldn't hike past it without stopping.  It was early, barely past midday, but  I wanted my last camp to be an appropriately meditative place to mull over my weeklong exploration of the wilderness.

This was the first backpacking trip where I carried a tent.  Formerly, I relied on the combination of a tarp and a bivy sack for protection from the weather and bugs.  The bivy sack, which resembles nothing so much as a body bag, is basically just a waterproof sleeping bag cover with a mesh opening over the face area.  When I was younger, I preferred the freedom of a bivy to a tent: with a bivy, a person can camp just about anywhere he or she can lie down.  The bivy lets you live closer to nature, with virtually nothing (except the thin mesh of mosquito netting) between you and the surrounding night.

I've had some adventures in that bivy: once during a rainstorm a porcupine crept under my tarp for shelter and curled up in the middle of my chest.  The weight of the animal woke me and -- a reflex I later regretted -- I hurled the inoffensive guy out into the rain.  The porcupine scurried up a nearby lodgepole where he clung all night, grumbling loudly about the ill-manners of humans.

Another night I woke feeling warm breath on my face.  When I opened my eyes, through the bivy's mesh I saw the green-yellow eyes of a puma, not six inches from my own.  By the time I'd inventoried the big cat's facial features to be positive of my identification, the animal had vanished without a whisper.

But on the last trip, the bivy seemed to have become too confining.  Maybe with age I'm demanding more comfort, or maybe my psyche has expanded so that my dreams now refuse to be confined to a Gortex body bag.  My new tent is small -- barely enough room for one person -- but at night, or in the rain, it barriers me from a wilderness that threatens to overwhelm with its unrestrained exuberence.

Solo backpacking is frowned up by people who have a say in such things: in some parks a solo hiker will not be granted a permit to camp.  It's dangerous, they say: there's no safety net.  Rangers and other law enforcement personnel are enamored of safety nets: in order to backpack in Yellowstone Park, a hiker must present a day by day itinerary and reserve every campsite (only in designated areas, of course!) at least 24 hours in advance.  Backcountry rangers set up check points, patrol camping areas to assure compliance: non-permitted use results in fines and expulsion.  It's back to nature, 21st century style, with Big Brother watching at every turn.

But travel ten miles north on Hellroaring or Buffalo Fork or Slough Creek and the rules abruptly change.  The national forests are not funded like the park system: the forest service barely has enough money to fight fires, maintain access roads, and clear trails every other year.  Forget safety nets: a hiker enters the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at his or her own risk.

I once rode from Gardner, Montana to Livingston with the sheriff of Park County after a misadventure landed me miles from where I wanted to hike.  Over half of the land mass in Park County is designated wilderness, and the sheriff told me that by far the majority of the calls his department -- him, one under sheriff, and four deputies for an area the size of Yellowstone National Park -- receives were in the nature of search and rescue.  "But it takes us so long to get anywhere in the wilderness that by the time we get there, there's not any rescue involved: just about all of our searches end up coming out in body bags."

On my first day of this hike, I overextended: fifteen miles, 4000 foot elevation gain, 90 degree temperatures.  By the time I got to my campsite (not an officially designated one!) where Knife Creek dances into Grizzly, I felt like I'd been rode hard and put away wet.  I crawled into my tent at dusk but left the door open: to exhaustion, to aching muscles, to self-doubt, and to fear.  I couldn't sleep: the winking stars mocked me with their fire and vigor.  I felt old, useless, scared.  I'm not strong enough to do this anymore: the tent was screaming evidence of that fact.  The wilderness is too big, too hard.  This is no country for old women.

In the old days -- the bivy sack days -- I carried two psychological safety nets: a book and a journal.  The book served as my escape route: I would ration pages daily, allow myself twenty or thirty minutes where I could be transported to Somewhere Else, a place populated by living, breathing, thinking, feeling, talking people.  For those twenty or thirty minutes each day, I would not be alone, the wilderness would be forgotten, and language, thought, and reason would prevail.

Then one day -- I remember precisely where I was: beside an alpine lake in the Wind River Mountains -- I glanced up from the bird-scratching black and white text on the page of the book and saw the most awe inspiring landscape I could imagine: rocky, snow-draped peaks, meadows strewn with wildflowers. rainbow waterfalls, and the lake reflecting the sky like an eye.  It had been there in front of me for half an hour but I'd ignored it because I was deciphering the cryptic code of writing.  I threw down the book and vowed never to bring one into the wilderness again.

On my first bookless hike, I realized what a crutch the books I'd carried had become.  I was scared -- literally scared -- because of the lack of human contact that the book had come to represent.  As if the book could have rescued me in an emergency or provided any other assistance whatsoever.  But in ditching the book, I'd lost one of the threads that bound me to humanity, to -- if you want to call it that -- the real world.  I was alone in the wilderness.

The journal stayed with me a few years longer: after all, I reasoned, it doesn't represent other people, only my thoughts.  But writing in the journal (and reviewing my entries) served as a distraction, an intellectual exercise that cut me off from the reality in the living world that surrounded me.  When I'd return from a trip, I'd read through my journal entries and be struck by how trite and self-conscious my attempts at humor or philosophy were.  They didn't represent my actual experience in the mountains but served as some kind of a retreat for me: an intellectual space that I could control, where my words and my thoughts held final say.

So now I face the wilderness alone, naked, with no intellectual armor to protect me.  During the exertion of the day, the wilderness remains an acceptable distance from me, but at night the thin nylon walls of the tent proved too porous to keep the wilderness at bay.  It enters the tent and soon it's inside of me.  Right and wrong disappear, as does all morality: curiosity, instinct, and whatever it takes to continue on, through the night, along the trail or up the mountain, these become my guideposts.  I see a grizzly colored marmot basking on a rock and realize that one of the animal's eyes has been pierced by a porcupine quill.  I feel no pity.  A Virginia rail erupts from cattails, writhing as if with a broken wing: a maneuver to distract intruders from a nest.  Instead of backing away, I note every detail and feature of the rail's appearance, knowing I will probably never be given the opportunity again.  I welcome the dusk, the mosquitoes, the chill.  As the days pass, I harden.  I reacquaint myself with what is inside of me: my fears, my weaknesses, my distractions, my strengths.  The patter of rain on the roof of the tent massages my memory, relaxes my mind.  I'm suddenly more free -- free of words, of encumbrances, of history -- than I've been in years.

My last campsite.  I tight-rope across a fallen tree to a collection of boulders -- barely an island -- in the center of the laughter of Buffalo Fork.  A spotted sandpiper flits from boulder to boulder, exploring the margin between water and air for insects.  Mayflies hatch: delicate wisps of life that must have been Disney's model for the aerial animation of Tinkerbelle.  A waxing gibbous moon rises over the fir forest mixed with a few standing dead trees that remain from the fire fifty years ago.

Tomorrow I will be home, back to the performance, the ritual, of day to day human existence.  Tonight I will welcome the wilderness inside of me: the lightning and the wind, the badgers and Cassin's finches and sandhill cranes, the calving herds of elk and the lone wolf in Telephone Basin, the stars above, the twisted skeletons of lodgepole pines that only open their cones when coaxed by fire, the cycle of water and sun and night that drives and nourishes all of the sprawling, bawling, brawling life on this exquisite blue planet that we call earth.