Lessons From Wilderness

Photo : nst

SIX years ago my daughter and I set off on a hike. She was 14 when we took our first 320km backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail, the great ribbon running through mountains and deserts from Mexico to Canada. It was just the two of us and a few million mosquitoes.

One great thing about hiking with my daughter is that mosquitoes love to dine on her, thus neglecting me. On that trip, even DEET repellent and a head net couldn’t fend them off:“Dad! I just counted! I have 49 mosquito bites on my forehead alone!”

She was an old hand at outdoor masochism, for we had been going on family backpacking trips since before she turned two. First, she and I resolved to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in my home state, Oregon. Then, we decided to spend a few years hiking across Washington state. After that, how could we not complete California as well?

Each day on the trail, we rose with the sun, carried all our possessions on our shoulders, filled our water bottles from creeks, rested in meadows dazzling with alpine wildflowers, bathed in rivers, and at dusk found a flat spot on which to unroll our sleeping bags and fall asleep while counting shooting stars.

Every summer, indulgent readers have put up with my annual backpacking column from the Pacific Crest Trail. But this may be the last. This summer, my daughter and I completed the rest of the 4,240km trail. After six years, we have finished our hike.

So if you’ll indulge me once more, a few lessons from the wilderness:

Escape is okay. So much is happening at home and abroad that it can be traumatic to leave the news behind, get off the grid and become untethered from email and cellphones. But unplugging occasionally can also be healthy for the soul.

United States President Donald Trump’s turmoil isn’t the only important thing in the world; another is family.

With the Pacific Crest Trail under our belts, my daughter and I have thought about beginning the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Northwest Trail. But more likely, next year we’ll take our entire family back to some of our favourite segments of the Pacific Crest Trail, like Goat Rocks in Washington, Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon or the John Muir Trail in the California Sierras.

America’s glory is its cathedral of wilderness. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, visionary Americans like Teddy Roosevelt (26th US president) and Gifford Pinchot (first chief of the US Forest Service), fought to protect public lands for collective use.

The upshot is that today, every American inherits a stunning patrimony, a piece of some of the most beautiful terrain in the world.

You may not be able to afford a weekend house, but you’re already a shared landlord of spectacular wilderness. For a day at a time, my daughter and I “owned” dazzling camping spots that even Jeff Bezos or Warren Buffett can never buy. On our public lands, no one can pull rank on you — except a bear.

Speaking of which, on the trail over the years we spotted: two bears, one cougar, one pine marten, one fisher, one lynx, 14 rattlesnakes, and surprisingly few humans.

Nature offers perspective. In America, we live in a world where we mostly control our environment. If we’re warm, we may adjust the thermostat by a single degree.

In contrast, the wilderness is almost always too hot or too cold. It is vast and unbending, reminding us that we are not the lords of the universe, but atoms in the firmament. We are put in our place.

Our most memorable segments of the Pacific Crest Trail were the ones that tormented us. There were exhausting 40 and 50km days through the searing deserts of Southern California, and cold rains and icy nights in Washington.

My daughter is an uncomplaining stoic who likes doing handstands on mountain tops, so my internal alarms jangled when we crossed a North Cascades mountain pass one freezing afternoon and she turned to me and asked in a hesitant, subdued manner, “Dad, how do you know if you have hypothermia?”

Nature disciplined us, and sometimes frightened us, by making us ford high rivers, cross steep snow banks — or by getting us lost. Early one hiking season in the mountains of Oregon, when the trail disappeared beneath several feet of snow that had refused to melt, we became utterly lost for a couple of days, so I was thrilled to eventually come across footprints in the snow: We had stumbled on a trail! But after a while, my daughter noticed that the footprints had claws.

“Dad,” she said, “I think that’s a bear you’re following.”

The environmental movement should be not only about protecting nature but also about getting young people out in the midst of it. The writer Richard Louv has worried that children reared in front of screens suffer “nature deficit disorder.” Such children miss the privileges of getting lost, of scratching mosquito bites, of wondering if a toe is frostbitten — of understanding the raw majesty and power of the natural world.

I’m on a book leave this summer, and also glued to the news from Washington. But my escape to the wilderness is an annual therapy session, anchoring me to family and helping put me in my place.

My legs are sore, my blisters are horrifying, and it looks as if I’ll lose a few toenails. All is well with the world.

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