Home Sweet Wilderness

When I lived in Seattle, I belonged to an outdoor club called The Mountaineers. I got a lot out of my membership, taking courses in mountaineering-oriented first aid, alpine scrambling (off-trail, non-technical climbing), and orienteering, and going to occasional social dances and on lots of group hikes, snowshoes, x-country ski trips, and the like.

The maximum number of people allowed on any given hike was twelve. The hikes I chose usually set out from the trail head with full attendance. I had fun, got to do some things I might not have tried otherwise, and met lots of interesting people. I also discovered that I preferred to spend my precious wilderness time with just one friend or, even better, alone.

A hike with twelve people can’t help but have a social flavor. People chat with each other, meeting for the first time that morning or getting reacquainted with other regulars or old friends. I found that I could enjoy it as a social gathering, but it eventually became clear to me that social connection was not what I went to the mountains for. What I wanted was to melt into the wilderness, to tiptoe through the landscape and keep my eyes peeled for what was going on with the forest and its inhabitants.

I switched gears and let my club membership lapse. I hiked, camped in all seasons including snow, skied, and roamed, with my boyfriend or by myself. Interestingly, I never got scared out there in the hills, even alone in the tent at night. Sometimes to this day, when I’m at home alone in my bed, I have an unreasonable fear of things like grizzly bears and people bent on violence, but never when I was actually out in the wild places. Out there, I had only a deeply satisfying sense of simultaneous alertness and peace. I had many wonderful, amazing, playful, scary, magnificent adventures.

It was important to me to make smart decisions for my own safety, and at the same time be open to whatever experience might come along. Some important skills in keeping myself safe in the wilderness were knowing my path and tracking available daylight. This was important because I loved it so much out there, it was hard to leave. I’d find some magical ridge top or rock overhang on which to sit and take in the sights and sounds, and want to stay for hours. The longer I stayed, quietly observing, the more I’d get to see of birds and animals who had hid on my initial approach. If I waited too long, however, I’d have a much harder, scarier climb down by flashlight. Even while the afternoon sun shines brightly on the high ridges, the deep forest below is already dim–and getting dimmer quickly. Pacific Northwest trails are often very steep and not always easy to follow in the dark. Much better to get down while you can still see where you’re going.

It has been some years since I had those kinds of adventures on a regular basis, and I’ve done very little hiking in my new California home. Today, however, I had a sweet little moment on the front porch that recalled the poignancy of those wilderness moments at day’s end.

It was late afternoon. The sun is still relatively wan and low in the sky at this time of year, but the day had the tender, tentative warmth of early spring. Hordes of fuzzy-looking bees gently bowed with their weight one after another of the thickly clustered rosemary blossoms. Birds large and small chattered and screeched and sang, fluttering about busily on mysterious errands. Hawks soared in languid, interlocking ovals high, high up against the deep, crisp blue, their distant cries intertwined with the gentle breeze. Underlying all was the white noise of the creek rushing unseen in the valley bottom, background to a tapestry of awakening life.

I basked on the sun-warmed wooden bench on the porch, soaking up the noises and activity and the green vistas of delicate new growth along with the sunshine. It dawned on me suddenly that it was time to leave, that the window of safety for returning to my car in the trail head parking lot was quickly narrowing. Soon, it would be too dark to see in the forests below, and I would be faced with navigating the steeps with my small flashlight and overactive imagination. The prospect of that scary descent was, as always, in constant tension with the pleasure and beauty of the dying day, with each moment all the more achingly precious as the time to leave became more urgent.

Of course, I didn’t really have to leave. There was no deadline for reaching my car. I was safe on my own front porch, free to savor the last minutes of the day, watching over the valley sliding slowly but inexorably into evening, smiling to myself in utter peace and contentment. My flashlight rested handily by my bedside a few steps away, unneeded.  The sun could continue on its path over the horizon and the shadows beneath the oaks grow long and deep, and I needn’t tear myself away to rush off anywhere at all.

Perhaps something is lost by missing that tension of stretching the departure decision to the heart-pumping point of danger. Perhaps as I get older, my need for adventure lessens along with my tolerance for the hassles of planning and executing them.  Perhaps one doesn’t feel quite the pull to visit various faraway paradises when paradise is one’s address. Today, at least, any loss is more than balanced for me by the sheer delight of getting to stay, here at home, in a wild and beautiful place.

One Comment

  1. Joseph:

    Thanks Holly. Wonderful post! Makes me very nostalgic for living at Murray Creek!

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