Short Lessons Said Aloud, Part Two

"Pariah Canyon (Detail)," by Anne Hughes, on the wall at PEMBAbase

"Pariah Canyon (Detail)," by Anne Hughes, on the wall at PEMBAbase

Being involved in the outdoors always brings lessons. Sometimes, these lessons are the things that you most need to know in that given moment. (Funny how this works…) This is part two in an as-of-yet unfinished series of the lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime living outdoors, in no particular order, without a lot of detail:

“Depending on who is reading the menu on a given day, sometimes your name is ‘lunch.'” – Humans don’t like to be at the bottom of the food chain. We go way out of our way to make sure that it never happens. We put up shark-nets, take out bounties on apex predators, kill black-widows (and even daddy long-legs) on sight. I’ve seen people cry (tears, literally) for the right to kill a rattlesnake here in Wisconsin that’s so rare that it takes biologists three years just to find one. Going into wilderness means accepting that you are going into wildness. I kept saying this to myself as I walked alone down Pariah Canyon, a narrow slot in Southern Utah. Ahead of me somewhere was a small mountain lion. I saw the fresh tracks in the mud, complete with places where it had stopped to look back at me. I was nervous. Every once in awhile, I found pools of bubbling urine, rich with the strong cat-smell. At some point, the canyon widened enough for the cat to hide, and I’m sure she watched me walk right past. (I walked with her for several miles, and for some reason I decided that she was a “she.”) It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: It was one of the best trips of my life.

“All the platitudes about summits are true.” – There’s a million of them, and I haven’t found one that isn’t true: “There’s always a false-summit,” “The summit is only half the journey,” and “The summit is only the excuse for the journey” are three that seem to me to be the most true. Yep, yep, and yup.

“Accept that you need to go the full distance to make it count.” – On the West Buttress route on Denali, there’s something so horrible that you have to see it to believe it. Many people doubt it openly as a “guide’s tale” until they see it for themselves. Very near the top of the mountain, about an hour or so from the summit, you have to lose over 300′ of elevation, and then climb a steep fin for about 500′ to reach the true summit. It’s called The Football Field. An uncounted number of people have turned back in despair at this point. To them, the summit just seems too far away. The return trip back up that lost 300′ is daunting, too. Funny how people give up a goal after having come all of that way, just because it turns out to be a little bit harder than they thought it would be. Don’t be like them. If success weren’t hard, it would be easy, and everybody would do it.

“If you can see thestrals, nobody else much needs to know.” – In Harry Potter’s world, if you can see thestrals it means you’ve seen a death. Yes, I can see them, too. These are the stories I don’t tell, although I think about them sometimes. Some people are eager to know all about it, and some people are eager to tell all about it. I’m of the mind that it’s not something that needs to be shared. The bare bones of what happened and why are important, inasmuch as these are the details that teach and protect others. Don’t dramatize a death just because you happened to be nearby, or were involved in some capacity. No matter how you tell it, everybody is the hero of their own stories. By definition, the story of somebody’s death isn’t about you, so just leave it be. And – also – remember the dead by how they were as they were living, not how they were when you saw their bodies, last.

“Watch out for those dang Star People.” – While sleeping in a tent in the middle of a glacial moraine in the remotest part of Tibet, did you ever get up to go outside to – well, er – do some business, and then suddenly see a bright light in the sky, only to go right back to your tent to have your tent-mates tell you that you were gone for over three hours? Um, yeah, me neither…

To Be Continued…

 Part One

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