Why are wild places so vital to our existence?
I’ve pondered this question since my first trip years ago to Yellowstone National Park, and wrote a photographic post about the subject last year. Most people may not think of a national park as being “wild,” but I assure you, once you step off the main road or the shorter, more visited hiking trails and enter the back country, you are indeed in a wild place. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to experience it directly from the main road, such as when coming across a pack of wolves circling a group of elk cows and their calves, like I did one summer, or when you spot a grizzly bear at dusk, just off the road, pawing grubs at the base of a decomposing tree trunk.
Man’s presence is not needed for the wild to flourish, but I’m convinced we need wild places in order to flourish as human beings. We’re not separate from nature, we’re just another part of it. Wild places strip us of our modern contrivances and remind us how simple and present life really is.
Off the Beaten Path wrote about wild places recently and put into words exactly how I feel. She writes about viewing a grizzly sow and her cub:
For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.
When I was still teaching fifth grade, I used to come back from our summer road trips to Montana and Wyoming feeling sad that most of my students had never experienced a wild place, and probably never would. I felt certain that if only I could pack them all into a bus bound for Yellowstone, get them on the trails, and let them spend time in the wild, it would change their lives. Children need to see that the earth is a living thing, that there are wild places with rules all their own, and that everything they think is important in life really isn’t.
Once in Yellowstone we mistakenly took a left instead of a right and wound up taking an unplanned all day hike up Sepulcher Mountain. For almost an entire day we never saw another human. The weather was somewhat stormy, and I remembered all the warnings I had ever read about hiking in the mountains during lightning. There is something life-altering about spending an entire day in nature, having to be alert and attentive to the possibility of death from weather or wild animal, and yet feeling so completely alive because of it.
We sat at the top and viewed the mountains around us. I had a profound feeling that I was at the center of the world, and that it didn’t matter what happened to the rest of the world, Yellowstone and the wilderness would always be there. It didn’t need us. It didn’t need me. Life would always continue, with or without man.
There was still snow at the top, and because we were lightly dressed we ran down the side of the mountain in our hiking boots. It felt like we were flying. Missing that turn on the road turned out to be one of the best days of my life.
I think back often on that day climbing Sepulcher Mountain. I can imagine the grizzly bears, the bison, and the wolves going on with their lives, oblivious to anything but survival. Life is harsh in the wild, but perhaps our own modern lives are just as harsh, if not more so, than anything we can imagine in the wild.
Perhaps the need to connect with wildness is why I love trail running. When I’m running on a trail in a beautiful location, even if it’s only half an hour’s drive outside the city, I’m always cognizant of the possibility of danger. I don’t want to get chased down by a bobcat or trip over a rattlesnake, but running through a forest or desert canyon gives me a sense of freedom and being alive like nothing else does.
So find someplace wild to visit. Spend time in the Needles in Canyonlands, or hike into the wilds of Alaska. Get out of the car. Walk. Make yourself a part of the natural world. Remind yourself that the entire world is your home. See what lessons wild places have to teach you.
The other night I had a dream about a grizzly bear. Anytime a grizzly bear shows up in my life, even if it’s merely a dream, I sit up and take notice.
A few weeks ago I read a blog post about grizzlies, and this morning Michael sent me a link to an article about a woman who survived a grizzly attack.
The power of the grizzly beckons and wants to be noticed.
One of my favorite blogs is Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels. The author is living the life I’ve always wanted to live. She writes about living in Montana and of the travels and sights her and her husband have seen, mostly out west. Michael and I have talked very seriously about selling our house, buying an RV, and traveling the western parks. If I had my choice, I’d settle down somewhere in Montana or Wyoming in my little RV and never look back.
Off the Beaten Path wrote a great post a few weeks ago about backpacking in grizzly country and her fear of a seeing a grizzly. It reminded me of my own grizzly encounter in Yellowstone.
Shortly after I met Michael four years ago, I mentioned to him that I was driving up to Yellowstone in a month. My daughter, a geologist who lived in Jackson Hole at the time, was flying down to visit us in Texas and we would make a mother-daughter road trip back up to Wyoming. I don’t know what possessed me, but I boldly told Michael he should fly up and see Yellowstone with me, that it would change his life.
I met him at the Jackson Airport a month later.
While we were in Yellowstone, towards the end of our stay, we wanted to take an all day hike off the main tourist trails. We chose a trail in the vicinity of West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake and drove over from our campground. When we gathered our gear and walked up to the trail head, however, we were stopped by a sign stating the trail was closed due to “bear activity in the area,” but that it would open up the very next day. Michael assured me that hiking one day early would be okay.
I hesitated. My daughter had been a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers before she found full-time work in Jackson Hole. I had heard many stories of dumb tourists and their disregard of the park rules–sometimes with deadly consequences. I had also been a teacher for many years and following the rules was ingrained in my psyche.
I had a really bad feeling about going on that trail. Other than my guilt at not following the rules, it just didn’t feel right. I felt very, very strongly that we shouldn’t take that hike.
I told Michael I wanted to use the restroom before starting off, and headed over to the port-a-let. It was mostly just an excuse to buy myself some time. I came out and told him I didn’t want to hike the trail, that maybe we could find another one, apologizing for my timidity and trying to explain my hesitation.
We got back in the car and turned around to reverse. Just as we started to back up, a grizzly came sauntering out of the trees, not ten feet from the car.
Even in the car, I was scared. I’ve seen quite a few grizzlies from a distance, but never one even remotely this close. They are massive, with long claws–and despite their size, they’re fast. I was glad we had the protection of the car, but kept the motor running and the car in drive.
The grizzly ignored us as she went about eating vegetation in the parking lot. We were the only ones there, and felt honored to be able to be so close to such an impressive animal. We sat and watched her for a long time, and Michael took a ton of photos.
This experience only reinforced the certainty for me that I never want to see a grizzly on a hike, up close and personal. I’ve been on several hikes in the past where people have passed us on the trail and excitedly asked: Did you see the bear?!? My answer has always been the same: No, and I don’t want to see the bear!
I was so glad I listened to my intuition and we hadn’t gone on that trail.
We drove a ways and found another perfect hike to the top of Sepulcher Mountain–and we didn’t see a bear all day.
Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks are two of my favorite places on earth. I’ve spent many summers there, camping and hiking and visiting my daughter, who was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers, then a geologist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Going to Yellowstone every summer was like going to church, meeting God everywhere you turned. Even though it’s one of the most visited national parks in the nation, once you leave the main road you truly are in a wild, untamed place.
Being there, to me at least, is like returning to sanity. Things make sense and the world is as it should be. When life back home becomes crazy with busyness and stress, I close my eyes and turn my thoughts to Yellowstone. Just knowing it’s there is enough.
Tibetans say that Mount Meru is the center of the universe; in my world, the center is Yellowstone.
We need the wild for renewal.
We need the wild to remind us who we are.
We need the wild to keep us from getting lost.
We need the wild to keep us humble.
We need the wild to remind us what is real.
We need the wild to take our breath away.
We need the wild to show us what we’re most afraid of.
We need the wild as a guide, showing us we don’t need anything more than we already have.
We need the wild to show us the way to stillness.
We need the wild to remind us that life goes on without us.
We climbed to the top and the world stopped
The day the buffalo crossed the Yellowstone River.
We watched in wonder
And our lives made sense,
Knowing the animals didn’t need us.
We stood at the center of the caldera
While everything swirled around us.
We were dizzy from the beauty of it all.
The tree spread its arms to shelter us from the storm
And we ran breathless down the mountain,
Down the road, to the double rainbow in West Texas.
You were the boulder I stood on at the edge of the canyon,
The fire you made with the wet wood,
The trail that led we knew not where,
And the grizzly who came to us from the trees.
You could leave now
And nothing would change.
All the things we’ve said and seen and heard
Could neither be forgotten nor erased.
They are the threads that will keep me safe
No matter what detours we take.
I will knit those strands together and make a life
Of everything we’ve done.
It’s week three of summer vacation. In years past, when the kids were younger, we would be well on our way on our annual summer road trip. Since we had family in Montana, most of our trips were out west to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and some trips we managed to squeeze in South Dakota, Utah, and the Four Corners area as well. Each summer our entire family became national park junkies, so for me, summer vacation still means road trip.
There’s something about a road trip that speaks to most Americans, especially a road trip out west. It’s part of our national mythology. Nothing stands as a symbol of American independence and hardiness more than the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. I can’t imagine the difficulties and hardships of traveling such a distance–especially for women, many of whom were pregnant or gave birth during the trip–but what a grand adventure it must have been! Whenever we’ve crossed the Trail in Wyoming, through landscape that is bare yet breathtakingly beautiful, I’m struck by the fact that very little has changed. Other than the thin lonely ribbon of highway that snakes past Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and South Pass, the land looks much the same as it must have over a hundred and fifty years ago. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I think of those pioneers optimistically marching across a harsh land towards a new, uncertain life.
My favorite national park may be Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a place that reminds me that nature doesn’t need us. Despite the hordes of tourists that clog the park in the summer, once you get off the road and hike into the interior you realize how petty and small your life is compared to the life all around you. When I’m there, I’m reminded how much we need wild places, places where grizzlies and eagles and bison roam free, to remind ourselves that we truly are a part of nature and the cycles of life and death. We’re not separate from nature, and wild places act as a balance to our man-made city wilderness. There’s also something exciting about knowing you’re walking on top of a massive active volcano that scientists say will–not if–explode again one day. When I’m feeling disappointed in mankind and yearn to leave the city, I think of Yellowstone.
If there is such a thing as sacred spaces, then southern Utah is that place for me. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Natural Bridges National Monument are where I truly feel the presence of something holy and sublime. The emptiness and deep silences seem eternal there, and being confronted with the deep mystery of the universe at night when the sky lights up with more stars than you’ve ever seen before is beyond words. Canyonlands is a place to find yourself, a place to question all that you value and what you want your life to be. When I’m feeling lost and stressed out by the demands of work and relationships, I think of southern Utah.
If I had my way, I’d spend the rest of my life doing nothing more than traveling from one national park to another. In the meantime, there’s always summer vacation.