A decade in steps

Each goal achieved is equally a dream destroyed.

-Reinhold Messner


What have I learned in ten years?  To better confine the question I watched this for the first time in a while.  I’ve been back to almost every foot of road and trail since, most many times.  I’ve been back to the more enduring places we visited as well; to the mundane pain of more hard trailbreaking with feet well beyond tired, to the doubt over a major route obstacle sitting days away just beyond the horizon, to the enduring question of not knowing what I don’t know, until I leave the house and get well out there.  A lot of this is about the pile of backpacking gear, the dozen+ windshirts and backpacks which have, eventually, led to perfection in options for each of the likely scenarios.  It’s more about the repetition; which shirt combo for which side of winter, how much to slow down and unzip 20 minutes before camp to purge moisture, how far to walk from trees, deadfall, and rocks to avoid punching through the aging snowpack of spring.

It is even more, and at last, about my mind.  A decade ago I was still, persistently and deeply, afraid of the wilderness.  Which is, of course, to say that I was afraid of myself.  If the wild is the synthetic a priori which makes our existence known to ourselves, then Thoreau’s wildness is nothing but the realization of our own finitude.  Splashing ourselves out on to the world beyond us reveals nothing about that thing itself, only just how massively, uncomprehendingly much of that thing we can never how to encompass.  And perhaps, some details of our selves within the pool illuminated by our own spirit of enterprise and adventure.


I used to habitually read to sleep, and beginning 13 years ago, when proximity to the Grand Canyon placed the scent and allure of the wild just under my nose, began to cultivate specific reading material for backpacking.  Things which were physically light, of course, along with being both situationally appropriate, for quiet grottos, and with a proper mix of gravity and trivia.  Gravity, to take my mind out of the anticipated isolation, and levity, to turn brooding outward to the joy anticipated the rest of the trip.  About 9 years ago I could see this for what it was and embraced a year or more of restless evenings, foregoing all reading material in the backcountry.  After that year or so I did not miss it.

I did not bring reading material to Isle Royale this fall.  I did bring fear, but it was the sort of trepidation that pulses like background radiation, the static which connects our lived in possibility with the places in which we exist.  I knew I could do it, what ever it was, and I knew this not because I knew the I had an experienced hand at data collection about my route or conditions, but because I knew when and why I’d find certain things challenging, and had prepared for them.  The probability of a moose charge wasn’t scary, nor was being lost, or flippy my boat on windy Lake Superior, or stuffing my foot into a hole and breaking my leg, immobilized in some hole out of the sun and many shoutings-distance from a trail.  Scary was a hole left in my self-certainty, some aspect of self-doubt I had in the past decade somehow not yet discovered, embraced, and let the wild word fill up.


Thoreau wrote that “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest.”  Interpreting this as speaking of a human somehow animated so thoroughly by the other, that is nature, as to be enraptured to a point beyond control is naive to both the tiny-ness of the individual and the precise difficulties said individual must go through to subsume in wildness.  Just as a human individual is a minute part of nature but cannot see clearly beyond herself, that person must see through themselves in order to see the wild which is always already present.  Seeing well the wild is the same as clearly seeing oneself, with the later necessarily coming before the former.

Prior to this fall on Isle Royale I did not consider moose trails a viable option for the bushwacker.  At best they were a harbinger of more reliable traffic, as in Alaska, when split hoof marks in the tundra lead the way to the more human sized trails made by the more humans sized creatures, bear and caribou.  At worst they are a boondoggle, as in many years ago in the Bitterroot, when their post hole marks led out of alpine, across the half mile swamp, and to the edge of several nearly impassable cliffs.  In this case the moose was so plainly un-human as to be uncomprehensible, and therefore, useless.  At least for today.  But then, there was that one moose going from the Buffalo Fork over to Two Ocean, in May, in the rain, postholing into slushy nothing and belly dragging, occasionally, for miles.  This moose was entirely human in the seeming un-utility of her traveling, and perhaps humans, or at least aspirationally so, in her singleminded patience.

Abbey’s crucial pivot in Solitaire comes in his May chapter, Cliffrose and Bayonets, where he raises the prospect of discarding simile as a means for interpreting the wild.  Later the text is seeded with enough Wittgenstein quotations to make us aware that the author is fully versed on the epistemic impracticalities.  And yet, I followed moose tracks for parts of every day on Isle Royale, with them being so dense, and the island so thick, that I rarely had another choice.  Perhaps it is only conditions this obvious that allow the moose access to a metaphor by which we can communicate with them.  Maybe it took me 10 years to be able to understand it.


2 responses to “A decade in steps”

  1. […] had a lot of fun hunting, learning how to be in the backcountry with our kids, and filling in the gaps.  New places polish old skills, a mirror clarity the fog of the daily cannot provide.  Familiar […]

  2. […] I thought back to Isle Royale, mug bogging around the reservoir snow blowing into my face, the answer was easy.  Especially in a […]

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