By Don Monkerud
Blue water sparkles in the light as the wind pushes ripples across the surface of the cold, clear mountain lake. Overhead billowing cumulus clouds float in lazy piles across an azure sky. Dropping my backpack, I slide onto a weathered log, transfixed by a circle of granite peaks.
Rising to 9500 feet, the trail forced me to push across steep switchbacks, over downed trees, and around boulders. I'm exhausted but the climb was worth it. I've arrived in the wilderness to sleep on the ground beneath clear skies, cook over a campfire, bathe in a lake of fresh snow melt and pay attention to my natural rhythms. In the next several days, the outer husks of surging traffic, email, ringing telephones and clamoring crowds will fall away.
At a time when everyplace I have ever lived has been transformed by urban sprawl, it's a comfort to find a place that hasn't changed in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. A natural world that existed before my birth, eternal and immutable, a place that reminds me of what it means to be human without the accouterments of civilization, a sanctuary for the soul. At night I watch a dark sky fill with bright clear stars, the Milky Way parade across the horizon, and contemplate the mystery that my ancestors sought to understand as they named the constellations, imagined one set of gods after another, and attempted to elucidate the meaning of life.
For me, meaning comes from nature. The mystery itself is enough, not in need of a conflict-ridden mythology of religious preference, not resembling what solace seekers call "a cold dark universe." The mountains are filled with beauty; the trees glow golden in the sun; moss sparkles in shades of green as the sun moves across the sky; and granite boulders the size of houses lie in a jumble of shapes, cracks twisting up their surface, each distinct in color and texture. Towering pines rise straight and noble toward the sky, their bark rippled with age, their cones littering the forest floor. Dead trees lie like giant ships, busted and broken, branches at odd angles as they decay into a thousand-year-old resting place. The lake laps against the shore, whipped by wind into patterns that change as the day progresses, transforming the surface into a surrealistic dreamscape.
The debris of civilization fades against a background of an abiding earth. As the days proceed, I remind myself to "be here now," a pop culture mantra pregnant with possibilities. Taking this seriously can bring new meaning to life and fill every waking moment with the amazing reality of immediate experience. Aldous Huxley spoke of "the doors of perception," and I seek to fully listen to and see nature in all of its magnificent mystery. If a tree, a rock or a waterfall could talk, what would it say?
Yet, how can I focus on my surroundings while living in a culture that lures everyone into more luxurious and powerful cars, more comfortable and expensive houses, ever larger fat-laden meals, and a myriad of complicated gadgets advertised in every public space even the urinals in a pub?
Many forests such as this have been lost already, fallen to the loggers' chainsaws, contractors' paved roads and vacation home sites, coalminers' strip mines and developers' strip malls. Even the national parks are falling prey to development. Before hiking up the trail, I found the campground at the bottom filled with behemoth pickup trucks and SUVs, brightly colored tents, and a legion of chairs, bicycles, ice boxes, lanterns, camp stoves and tackle boxes. A restaurant/store sat beside a dirt road that drifted dust over patrons seated at picnic tables as wood smoke filled the air and a generator throbbed into the sunset, proving that we can recreate the ugliness of the urban environment anywhere. Will our mountainous natural cathedrals fill with more people, more congestion, more noise and more money to disrupt the peace and quiet of nature?
What is the age of trees compared to our transitory existence? Private property ethics are strong in America and most believe that a person "can do anything they want with their property," even if that means destroying it. In contrast to this limited, short-term view, I feel we are here to protect and nurture the earth, which often means protecting it from avaricious humans.
My role here is miniscule; I leave the place free of human debris. On the far shore of the lake, I stumble across a pile of rusted tin cans and broken glass from a WWII era fishing camp; the triangular-shaped holes in the tops of the cans attest to an earlier generation's weariness of war and uncertainty; their sacramental beer provided an unconscious escape from a world grown beyond the limits of their mythology. I gather tinfoil candy bar wrappers, sardine cans, nylon rope and broken bottles to cart back down the mountain. Nature should be unsullied, cleansed of the arrogance of man, of our desire to reshape and control the earth, of our unconsciously castoff waste.
A trip into the wilderness reminds me to pay attention to the everyday natural world around me, no matter where I am, but that's tough while living in a time of vacuous cell phone calls, needless car trips and a cornucopia of quickly outdated goods. Being here reminds me of how my time fills up with chores and errands that produce tension and anxiety. How can I find time to get in touch with myself, let alone the people whom I care about?
At the same time, it's not always comfortable in the wilderness surrounded by mosquitoes, bugs and unpredictable weather. Try pulling a rain fly over a tent in a middle of the night rainstorm, squatting in the forest, or cooking over a campfire. Then there's the steep climb uphill, or pushing over rugged terrain to a distant lake or a jagged rock outcropping. But the reward is great. Flowers sprawl over the ground: red columbine, pink shooting stars, magenta pentstemon, purple aster, pink monkey flower and orange tiger lilies. White breasted nuthatches, stellar jays, woodpeckers, chickadees and juncos fly freely. Tamrac pine, Jeffrey pine, and red and white fir jut into the sky.
Under the stars at night, I wonder how humanity will adjust to overpopulation. Of course, the earth can support many more people; there are vast stretches of wilderness left to be filled. Mass migrations, regional conflicts and wars, famines, floods, hurricanes and other global-warming disasters will accompany overpopulation. Growth appears inevitable and I wonder whether these pressures will push greater numbers into the remote wilderness.
Will this place be filled with rental cabins where tour guides sell "the wilderness experience?" Or will this small mountain lake with the murmur of voices across a crackling fire continue to provide a retreat for future generations? Will we have the foresight and the will to protect places on earth that give us a quiet, remote space to contemplate nature, our lives and ourselves?