Eight of us went to the wilderness, though we all often thought that we were nine. I’d turn to count us, strung out across a talus slope or gathered around an evening fire, and consistently come up one short. So, I’d take inventory: Jake, Matt, Jared, David, Aaron, Haas, Leslie, me. All accounted for. Only eight.
Others on this adventure confessed they did the same. “I thought there were nine of us,” one would say, and we would discuss the missing, invariably concluding something similar.
The eight of us were a rolling microcosm of art and observation: Two painters (Jared Shear and Aaron Johnson), two film makers (Matt Stauble and Jake Glass), a sculptor (David Herbold), a writer (me), and two “civilian observers” (Jared and Leslie Haas).
As for the ninth, an old adage might be paraphrased: there are no atheists in wilderness, either. Something is there, a presence that lives in the rocks and water and sky above, filling the silence with its essence. In the wild, we breathe it in and bathe in it and are renewed. Even as the topography we clamber through daily chips away at our endurance and resolve, we are rebuilt and strengthened.
In this wild place we wandered through, the heart of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, going is tough; what isn’t up is down. Forest Service trails disappear, elk trails lead on; and elk are not held to the vague rules of human trail construction. They take the easiest-for-an-elk route available, and easiest is often not easy.
Our first day — seven not-so-measly miles from Ross Creek Cedars to the divide between Ross Creek and Blue Creek — we hiked six hours, with intermittent moments of rest and observation that filled another three. A few of us wondered just what we had gotten ourselves into, including me, who should have known, having been in this place with 40 pounds on my back before.
Laboring up a 45-degree slope late that day, came the impression that the seven folks sweating behind me were hoping that I would fall over dead so they could rest while deciding what to do with my body. But, I didn’t. And, we all made it to the top, and gratefully pitched our tents in the rays of a lowering sun.
The painters painted. The sculptor sketched. The film makers filmed. The writer wrote. The observers observed, reminding me of a couple visiting a gallery or museum, stopping in front of each piece of art or diorama and making quiet comments to each other.
“What do you think of that?” I imagined them asking. They would laugh, then, and move on to the next observation opportunity. I’m sure the adjective “crazy” was used more than once.
And we might have been, but in a good way. The wild replaces the insanity of the “real” world of wars, worries and the Web with crazy thoughts of abiding peace and freedom. That’s one of the reasons I go there. It is the reason I go there.
Five days and four nights. The first day tries to turn you back. The second day makes you wish it was day five. On the third day, though, the past and the future fade into the background and you are ushered into the now. It no longer matters when you are as much as it does what and where you are. What you thought you couldn’t do yesterday, you do without thinking, except considering the next step and the magnificent place you are stepping through.
Hike, eat, sleep, marvel. Repeat. Make the next 100 yards, the next 100 feet of vertical, the next 15 minutes, the next ten steps, the next breath. Repeat. Do what you think you can’t do. Repeat.
By day four, you have lost your doubts as well as ideas about personal capability. It ceases to matter whether you think you can or not. You just do it. Instead of thinking about the bills waiting at home or your state of employment or what the rest of the world thinks of you, you think of how to navigate a tag alder jungle, or scoot down a cliff on a goat trail, or where to put your foot on that next rock in a field of a hundred-thousand rocks. You get down to just being.
This is, I suspect, why prophets like Moses, Jesus and M0hhamed went to the wilderness. To get down to being. To commune with that ninth member of our party. To strip themselves of all concerns except the next 30 seconds. To rediscover themselves and renew their faith in their own abilities and what they believed. To assimilate themselves.
On day five, I woke hungry and in that feeling was the knowledge that if I had more food I would stay another day . . . or two . . . or three. The wilderness had assimilated me. Us. And the ninth member of the party. We had become one.
At the end, we came apart like any good molecule — grudgingly — like electrons flying off in different directions to be captured by other nuclei; home, jobs, family; social responsibilities. The ninth member of the party followed each of us home, as if we hadn’t been home all along. It will draw us all back, I hope, to each other and to that wild place where we were welded together by wilderness.
— Sandy Compton