Above: Aaron Johnson in one of the less miserable moments of the 2016 Extreme Plein Air Expedition (Photo by Joe Foster, dappstudios.com)
By Aaron Johnson
The company loves misery — sort of.
Being outdoors has always been an integral part of my life, but there is a distinct difference between being outdoors and being in the wilderness. I’ve learned, forgotten and relearned this difference multiple times. The relearning part is essential.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve backpacked many times into the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, each time with a heavy pack full of painting supplies. Filtering a wilderness experience down to a singular moment is as difficult as choosing one thing to paint. Each moment is part of the experience.
On the surface, some of these wilderness moments might seem like misery. Like a barb stuck in your hand from the devil’s club that you grabbed to keep from falling. Or the seemingly endless hours in the alder with branches smacking your face, or getting stuck on your pack. Or the three-hour exit that became an eleven-plus-hour exit punctuated by a sleepless night on a small sandbar.
But the wilderness transforms these experiences, they also link to some of the most memorable moments in one’s life.
— Watching the alpenglow sneak up the side of Sawtooth Peak followed by a surprise full moon rise, that is in just the right spot. Then racing to the tents as the rain starts to fall and as the pitter patter of the drops hit the tent we are serenaded with an impromptu song on a harmonica.
— Being on top and looking at the endless peaks and valleys, wondering how they came to be.
— After a long, long day, cresting the rise into Melissa Basin for the first time. There are two places I have been that I think about almost every day, wondering what they look like at that moment of thought. They are Paris and Melissa Basin. The sense of awe that a place this perfect exists never leaves me. I could endlessly paint Melissa Basin and never be bored or satisfied.
Yet, possibly the best thing about my wilderness experience has been the human connections I have made. A relationship created with the people that go through the same wilderness experience can’t be made outside of this experience. It is more than friendship. We become more like a wilderness family. We have family traditions that we do on every hike.
— Annually trying to remember what hikes we’ve done and in which year we did them.
— Staring into the dark skies contemplating our existence as a friend recites a poem he memorized or one he just wrote.
— Waiting for that one phrase, the phrase that means we really are on a hike; “Oh, baby!”
— Introducing my children to my wilderness family when they can carry their own pack.
Mostly, though, I love being miserable in the wilderness.
Aaron Johnson is a professor of art at the University of Idaho, and has been on nine Extreme Plein Air expeditions in the past 11 years, traversing the Scotchman Peaks via many alder choked, devil’s club populated and rock strewn routes. Some of his wilderness art can be viewed online at www.cordellart.com/scotchman-peaks-2011.html
Voices in the Wilderness is a monthly column written by your neighbors, friends and visitors in the vicinity of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Voices features memorable personal experiences in wild places. If you have an adventure tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write to firstname.lastname@example.org for guidelines, or just send it along.