More has been taught to me in the wilderness than any other place in my life. I don’t know if it’s just that I don’t learn very well in traditional settings, or if I just don’t get it in the normal ways… but often times a lesson that’s being taught to me isn’t understood until I’m strapped to my pack and my quads are burning as they push me up the trail. Understanding tends to grow more out there. Just clear views and perspective is all it takes. It could be because of the disconnecting from normal societal distractions… no phone, no internet, no computer to keep me pacified and docile. Without that, actual internal processing thrives. It’s like jumping off the social media hamster wheel and onto the trail flushes my system of all the junk that is unnecessary.
I suppose it has a lot to do with the physical activity too. Endorphins are a wonderful thing, capable of total mood shifting and relieving of stress. And the sense of accomplishment that floods in isn’t bad either. It’s challenging, mood boosting, mental clarity, and beautiful views all rolled into one.
On trips though, the moments that teach me the most are the ones that are difficult. They’re the aching hips and the hiking in hail… the thunder and lightning in the morning before you’ve even broken camp, the sleepless nights tossing in your sleeping bag trying to get warm, the rain on the day you have to do the most stream crossings and end up with wet feet all day. But as difficult as those situations are, they’re the ones I look back on with fondness and chuckle. I’m not sure why, because while I’m in them I want to strangle a small animal… and that’s putting it lightly (I just didn’t think it would be kosher to say “strangle a baby”). I guess it’s because looking back I can see the merit in them. Looking back, I can see why or what I learned that I wouldn’t have grasped from the beautiful or calm moments. Of course, those have their merit too. But rarely do I learn from them. Nope. I learn from pain and discomfort.
And now, some of my favorite memories from the wilderness are the afternoons in camp having to set up our shelters quickly before getting pounded by a storm. The adrenaline rush that moves into a cooped-up annoyance, which shifts into sweet sunset relief as the storm clears and the stars come out. Learning to embrace the storms doesn’t come easy. It’s a skill. And just like any skill, the more you work at it the more naturally you utilize it.
Every summer I have the privilege of assisting on a week long, trans-sierra backpacking trip from the west side of the range to the top of Mount Whitney. It’s a sixty-five mile trip across Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Jenny Lakes Wilderness, and Inyo… over the Great Western Divide, crossing countless rivers and streams, meadow after meadow, ridge-line after ridge-line, up to 14,508ft… the highest point in the U.S. outside of Alaska. The first time I endeavored on this trip was my first year backpacking eight years ago. I’d just graduated high school the year before, and on a whim (with my mountain-man brother’s encouragement) I jumped into the group two weeks before we left.
A brief explanation of the group… here in Clovis there’s a 5th grade teacher who for the last forty-plus years has taken some of his students the summer before they go into 6th grade on this week-long trip. Yes. 5th graders. They carry their own gear, group food and group gear. And they set out on the trail having been told what to expect, but totally unaware of what they’re about to endure. He tells them at the beginning of their 5th grade year that if they meet all of his requirements (PE testing, good grades, obedient in class) then he will consider taking them. They each get a piece of tape on their desk with “Mt. Whitney” written across it. If they act out or don’t finish an assignment, then he crosses off a letter. Occasionally he’ll add letters if he sees a kid that he knows needs this trip.
So when I jumped on last minute, I had little knowledge of what an awesome thing I was getting myself into. A day into it all I knew was that my pack was probably thirty pounds too heavy, and I was in more pain than I wanted to admit. By the end of the trip I said that I’d enjoyed it, but would probably never go again. That long of a trip with that much hiking just wasn’t for me. Or so I thought…
The next summer arrived and there was an opening again… this time I was needed as a female chaperone. Having had a year to forget all the pain, I shrugged and said “why not?”. And so I went. The following year was the same. And slowly I became a staple of the trip. I started bringing my ukulele and singing songs in camp. That was my thing. And then more responsibilities came my way… helping kids cross streams, cooking, leading, carrying more group gear (especially now that I’d learned from my brother how to pack properly and lighten my load). Mr. Murphy had shifted from telling me that I might be able to go after three years, to telling me I had to go, to telling me he couldn’t do the trip without me. Much as I may be “needed” for the trip… the truth is, I need the trip more than it needs me.
Being out there, away from distractions, surrounded by miles of wonderfully familiar wilderness, pushing myself to my limit, running down the trail with a total sense of giddy joy and badassery is like a blood transfusion for me every year. Sometimes I wonder what in the world I would do without it. What would I do without that trail that I can see clearly when I close my eyes, without those kids and their growth that I get to watch, without the Great Western Divide, the Kaweahs, Colby Lake and Colby Pass… who would I be without this trip? I could be totally dramatic here and say “I’d probably be dead”. But that would just cheapen how much this adventure has meant to me over the years.
Almost every big life lesson was taught to me out there. My deeper understanding of myself was shown to me at the top of Colby Pass staring out at the Kaweah ridge in the distance, shivering in the wind. The beauty of the universe and God’s grand design was revealed sleeping out at Colby Lake and watching the Milky Way spin in the sky year after year. And that God-given P word… Perseverance. If I can endure hiking in hail, being drenched to my core, trapped under my tarp as lightning strikes the ridge a thousand feet above me, handing out my layers to kids after almost being struck by lightning so they don’t go hypothermic… then I can damn-well endure anything this bitch called Life can throw my way. I can persevere.
Sometimes I forget that. It’s not in my nature to remember how badass I can be. Maybe that’s the most badass part of me. I guess because to me, that’s just who I am. And the depth of gratitude I feel for the wilderness is barely even touched on here. I’m not sure I could even put it into words. I’m not even sure I understand it enough yet.