The first thing I discovered in the King’s Canyon wilderness was that I am not as good a man as I thought myself to be.
The divinity of nature puts things into perspective. The physical pain that accompanies a journey to and from a mountain peak somehow helps the mind to deal directly with complex problems by causing us to see most of those issues that bother us are neither complex nor problems. We discover what is truly important. The trivial and extraneous drop off at the lower elevations. Focus gradually becomes sharper. There’s a clearing away.
In the splendid isolation and grandeur of the wilderness, self-deception becomes virtually impossible. The trees, the river, the rocks, and the stars are truth made manifest. We feel, in their presence, ashamed to lie … even to ourselves.
What truths are to be learned from the ache in one’s bones? What revelations from the night-breathing trees? What honest reflections from river pools? What secrets in the shape and texture of stones? What illuminating message from the stars?
My experience is, I think, a common one for all the climbers, backpackers, naturalists who have an affinity for mountains, trees, and desert places. The first thing I discovered in the King’s Canyon wilderness was that I am not as good a man as I thought myself to be. Acts of indifference, of selfishness, of arrogance, of cruelty, stood out clear. All false justifications for my past reprehensible behavior were stripped away. There were more of these lies than I’d remembered. They were tall as lodge pole pine and thick as western juniper. Most of these offenses were not directed at strangers or even at enemies, but at family, friends, and lovers. In the clean thin air of the mountain, I resolved to be a better man than I had been.
There, too, I learned where I belong. I had, for a long time, been thrashing about in a desperate search for paradise. For years, I looked for and found fault in my area of the country, in my community, in my home. The weather, taxes, upkeep, the declining social climate, the expanding sprawl, the increasing pollution all contributed to what became an obsessive desire to sell the house and move to a place where it would be 1945 again.
So, I investigated a multitude of possibilities, and most of them seemed better than where I lived. I was anxious to trade forty years of building a life in the Northeast for a pool in West Palm or a golf cart in Sun City. I’d forgotten the slow nurturing of close friendships, the sound of a grandson’s laughter, and in the kitchen the puttering about of the woman who had helped me to build it. Resting one night near the crest of the mountain, I remembered these things.
The wilderness proclaims a sense of rootedness. The trees, the stones, the rivers, even the stars overhead are stable, changing only imperceptibly through countless seasons. They are solid, permanent, firmly anchored, connected each to each in harmonious juxtaposition. I, too, am connected to the place where I live. Through time, my roots have been set down, have kept company with the sweet dark earth of home.
I am familiar with the country through which I travel. The folks in my town know me and respect my name. In my house I am brother to the nails I’ve driven and the bricks I’ve lain. I am father to the roses in the garden. On the mountain I discovered the importance of roots sunk deep in the earth, the slow grabbing hold of roots over long time.
There, in the wilderness, with no sound but the cascading river and small rustlings in the underbrush, I learned once more the value of work. My work in the world is completed. I no longer have to labor for my daily bread. At the retirement party, they said, “Kick back, relax, travel, join a club.” But trees, until they die, grow. Stars continue to move across the night sky in their ancient patterns through millenniums of time. The mountains themselves, like terrestrial waves, rise and sink, only to rise again. Nature knows nothing of retirement parties.
We are often defined by the kind and quality of the work we do. If it is productive work and we do it well, we are deemed worthy. This is both right and good. When we voluntarily turn from our work, we are sadly diminished. Like the tree that fails to leaf, we are only waiting to topple and decay. I will not stop working.
Inherent in the wilderness is a paradox. The mountain is changeless, yet it is constantly changing. New growth for old and old growth still growing. The shrinking meadow, the expanding forest, the shrinking forest, the expanding meadow … a sylvan bellows. The mountain reconfirmed my long held belief in the necessity of change, the affirmation of continued growth.
To climb a mountain is to put one foot ahead of the other, one step at a time. It is to keep your eyes on the path least a loose stone twist your ankle and send you tumbling. With head bowed, making slow, steady, painful progress you are aware that the trail beneath your feet is no more than a trail, the the mountain is no more than the limited landscape of your narrow vision.
To change, to grow, requires that you stop, requires that you move off the path, that you peer down into a majestic gorge or look up, in wonder, at the snow-capped peaks before, behind, and around you. It requires that you bathe naked in the icy water of a river pool, and that you gaze long at the star-spangled sky, and that you be quiet. It is in those still places that we hear the rhythm of the universe and recognize in it not only the rhythm of our bodies, but of our spirits as well. I determined to strengthen my resolve to listen, to grow, to change. I will not stagnate.
The mountain is also mystery and miracles beyond understanding. It transcends the laws of physics. It has nothing to do with categories and codification, with the naming-of-the-parts. And so, we come to the final and most significant discovery. This revelation is related to the others: to self-knowledge, to the importance of roots, to the value of work, and to the necessity of change.
From the morning mist rising golden-tinged with the first light, there comes an unspoken but clear sense that things felt. We realize that the things for which there are no words, matter most of all. It is the sense that truth, and home, and work, and growth are essentially spiritual. The real truth of a man is indiscernible and mute. Yet, in our hearts, we can distinguish the honest man from the dissembler. The home is inside the homemaker as much as the homemaker is inside her home. The essence of work is that which is still to be imagined. Growth and change begin in seeds that are invisible and weightless.
It is through the senses that we know our world, but in the wilderness we discover another country that has no congress with the senses. It is the country from which we came and to which we will one day return. Yet it is here, now, with us always. But to find it is to journey out, to clear away the debris of civilization, to painfully put one foot in front of another, to pause, to listen to the rhythm of the leaves, the rippling streams, and the silence of stone and star.
It is here that we enter the spirit world through an awareness that goes beyond knowledge. Certainly, it is a world with which the American Indians and all wilderness people are familiar. It is here that the confluence of tree, and stone, and river, and star put us at our ease, remind us of the miracle of birth and resolve the mystery of death which, in the natural world, is clearly an illusion. That’s what the wilderness does, it undrapes illusion.
Around us everywhere is evidence both sensory and spiritual of renewal, regeneration, resurrection, and transformation. Always we, are in the process of becoming, and we are never alone, not ever alone.
—Photo of old roots growing down an autumn oak tree courtesy of Shutterstock