A backpacker’s experience in Wyoming enhances connection with nature
This summer I crossed a Rocky Mountain range in western Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I spent my days hiking, nights sleeping in a tent and weeks surviving without the comforts of civilization. Join me on my body-breaking, soul-searching adventure.
Snap. Less than a week into our month-long backpacking trip,and our tent pole has already snapped. Our makeshift pole is inadequate; the tent’s nylon flaps and zippers hang just a few inches above my face, fluttering loudly with each gust of wind. I lie awake most of the night.
At the break of dawn, our watch alarms sound. We take turns holding up the broken tent pole while the other two tentmates stuff sleeping bags and put on warm layers. The crisp Wyoming morning air chills my bones.
I start boiling water while my tent mates take down the tent. My numb fingers spin the lighter reel dozens of times before I get a flame. It’s 6 a.m. and the mosquitoes are already swarming. A guy in the cooking group next to me burns them with his lighter; killing the bugs has become a mindless game. There’s no other escape.
Journal Entry 7/22:
Wilderness is to remind us that comfort isn’t guaranteed.
In the midst of physical and emotional distress, I become more connected with myself than ever before. I am able to acknowledge my discomfort, accept my vulnerability and move forward. I am neither invincible nor powerless but in touch with my soul.
Our group consists of nine students and two instructors. The students range in age from 15 to 32. We come from Oakland, Reno, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, the Netherlands and places in between. We include high school students, high school drop-outs, college students, working men, experienced backpackers and first-timers. And then there’s me.
Journal Entry 7/29:
We couldn’t be more different… but are we really that different? Does our background, addictions, family life and race really define us? Or are we defined by the fact that we all desire to be loved, to have someone listen, to experience life — the good and the bad.
All too often we are defined by exterior factors — the clothes we wear, neighborhood we come from, car we drive or degree we hold. We are categorized, labeled and divided. But when we take the time to understand the non-physical aspects of each others’ being — motivations, passions, fears — we find that our souls are far more alike than different.
Today has been one of the most challenging days of my life — mentally, emotionally and physically. We pack up our camp at a breathtaking frozen lake, split into two hiking groups and set off around 8 a.m., with about six miles off-trail to the next camp. My group leaves first.
The first half mile across a boulder field goes by at a snail’s pace — stepping across and scooting over minivan-sized boulders and larger. We place our feet with great care, ready to yell “BOULDER!” as soon as a loose rock begins to role down the steep slope. I maneuver my body in ways I’d never thought possible to find the most sturdy crossing, holding on for dear life.
The fearless guys in my hiking group, with legs several inches longer than mine, leave me trailing behind. With nobody in sight, the deep crevasses, which surely mean death if I were to fall, get to my head. My upper body hangs on to a rock that begins to fall and I let go abruptly. Fear overwhelms by body and I begin to tremble, tears welling in my eyes. I curse the rocks with each move I make to distract myself.
After the boulder field it doesn’t get much easier. We ascend a short but steep pass without difficulty but struggle to find a feasible route back down. After many dead ends and tiring, uphill backpedaling, the mood is gloomy. Alec, our leader of the day, lacks his usual enthusiasm and we all quietly keep to ourselves.
At the bottom of the ridge we approach a swift river with white water everywhere. There happens to be a rock crossing directly in front of us, but it requires a three foot leap in the middle. It is already midday and we are still several miles from our designated “X” — signifying camp — so the group collectively decides to go ahead and cross with minimal additional scouting.
I stand on a rock in the middle with the rest of the group on the other side of the crossing. The likelihood of falling is low, but the consequence extremely high. I know I’m capable of the cross, even with a 50-pound pack, but my mind tells me differently at the sight and sound of the raging water. I’m angry at my instructor, the group and myself, but I curse the river.
Two river crossings and several brisk miles later, the sun sets over the mountains to the West. Our waterlogged feet ache, food dwindles and we’re all exhausted. We have the option to stop for the day and make camp about a mile short of our “X” but we’ve made it this far and aren’t ones to give up, so we decide to make one last uphill push.
We hike to the beat of our heaving breath — one foot after the other, slowly making our way to the top of the hill. As evening quickly approaches, dinner and sleep occupy my mind. I curse that last hill.
Journal Entry 8/03:
I must learn to view the boulders, rivers, snow fields and mountains as vehicles rather than obstacles. They are simply doing what they do best; we are the intruders. Be effortless, like nature.
Rivers flow, trees grow, the wind blows. Vitality is the essence of nature. We are taught that the natural world is home to the wild animals, the birds, the fish and the trees; but what about us? Rhetoric has separated us from nature, disconnected our souls from their long-lost home.
Life in the wilderness is simple and repetitive. The regular schedule consists of three tasks: Cook. Hike. Sleep. The daily mission is to make it to the next campsite. There’s nothing in sight but the mountains, the flora and the fauna, no sounds but the steady flow of rivers, the high-pitched chirps of pikas and the occasional boom of a thunderstorm. I carry all of my belongings in one bag — nothing superfluous. I know where all of my possessions are at all times.
Never before have I thought of the moon as “too bright,” but tonight it illuminates so strongly it detracts from the shooting stars above us, acting as a night light that keeps me awake. The full moon reflects on the lake we are camped at. We lie still in our warm sleeping bags — the perfect contrast to the cool evening air. As we contemplate extraterrestrial life, it’s obvious how small we are in the world. But in this moment, I am anything but insignificant. I am a friend, a team member, an essential part of a community and an appendage of the earth.
Journal Entry 8/10:
Out here you find out who you really are — what makes you happy. Free from the presence of computers, televisions, cars and cell phones you are just that: present. Without distractions you are forced to acknowledge and address your needs and emotions. There is no running from them.
Life in the wilderness is for the soul.
Abby Sophir is a sophomore TV-R major who thinks you should give the woods a try. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.