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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1998 Issue #53


By: Keith C. Russell, Research Staff
University of Idaho-Wilderness Research Center
Moscow, Idaho

The heat of the afternoon bore down on us making our already heavy packs seem even heavier. We hiked in complete silence. Aside from the occasional faint breeze whispering through the pine and firs, it was quiet. Quiet enough to think a thought or two and have them seem like reasonable ideas. I glanced up the trail and saw seven adolescents carrying the world on their shoulders. Today, it was in the form of a forty-five pound backpack. They moved slowly and deliberately, the size of the pack hiding their heads and shoulders, with only their legs popping out the bottoms. They were all wondering how much further they had to carry the load today. 

Sometimes in the late afternoon, after miles of hiking with the kids, I remember when I felt like them - hungry, tired, and pissed off, not yet seeing the metaphor of what all this would ultimately mean to me, not yet believing in how wilderness experience can teach. On this hot day it took me back to an experience I had in Death Valley a few years back, when the wilderness spoke to me about how I was living my life. 

Wilderness Experience as Metaphor

A few years back I was at a crossroads in my life and searching for direction. I decided to go on a wilderness journey, which included a four-day Vision Quest. I wanted to see what answers might be out there for me. I went with a non-profit organization called Wilderness Transitions, Inc. (415.456.4370 or e-mail rileymr@earthlink.net) led by a good friend, Marilyn Riley, a psychologist and wilderness guide for 20 years. I flew into California and joined seven other participants and we made our way after a long drive to the steep and rugged canyon country of Southern Death Valley. I spent a two days looking for a solo site that matched the one I had been thinking about for months. - a protected canyon with a vigil high on a cliff, overlooking the desert canyons, where hawks and eagles would want to come visit. After careful physical and mental preparation with Marilyn and the other participants, I set off for my site with my minimal pack and four gallons of water. The first two days of the fast were challenging and intense. I could feel my energy draining from me as the sun slowly made its way across a perfect blue sky. By the third day, hunger had subsided and the voices echoing in my brain had quieted down. 

My All Night Vigil 

On the third night of my solo fast, I decided I would try an all night vigil. I planned to go to a high ridge with an amazing view of the desert where I would spend the night sitting (not sleeping!!) until I saw the first light of dawn. I wanted to challenge myself in a physical rite-of-passage, the same as young men and women in primitive cultures the world over have done for centuries. As dusk fell, I gathered my stones and pieces of wood I had been carving and started a slow, careful walk to the top of the ridge. The fast had taken its toll on me and every movement had to be well thought out and deliberate. As I reached the top of the ridge, I was nearly flattened by a wind that seemed to be gaining strength, driven by the desertís need to cool itself after another blistering day. I sat on the ridge with my head hunched over for what seemed like forever. The temperature dropped and made the scorching heat of the day seem a distant memory as I fought to stay awake. Finally, I realized I couldnít make it. I was physically and mentally exhausted, in a trance, and feeling like I might pass out and freeze if I stayed there. 

I gathered my things and carefully descended in the dark back to my solo site. I felt a sense of failure, realizing that I had not accomplished something I had set out to do. Safe in the protected canyon and quiet of my solo site, I wrote in my journal about what the experience meant to me. I realized that the experience reflected a pattern in my life. I often set my expectations too high, pushed myself too close to the edge, and that there are times when the wind is just blowing too hard to continue, and we must back away and try again at a better time. It reminded me of the mountain climber who turns away 500 ft. from the summit because of weather, or the kayaker who drags her boat along the cliffs above a drop that appears more menacing than usual that day. I knew then that my lesson was to know and understand my limits, and that there are times when I simply ask too much of myself and I cannot meet those expectations. By extending the lesson to my wilderness work, I also knew that what I ask of myself, I often ask of others. I would be a better leader if I did not always ask so much of others. 

We Should Think About What We Ask of Kids 

As I drifted back to my present reality, back to awareness of the ache in my back and feet, I heard whoops from the youth who had just crested a saddle on the ridge we been slogging up all afternoon. I thought of the loads these kids were carrying in their backpacks and in their hearts. The expectations heaped on them by their parents, teachers, peers, and a relentless culture that bombards them with how they should look, what they should eat, and how they should behave. I thought of how much we ask of adolescents. Now when the kids tell me what they learned from their experiences in the wilderness, I say Wow!!, you are really getting it. And I think to myself, these are only kids. Why do we have such a difficult time realizing that they are only kids, and need an environment where they can be kids? Are we asking kids to sit up on the ridge all night in the freezing wind to wait for the sunrise that is adulthood?? Are these expectations simply too much? I have learned to not expect so much now - of myself - and the kids I lead. And you know what?? We are having more fun and getting a lot more from our wilderness experiences. 

Copyright © 1998, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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