Friday, January 13, 2012

The Wilderness Experience

Sonora Pass, Sierra Nevada, CA

Well, I did it. Today I went running, found I felt so good that I went and pushed myself, meeting and slightly exceeding that goal of 4 miles which just a couple days ago I doubted I'd be able to do, since I was suddenly struggling to run 1.5. It always comes down to how much dust I'm breathing at work, I guess. But today I felt great, hardly breathing hard, and surely could have been going faster had my legs felt up to it. As it was I stuck to my tortoise pace and met my goal. Good enough.

Since I was able to lift my mind off of pain for once, my mind drifted, and finally came back to something I'd read earlier on Del's blog. He mentioned hiking up Wilson Mountain Trail, a popular, highly used trail in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness Area near Sedona, saying that although few were out on that particular day (it being late December), generally he doubts that anyone could have a wilderness experience out there, with the crowds. Made me think: what exactly is a wilderness experience? What goes into creating one? Del was insinuating that solitude is a reqirement, as was being in a wilderness area in the first place. Is that the case?

Lord knows I'm a bit of an extreme case, having spent such extensive time in the backcountry, the trails, the mountains, forests, and deserts. I can't even car camp anymore because it still feels too civilized. But it's all relative. When I was working as a ridgerunner on the New Jersey Appalachian Trail, I met tons of people, all ages, who seemed just bowled over by their trip. We're talking about people who are mostly from that malignancy, the New York City Metropolitan Area, people for whom the gentle woodlands of the New Jersey State Forests are as wild as any Amazon rainforest. I've seen their eyes go wide as dinner plates when I informed a family group that yes, there are in fact bears out here. I thought the woman was going to faint.

Anyway, what I'm saying is, one can have a wilderness experience walking out the front door, or in the midst of Times Square for that matter. The sunrise can be seen from anywhere, and anyone can get lost in the flight of a bird, or the mysteries of ants building their hill in the crack of a sidewalk. Lawns are boring at the usual scale, but up close are teeming with life. And though we easily forget, people are wild animals too.

Perhaps we should think about the definition of wilderness. The thing is, "wilderness" and "Nature" are human concepts, and recent ones at that. Blame the Romantics. In truth, there is no natural world versus an artificial human one. The made world of cities and modern materials don't come ex nihilo out of the void. They may be new combinations, and even harmful, disharmonious ones, but they are the same old atoms, maybe atoms that used to be a block of granite, or a deer, or a fern from the Carboniferous Period.

And yet...

Clearly there is a difference from grokking a tree in your front yard and a 5 day solo trip in a wilderness area. Or perhaps the difference is not the setting at all. Perhaps it is the mindset of the person in question. I've seen many people out on the trails who were not on the trails at all. Walking by, I heard their conversations, and they are all kinds of weird. Middle aged women discussing the latest fashions in shoes and purses (and who has them and who doesn't), young people discussing the pros and cons of alternative educational systems, some older men talking office politics.

These are all fine and worthy topics, I guess, but they could be had in any coffee shop, bar room, or living room in the country. If you're still dwelling in your workaday world, you're not walking on a mountain, you're still only travelling your mind. You can do that at home; so why did you come all the way out here?

I think you can have a wilderness experience literally anywhere, even right at home, sitting cross-legged in the dark meditating on your heartbeat. That's Nature. I sometimes wonder if "wilderness experience" is getting at the same thing as "spiritual experience," "wonder and awe," and "nirvana." Perhaps it's a manner of degree, but I mean, why should it be impossible to have a wilderness experience if there are dozens of hikers on the summit or trail? The difference is whether you're involved in the place you're in, conscious of it and integrating in it, or if you're just caught up in the same old disconnected world you always live in.

aerial view of Mt Washington's summit
So, what does constitute a wilderness experience? Firstly, being present. Secondly, being quiet is typically involved, but not always-- it just helps you connect, since language is so human, and so wrapped up in the symbolic, rather than the real. Nature speaks a thousand languages, so quiet down and listen. Thirdly, being alone or in small groups; that helps, but if you stay present, you can still be attuned to the world on as crowded a summit as Mt Washington in New Hampshire (they have a post office, cafeteria, and weather facility up there, with a road and a passenger train to the top). Leave work at work, home at home, and be in the forest, be on the mountain, subsume yourself into the greater system.

That's what it comes down to. Being present is being present, but there is a special character to a wilderness experience. Otherwise we wouldn't have a word for it, it'd be the same as deep meditation, the ecstacy of a beautiful symphony, the experience of being moved by a painting. The point is opening up to a larger world, one that doesn't have a big place for you, that doesn't revolve around you, but does still include you. Setting ego aside, the personal story of you, and falling into a greater whole. Towering rocks. Weather. Vast tracts of untended vegetation (tended by itself). Wildlife, things that can eat you, be it mosquito or mountain lion. The simple rhythm of the daily cycle, sun-time. Water that flows not because people are thirsty and dirty and have cars to wash and flowers to water, but because that is what water does. Where no concession or provision is made for you, but neither is there antagonism. It simply is, and a wilderness experience is when you simply are, too.

The problem is doing it. I've been many places, like Old Faithful, Yosemite Falls, Mt Washington, Clingmans Dome, and so on, where it's been too crowded to really reap the beauty of the place. It's possible in theory, but very hard in practice. You're too jangled by the commotion, too eager to go about grabbing at nature with your camera, it's too much. Most of us are not Buddhas, and so to really have that wilderness experience, as opposed to just a pretty view in the fresh air, you gotta get away, get alone, and get quiet.


  1. I think the thing about getting out in nature is that, as you wrote, we discover that it "doesn't revolve around you." Cities revolve around people; forests and mountains revolve around flora and fauna.

    In essence, for most people (city dwellers), we are guests. We get to be part of something that is beyond the pale of the general routine. When we allow ourselves to be keenly in tune with our surroundings -- not busy discussing politics or fidgeting with a hand-held -- we realize our kinship with the world writ large.

  2. Wow, such a great post, Brandon.

    There is definitely a nebulous, shifting quality to wilderness that makes it hard to nail down. It certainly is relative and very subjective too. I know for me the concept of wilderness and what constitutes a high quality wilderness experience has radically changed over the years.

    Barry Lopez once wrote that the most essential attribute of wilderness was the sublime experience of falling into resonance with a system of unmanaged non-human-centered relationships. That seems to be the key point of much of what is written about the meaning of wilderness. Unfortunately, I think developing the necessary sensitivity to be able to "fall into" that resonance also makes you more able to clearly see what's "wrong" with places like the ones you mentioned in your last paragraph. That's been my experience, anyway.

  3. When my son was small, <5, we lived on a 6 acre parcel in the middle of coal country. It had pretty much gone to weed (that is, it was not a garden or park), but we created a trail that went around the perimeter, with little interconnecting side routes, that went through a lot of various "ecosystems" and terrain...miniature, but when you're walking with a three year old, six acres over four seasons and five years can seem like wilderness. And in his mind, that's how he remembers it. And so do I.

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    Baroness, I remember places like your son does, and am always amazed to go back to them and see how small they really are. The world is so big to kids.