Into The Wild Scotchmans

Posted on Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

This piece was originally published on  in July of 2005.

Imagine you’re a movie camera, focused on the broken edge of a sunlit surface of reddish-gray stone embossed with ripples of a 750-million-year-old sea bed. In your field of view, a sun-browned hand appears, getting purchase on the rock. A boot appears on the rock. The hand flattens and muscles flex as it pushes off, and the other boot lands beside the first. You, the camera, move away from the rock and the owner of the boots is revealed; first her, and then three other humans with packs traversing wrinkled stone. They are not wearing day-packs, but packs made for days of hiking.

You continue to pull away to a view of the hikers trudging up a steep, narrow ridge. The perspective grows and grows until the four are bits of color moving on a huge bulk falling to both sides in leaps and bounds and arching runs of glaciated sedimentary stone.

That movie has been running in my mind today, but now, the dryer’s buzzing, and, I have to leave the theater. I fold a newly-washed cappeline shirt. It no longer smells of wood smoke and sweat from countless thigh-burning steps up one and down rock-strewn, bear grass-laden, goat-trodden ridges. Most of the stains came out of my hiking tee-shirt. My Carhart shorts no longer have a patina of Phil’s killer camping spaghetti sauce, charcoal and dirt from Elk Ladder ridge. My boots are nearly dry – nearly. We got plenty wet, we who just returned from a trek through Scotchman Peaks wilderness: Deb, Phil, Jonathan and I.

The Scotchman Peaks haven’t been declared wilderness by an act of Congress yet, but I defy anyone to find a better descriptive noun by which to name this faulted, glaciated, jumbled, contorted, inaccessible, steep-ass, dangerous and completely, extraordinarily, awesomely beautiful chunk of planet.

Three otherwise intelligent folk followed me into that wilderness near the Montana/Idaho border last Wednesday. The wilderness, after trying mightily to eat us, spit us out at Spar Lake on Saturday afternoon. We aren’t bright enough to avoid being swallowed up, but we’re too tough to chew, and that country chewed on us a great deal. Besides trying to drown us on a couple of occasions, it provided us with some dandy guerrilla hiking.

“Trails?” we said. “We don’t need no stinking trails.”

The hike leader fell from grace daily, but there was no mutiny because the wilderness came through with spectacular rewards for the travails we suffered. After an hour beating through soaking wet tag alder and devil’s club, for example, we walked out into a semi-vertical garden lush with purple penstemon, bear grass, arnica, bone white flax, Indian paintbrush and yellow wild columbine growing out of rock that seeps water fresh and cold as space itself.

The wilderness also provided good camps, the best in a soft, grassy alpine meadow at the top of a ramp of pinkish rock that still shows scratches left by glaciers 12,000 years ago, with a trickling stream of snowmelt, ensconced by cliffs rising 700 feet. In return, the group did not stone me for leading them for ten and a half hours (just five and a half miles) along straight-up-or-straight-down ridges; cliff-dodging, boulder-climbing, back-tracking and bush-whacking all the way.

There was also the small matter of walking back up 500 vertical feet to get to that camp. I am grateful for forgiveness, and that the wilderness gave us a lowering sun, great slabs of raw rock with all those same flowers growing in their cracks and a rambunctious stream beside us to escort us up the hill.

As we lowered our packs into the grass of that little meadow under the cliffs of a mountain we had stood at the top of hours before, I felt another Presence with us.

Wilderness is Creation exposed; God’s work unfinished, magic, magnificent and unaltered by our species. In the heart of wilderness, the pulse of the universe becomes audible, palpable, complete, ponderous and vital. In wilderness is a great hope for our species, for it may be a place that we can go and reconnect with this orb that has spawned us through the miracle of evolution.

It is an old rule of navigation that if you want to know where you are going, it is good to know where you began, and we began in wilderness; a place where we might believe that we are not so safe as we are in our automobiles and living rooms; a place where the earth will eat us, given the chance.

But in a world without wilderness, we will become more disconnected from the planet than we are already. With no connection to the planet, it may be impossible to find connection with our neighbors. With no pastures to lie down in together, we are likely condemned to fight about where to put the fences.

There are no fences in wilderness. There are, however, awe and peace and a chance to remember where we came from and perhaps get a better bearing on where we might go from here.

As for personal navigation, I will roll that movie again as I need to. It will sustain me until the next time I give the wilderness a chance to eat me. I will go willingly, for to be digested is to be softened, made more pliable, less rigid; and thereby less fragile and less easily broken.

Sandy Compton
The River Journal
July 13, 2005


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