Into the Inner Wilderness
Daybreak on Thunder Mountain. Time to get moving again. After two full days of hiking, we’ve crossed the divide.
Now the heart of our journey begins. Neala, the black lab wonderdog, and I, her lesser kind, will be descending into a vast basin of mixed conifers towards an unnamed ridge. On the far side of that ridge, a ghostly being lurks in the between of sunlight and shadow, and we are going to meet him there.
It’s early September in the Absarokas. Hoarfrost clings to the evergreens and the aspens are turning gold to complement the cobalt skies. Fresh powder from an overnight burst dusts the high places and reflects the purple hue of morning light. Up here the season of warm moons has ended. But the transitional period is on the horizon.
As with any transitional period, it's ideal to start over, not in the sense of forgetting the past or that which brought us here, but rather a time for redefining ourselves, of going back to a beginning to see things as if we are seeing them for the first time and to open ourselves to the mystery pregnant within. Fortunately for us, there are beings out there that will guide us along the way.
Our trek back to a beginning, I hope, will foster a renewed intimacy with the world and revive my desire to preserve what makes the world meaningful. And that, it seems to me, requires a desire in us to preserve mystery since that has always been equiprimordially attached to meaning.
Naturally, to preserve mystery, one cannot but adopt more viable behavior. And that makes sense, since it is clear that becoming more viable is becoming more fully human. The human is not an isolated species. The human is a being always already immersed in a more than human world. To reach one’s fulfillment, one must seek it not outside of that world or over and above it, nor through conquering that which nourishes it, but through immersion within it, through a mutually enhancing relation with the world from which we are born and through which we are nourished.
Autumn in the mountains--the great waning time--just so happens to be of significance to the human journey. It motivates our resolve to prepare for a lengthy period of rationing and it invokes our admiration for the transitional powers of the lifeworld. With resolve and admiration comes humility, which is essential for the long sought endeavor to reconcile the struggle between self-preservation and selflessness, the struggle for the one, true way of life. And the reclusive one we seek, as our ancestors have long known, wields visionary powers to guide us towards this reconciliation.
It is no coincidence that a person going through a transitional phase in his life finds some clarity while trekking through an autumnal wilderness. Supply rationing becomes spiritual fasting. Preparation for long hikes becomes preparation for visions that might arise. Dreams are no longer psychoanalyzed manifestations of fears and desires but are prophetic and instructive. Bird songs and the wind become voices. Retreat to the woods loses its luster as an entertainment get-away (or escape) and takes on the character of an intense reflection and discernment exercise about one’s place in the world. Then, as we take each step down that pine-laden trail, the adventure-seeking trek, the recreational opportunity, dissolves into a quest to find a way to reconnect ourselves with something larger.
Yes, autumn in the mountains is an ideal time to press onward towards the unnamed ridge. Our trek towards the ridge will take another full day, but the way itself will take us back ten thousand years. The trail descends the northern slope of Thunder Mountain into a wooded ravine by way of a series of drainages fed by snow and ice from above. It then makes a sharp right and follows Thoroughfare Creek eastward. Rumors suggest and maps claim (although I’m suspicious of maps and avoid using them) that the path continues along the creek until it ascends above treeline and becomes a sequence of monotonous switchbacks and then eventually dissipates into scree just below the sun. But I don’t know. I’ve never gone that far—never been to the trail’s end—because the pinnacle I seek is not above the trees but among them.
So we walk along the trail for most of the morning, never hurried, preparing ourselves for what awaits on the other side, pausing now to listen to forest sounds, inspect animal sign, and steal remnant berries yet to find their way into a bear’s gut. By midday, we reach a coneflower meadow sizeable enough for a lean-to homestead and not much more. The meadow is the waymark for us. It is the place where we head off trail and orient ourselves towards the shadow-side of trees. Directly to the meadow’s north is the unnamed ridge and beyond the rimrock, within the bedlam of a billion pine, is our destination.
To the man conditioned by unexamined pursuits of a death-fearing society, what awaits on the other side is a forest soaked in the bath of chaotic emptiness. Anxiety is the beast that will prey upon him. And that will naturally provoke sentiments of loneliness and vulnerability, which are the repressed causes of his anxiety. And that will compel him to scan the blackness for flickering flames and smoke. He will yearn for the smell of burning pine and seek comfort in the possible human companion that such an odor brings.
If he cannot cope with his angst, if he cannot see the source of his empty feeling, he will not stay long. The need for self-preservation will sell him the prospect of departure. And he will easily be sold on the idea. But, if he leaves before confronting what haunts deep within, he will likely not return, having ventured without having seen.
But the man consumed by the deeper questions of life will stay as long as he can until some guidance is received. For what awaits on the other side is a world from the old days, a place where our older selves still walk about, a place to learn from the land about how to be human and how to live as a human within a more-than-human world. On the other side, hunting and gathering, living and dying, are the everyday. And the everyday is not dictated by us but to us, in one way or another, by everything here.
Even religion itself must take a step down from its pedestal in places like this. The defiant nature of the deep forest already suggests that Christ and Yahweh abandoned it more than a century ago. But I say they never arrived. This is no place for a missionary, this is no place for the gods and incarnates of the Middle East. There are no converts to be had here, there is no Eden to be reached, and no flock lying in wait to hear the word of god. The forest is, in a way, its own stubborn voice of God and, thus, refuses to be converted. It only converts. Here, in between stellar shadows and sunny meadows, the “truth and the light” find their expression in an older language, older than the Occidental word of god, sung to us by a chorus of earth elders, spoken everywhere by a throng of familiar yet forgotten voices. And among the elders, among the voices, is the reclusive one—the ghostly being we came to see. And that is where our journey has taken us--into a world ruled by Paleolithic deities.
Here, the whole wilderness foreshadows an eventual meeting with this being. Loon cries from a nearby lake sound an alarm that pulses over the canopy like prophetic winds from a coming storm, turning my thoughts towards the cause of their frenzy. Moments later, a vibrato of yips and howls echo against the monoliths protruding high above the tree tops. But unlike the outbursts of wild, defiant sorrow that Leopold once described, these howls are defensive in tone. They are not sensational rendezvous calls proclaiming the mountain’s secret opinion of wolves. Though still defiant in tone, they project a unified grievance against the would-be thief skulking and plotting to steal the pack’s recent kill. And in between the calls and howls, the forest falls silent, drawing out from me a need to know what the loons know and a desire to feel the presence the wolves feel or, more precisely, a yearning to be a loon or wolf. Indeed, moments like this, I don't want to just hear and wonder. I want to be.
Our senses, man and dog, intensify and fuse into a synesthetic moment. Neala knows he’s out there and heading our way, for something deep within the dog still resonates with the primordial language of coyotes and wolves. Then and there, roaring meltwater in the distance muffle tiny stirrings in the brush and each tree harbors what moves behind it while every thicket becomes a haven for the unmentionable one.
And then, the breaking of tree limbs and the shaking of saplings turns our attention towards the trees to our left. From out of the brush and shadows, the big bear appears. He has a face of sandy silver with black patches around his eyes, and a silver stripe down his expresso flanks. And he isn't happy that I am here. I should be elsewhere. We both agree.
The wilderness world seems to collectively stop to catch its breath.
And then, a vision happens.
And he leaves, but the visions stays.
Hereafter, by the sheer power and mystique he brings into the clearing, he will live on in my dreams. He decided, not I. I didn't choose him. I had no part in the choosing. What will take hold now is a need for me to reckon with his overwhelming self-revelations.
I am not the same man I was a hour ago. And I will spend the rest of my life brooding. I just know it. Some things we just know. But, oddly, I also know that this won't be a fluffy new-age blessing, but a burden.
It's ten years later. It was most certainly a burden and still is. I wouldn't wish what I saw upon others. How a bear sees the world is how it is, not how we want to believe it is. He is wise, and we are fools.