Voices in the Wilderness: Heather Ferrie

What a Grumpy Man & the Wild Mountains Taught Me 

I was casually chatting with folks at a park and said, “Yea, I want there to be a mountain even when I’m not on it and a desert even if it’s too hot to go. I just think we need wild places.“ 

A man scrunched his brows and said, “You sound like one of those hippy types. It’s all gonna be gone someday, anyway. So, why do you care so much?”

Surprised, I floundered and said, “I just do,” admittedly with a bit of an angry tone, a response on which I’d later dwell. 

My Journey 

When I was ten years old my family took a trip to the Rocky Mountains. I recall my amazement, as a scrawny little girl having to bend my neck up to see the peaks. I recall crisp mornings as I woke from my tent. We fished in the cold streams and played in the mountain snow. I remember the joy of seeing mountain goats, black bears, elk, and basking in the time spent with family. Not long after, however, we moved east. It would be many years until I made it back to those mountains but a longing was always there. 

There were signs. As a child I kept an old topographic globe on which I could run my fingers across the bumpy parts, my favorites – the mountains. 

After college, I went to work in the big city. I remember gazing outside and knowing it wasn’t for me. But the world I grew up in taught me that success was in titles and accounts. I didn’t see another way. I built a life where I had a good degree and a good job, but it was hard to admit that I also lacked authenticity, was in a struggling relationship, and lacked a sense of identity. 

But the world I grew up in taught me that success was in titles and accounts. I didn’t see another way.

Then, I went to San Diego for work, after which I headed into the Sierra Nevada mountains. When I returned east, my longing for the mountains stuck. At the time, the ultimate destination was Montana. I recall the first time I drove through those thick evergreen forests and hiked off into crisp mornings. My enthusiasm had me nearly numb to the cold and the grizzlies, up at dawn for sunrise views of those unforgettable mountains. I was home. This time I knew I’d never get over the longing. But life carried on and more years passed. 

Suddenly, everything I knew came tumbling down. Broken trust and loss ripped away at my heart and soul, as I learned one of life’s toughest lessons. So, I ran away to the mountains. Nothing else seemed to help. Off I’d go hiking, exploring and camping, often just my dog and I. Along the way, I began to mend and grow and change. I found strength I didn’t know I had. In those days, I learned much. The wilderness teaches us humility and attentiveness, as it slows us down. Once changed we’re forever filled with such vivid existence. 

The wilderness teaches us humility and attentiveness, as it slows us down. Once changed we’re forever filled with such vivid existence. 

I thought about how these wild places, to which I owe so much, had patiently been there the whole time. In every mountain I see millions of stories of those who found their way. I see hope, strength, guidance, wisdom and answers to our problems today. 

Before this, I didn’t know how the mountains looked when the sun’s rays shot out just behind a glowing peak, like I’d seen in the Selkirks, Cabinets, and Pioneers. I didn’t know that a goat family would actually frolic in front of me, trustingly with babies. I didn’t know the rush of seeing a bear burst down the mountainside before me. I didn’t know the taste of wild currants, mint or miner’s lettuce. I didn’t know I needed it. 

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” – Wallace Stegner 

My life’s become deeply about preserving the wild and spending as much time there as possible. It was somewhere along this journey, while I was still sorting it out, that I encountered that man and his question about why I bothered to care so much. The perfect answer was there all along. 

The Moment the Mountains Spoke to Me 

I recall laying atop the mountain pass gazing up at a dense blanket of stars of the Montana night sky, teary-eyed as I thought about how I got here. I closed my eyes and saw myself in the Sierras, relived the excitement of Yellowstone, sat on the shores of the Clark Fork River, and remembered the heart-thumping moment of my first grizzly bear encounter. In a flash, I saw the animals, trees, waters, morning alpine glows, and all those nights under the Milky Way. 

And then it hit me. It was almost like the mountain had spoken to me. I realized that at any given moment there is someone in need of the wild and someone else, hopefully, fighting to protect it. For so long, those wilderness experiences seemed just for me. However, through it all, I learned why we really need the wild. Every animal, tree, lichen, everyone and everything I encountered in my journey was an integral part of my story. And every one of them needs the wildness. Every person will need it, even if today they don’t realize it. Every future generation will need it. When I needed it, it saved me. And I hope that will be the case for everyone else. 

I realized that at any given moment there is someone in need of the wild and someone else, hopefully, fighting to protect it.

At least now, if some man asks, “Why do you care so much?” I can look him in the eyes and proclaim, “We’re all in this thing together. It’s not just about me. It’s about us all.” Then, I’ll walk off into the mountains. 

After living near the base of the Selkirk Mountains in northern Idaho, Heather Ferrie, her husband and three rescue dogs embarked on a great journey to live off-grid. They now spend nearly every day in wild places all over North America. They have since hiked as far south as Tierra del Fuego and as far north as the Arctic Ocean, with countless miles of adventure in between. Their stories of adventure and advocating for the wild are shared through a video blog called Paradise on Pennies. 


Voices in the Wilderness is a storytelling project brought to you by Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. These wild stories are written by locals living in North Idaho and Northwest Montana. If you have an adventurous tale to tell based in the wild, write to info@scotchmanpeaks.org for guidelines, or just send it along.

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