After a week of hiking and camping in the Wind River Range in southern Wyoming, my National Outdoor Leadership School semester group had hiked from 8,000 feet to 10,000 feet. We had crossed sprawling boulder fields, narrow game trails edged with sheer drops and open mountain passes where no trees grew and the only life was the rock encrusted lichen and stubby yellow grass. The wind howled across the open saddles of these mountains.Life was lived as a group with eight students. We set tents together, purified water, planned our days, slept in close proximity and endured our irrational tempers, our human faults and our mistakes. But we also laughed and sang together. Most of all we coexisted together within the raw and unforgiving entity that is Mother Nature.
But now there are no peaks. No unsuspecting storms rising over the hills, no rapids that could flip the canoe unexpectedly, no sunrises on plateaus or cold dread felt when standing above a canyon and knowing there was no way to descend the final 20 feet to the bottom, and the water. Farewell to the cautions that were given to challenges that were real and unforgiving: “Anders,” said Anna Haegel, NOLS climbing instructor, before the 80-foot granite spire I was about to climb. “There are times you can fall and times you can’t fall. This is one of those times you cannot fall. Don’t fuck up and die.”
When I left, the west fell away in the rearview mirror on 40 East. The simple life was over. Without that sense of survival and the knowledge that life would be challenging for new reasons scared me. There would be many things I wouldn’t quite understand when I returned. For several weeks I was between homes and lifestyles.
Acclimating to ‘civilized’ life was more difficult than dealing with offensive weather. The hum of televisions, computers and fluorescent lights were in such great quantities and availability that I wondered why we owned them. I did not trust the bed I used to sleep in. I saw it as unnecessary, along with most objects in my room other than my backpack and camping gear. It would be just as easy to sleep on the floor in my sleeping bag. But I knew I would at some point need to sleep in a bed. So I slept in my sleeping bag, as a compromise, on the bed, seeing as I would have to eventually wash the bag anyway.
My house had too much. The kitchen alone contained a four-burner stove, oven, steamer, refrigerator, microwave, blender, toaster, freezer, sink, dishwasher, running water, tiled floor. For weeks I’d built meals using only a pot, cast-iron pan, small stove, water and whatever it was we had left to live off until our rations depleted. It wasn’t an insult to me that ‘civilized’ life had these things. It was insulting to know people are assured so many items are necessary in a world that, I feel, preaches abundant convenience.
For those first few weeks I was laconic. Life was shallow. Nothing felt real. No more waking up before the sun. I slept until noon or 1 in the afternoon. I didn’t have to plan a day of travel in the desert around the knowledge regarding where water may or may not have existed. I could wake up and run the faucet.
There are these moments in life that create a sense of empowerment and intoxication that rapidly supercede all other rational internal coding. Certain things only exist in their surroundings. The mountains and their presence can only be optimally felt when standing upon their edge, like the edge of the wall, the edge of the peak, before a cirque of towers where the sheer grey walls are cut with the rising sun, when, for a brief moment, you are the only thing between that high point and sky. Whatever walk of life, whatever interest in the world, whatever information or art or business and emotion you may crave, dear reader, I urge you to walk beside these words as I have so that life, so ephemeral and visceral, becomes that much more earned and worth living: “Dare to be bold.