The Wilderness Inside Us All

Dick Ambrose (above the fold in the newspaper, of course) and I have carried on a conversation or two about wild places, about wilderness, and the experiences we have had with them.  We talked about coming to winter—a time to contemplate wildness.  The bottom line of all that, I suppose, is this page in the Daily Record which now belongs to us.

From the last conversation Dick and I had, my mind has been filled with a potpourri—a collage, if you will—of wilderness lessons and experiences.

I am aware, from my earliest childhood, of actively seeking the wild place I felt deep within my being.  Indeed, I believe there is a wilderness within each of us—an uncivilized place where everything works according to the most basic laws of Nature.  It is that place we seek to feel when we wander into one of the wild places on this planet.  There, survival depends not on gasoline or a grocery store or a switch or a cop.  There, survival rides on our ability to navigate in a wild place where meeting our own needs—and the amazing joy which accompanies it—depends wholly on our own mindset, skill and awareness.

I was 13 when I learned that successfully navigating the straightforward—if not unforgiving—nature of wild places also requires a high level of that awareness part.  I was apprenticing that summer with RK Canvas and Shade in Wenatchee.  Manny Felty, one of the pros in the shop and a friend of The Old Man, offered to take me fishing in what is now the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

In early July, we headed up the Icicle from Leavenworth and hiked in to camp at Eight Mile Lake.  I had thoroughly oiled my boots, but by the end of a second day of ice, wet snow and cold slips into the lake, they were soaked.  I put them by the fire to dry overnight.  By morning, most of the front half of my left boot was gone.  I can still hear Manny saying, “Your folks spent good money on those boots.  I bet they won’t be very happy to see that.”  Mostly, I remember creatively winding and tying rope around that boot and my foot—and a long, uncomfortable pack out to Manny’s truck.  The Old Man may have said something about brains and wild places.

Almost three decades ago, August, I packed a base camp up into the Eagles Nest Wilderness, in Colorado’s northern Rockies.  Over the next couple weeks, I spent eight or ten days on my own hunting mountain goats in the cirques and crags above Piney Lake.  I remember the last two miles to timberline as a giant staircase, and I remember prodding myself with thoughts of a great supper by small fire, with not another human in many miles.  I scratched up the west side of Kneeknocker Pass to catch the sun’s first rays.  I scaled cliffs and scrambled down avalanche chutes.  I got overheated and chilled, refreshed and exhausted, terrified and exhilarated.  Goats were everywhere.

In my final trip, I scrambled into a cirque perched on the west wall of a straight-up-and-down mountain.  I was looking for a way up a cliff, when a large goat slowly worked its way down a chute to an outcropping a few hundred yards away.  After a good stalk, a prayer and one shot, I found myself perched on the outcropping, a hundred feet above nothing, looking down on the Piney Lake trailhead, nine or ten miles down the trail.

I got the goat to base camp at timberline and strategized getting two 70-pound loads the six miles back to my truck.  After a series of relays, I finally got one load in the rig.  I have two clear memories of the rest.  First, just after shouldering the second load and standing, I met a woman on the trail.  She proudly spoke of “her” wilderness and how important it was to a quality life.  As some point, she noticed the goat pelt and rifle on my pack, and stopped mid-sentence.  “Oh,” she said, with icicles hanging from her words, “you are one of those…”  Secondly, I remember thinking that I could not make the last three miles.  I bribed myself with a hot bean and cheese burrito.

For some years at the University of Colorado, I led students on ten-mile hikes across the Mount Evans Wilderness.  Many of them came away with new senses of themselves and their lives.

A ranger at Grand Teton National Park shared a story that still moves me.  She was on a trail from Jenny Lake up into one of the hanging valleys in early September.  She would check on back country campsites, and maybe drop over into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.  At first light, as she moved through the aspens along the marshy meadows, she heard elk moving.  She reached a meadow just as the sun swept across it.  In that sudden beam of light was a magnificent old bull elk.  As he bugled his guttural challenge, his breath sparkled in the sun and steam rose from his back.  She was transfixed and stunned, she said.  As he slowly tilted back, and turned, his giant antlers, she felt the world move beneath her feet.

Wildness…  Wilderness…  Somehow it has to be about finding that place in ourselves.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment