Monday, March 27, 2006

Things I have learned from the Wilderness

I enjoy backpacking into the mountains and deserts of Southern California. Some of my most memorable experiences have occurred on such trips. Laying back on a huge boulder in the high desert of Joshua Tree on a warm summer evening and beholding an all-night meteor shower with literally dozens of “shooting stars” falling from the sky in any given moment; drinking pure water from an ice-cold mountain spring after a sweaty hike and remembering once again what real water is supposed to taste like; crawling out of your tent in the morning and finding fresh mountain lion tracks just outside your thin nylon door; staying up to witness a brilliant desert moonrise before climbing into your sleeping bag thinking that you have never seen anything so beautiful in all your life; being nearly stepped on by a deer who didn’t sense you lying under a bush watching her until that very moment; hiking through an acre of thousands upon thousands of dime-sized frogs freshly hatched from a tiny desert oasis and realizing that if you had arrived a day earlier or later you would have missed the sight; seeing the comically startled look on the face of a bobcat who accidentally wandered into your camp; shoving your way through chaparral so thick you don’t see the 30’ sheer cliff until one foot is hovering in mid-air (and carefully backtracking to choose a different route after such a close call!); climbing a mountain peak and feeling as if you are truly standing on the top of the world; being nearly blown off that same mountaintop by a sudden thunderstorm that just seemed to appear out of nowhere and instantly turned day into night; discovering ancient petroglyphs near stone mortars left behind hundreds of years ago by migratory Indians; sitting under fragrant whispering pines on a mountain ledge with a spectacular view of the valley below while dining on fresh-caught rainbow trout seasoned with a bit of lemon pepper, and contently thinking that no restaurant in the world could duplicate the experience; engaging in a mano-a-mano stare-down with a great horned owl perched just 10 feet away in a juniper tree; waking up to a 400-pound black bear hovering nose-to-nose over your face literally six inches above you…these are just a few of the experienced I have enjoyed or lived through while in the Wilderness.

The Wilderness always takes pleasure in testing those who would dare venture within her boundaries to see if they are worthy to behold her matchless wonders. Long hikes are the norm, with blisters and sunburns and poison oak and biting insects to be endured. On a gorgeous summer day when you have deemed your tent unnecessary and have left it home to save weight, she will invariably send rain or even snow just to remind you that she, not the weatherman, is still in charge. Alternatively, she will deprive you of life-giving water, parching your throat and tempting you to give up and hike out while you still can, and then suddenly reward your stubborn decision to stay by revealing a small spring hidden under a cluster of gooseberry bushes. Her thermostat has no regard for the normal human comfort zone and routinely makes you either too hot or too cold; yet you relish the experience and simply shed or add clothes to meet the conditions. She guards her trails with rattlesnakes who act like the fearful Cherubim poised at the gates of Paradise preventing fallen Adam’s reentry; the differences are that rattlesnakes aren’t armed with flaming swords and Cherubim don’t taste like chicken (I assume!).

If you can endure her tests, the Wilderness will reward you with glimpses of insight into her Creator that city-dwellers rarely enjoy. As you are delighting in the shade of a gnarled, 400-year-old oak tree, sitting in the dust from which you were taken and will one day return, you are suddenly reminded just how brief your life is and that not one day of it should be wasted in selfish pursuits. As you watch a brightly-colored kingsnake slither by, you marvel at its beauty and realize that God could have made all creation in shades of gray but chose to adorn the world with such wonderful colors as these out of His love for mankind. As you calculate how many miles you must walk that day to reach your next campsite, how much food or water you have left, whether the goat trail you are following along the mountainside is safe or will crumble under your feet, or whether those clouds on the horizon are bringing rain that will flood the currently dry creek bed you have chosen as your escape route, you are reminded just how basic and simple life becomes in the Wilderness. Many of the decisions she requires of you fall under the category of mere survival. Make the right choices and you will have a memorable trip; make the wrong choices and you could die. Such simple yet profoundly important decisions make life seem so much more real and precious, while delicate and fleeting at the same time.

When it finally comes time to hike out and return to the “real world”, such ordinary things as a vehicle that starts and runs, a cheeseburger wolfed down at a fast-food joint, or a hot shower enjoyed at home suddenly all seem like immense and even slightly decadent luxuries. This makes you realize how much we pamper ourselves on a daily basis and why even the slightest degree of ascetic struggle in our lives is often so difficult. That’s when you begin to understand that the true value of the Wilderness experience is not just the wonderful memories, but the return of a better perspective on life. You come back a bit more humble, more appreciative, feeling closer to God, and with a renewed desire to further simplify your life and “get back to the basics” as the saying goes. It is not unlike the feeling I had after a return from the Orthodox monasteries of Mt. Athos. Although the spiritual experience on Mt. Athos is much more intense, the Wilderness also generates similar though lesser feelings, and serves as a good “poor man’s Athos” for those times when I desperately need a quick retreat.

My backpack is loaded and ready to go. I can hardly wait for my next trip into the Wilderness. Want to come along?


At 3/28/2006 4:03 PM , Blogger E Rica said...

You're hard-core. I'm not sure I'm ready for that. :)

At 3/28/2006 9:07 PM , Anonymous Diane said...

How lofty and poetic...sounds great! When do we leave?

At 3/28/2006 9:48 PM , Blogger Sean said...

Yeah, sounds like fun. We haven't been backpacking forever it seems...or camping for that matter.

At 3/29/2006 2:15 PM , Blogger E Rica said...

Now, I feel like a wimp compared to the very Reagan response.


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