Sunday, July 20, 2008

Return to the front country

Driving home yesterday from my Great Experiment with 8 teenagers in the wilds of Maine, I went through various stages of recovery / adjustment as I re-entered the front country. The first stage was a profound thankfulness for the quiet. In my prior experiences, time in the backcountry has been full of peaceful moments of appreciation, contemplation, and hushed joy, usually sprinkled amongst feelings of discomfort, exhaustion, and struggle. It took a little over a week for me to notice that this time around, there was little quiet in the woods. I think I first realized it when, hiking last in a long line, I allowed myself to fall far enough behind the group that I could just barely see the last hiker ahead of me. As I walked apart from the others, I felt how different it was to be alone in the woods, and how novel it was on this trip. My instants of solitude were few and far between over the past two weeks, and I found that my moments of pleasure in the outdoors decreased accordingly. So, finally alone in my car yesterday, I enjoyed the quiet as I felt responsibility for young lives slip off my shoulders.

At the same time, I was sorry to return to the world of oppressive heat, cars, and being connected to everyone all the time via the internet and the phone. When I return from extended stints in the backcountry, I always postpone the inevitable moment when I will turn my phone on again and reconnect. In the woods and mountains, I am self-sufficient in a way I am not at home. I don't get lonely, ever. I don't worry about things more complicated than finding a place to sleep, knowing where I am, keeping dry, and eating. These are simple things to worry about, and, at the same time, they are more important than other anxieties that crowd the mind when my basic needs are guaranteed. Having only the basics to worry about is like spring-cleaning for the soul, and I am regretful for my "entry into a more harsh environment," as Morgan Hite of NOLS calls it.

I was also sad to leave behind my life of carrying my home on my back (or in my canoe). As Sister Anna (one of my co-instructors) put it, we spent two weeks making each place we arrived at into our home. We did this by going through a series of routines that were basically unchanged each day: arrive into camp, set up shelter, get water, unpack all gear, weatherproof everything, create a "kitchen," begin dinner, find a tree for bear bags. Then eat dinner, brush teeth, build a fire, hang bear bags, crawl into the tent, organize my things for the night, sleep deeply. In the morning, wake up, pack up my sleeping bag, collapse the tent, put water on to boil, take down the bear bags, have breakfast, get more water, divide group gear, repack, start walking. I savor this routine and the comfort it brings, and the way my home really does become a place I bring with me instead of a specific location I have to get to. I become deeply attached to my tent and to my sleeping bag, the tiny space that is just mine and that I remake each day. I am sad to put it away for the bigger places I call home in the city.

Finally, though, I turned on my phone and checked back in. And it felt great. Hearing the news of the neighborhood and of my family, making plans for cookouts, brunches, and walks with friends from near and far, sharing my stories -- it helped put the highs and lows of my trip back into perspective, it reminded me of how big and how small the world is, and it felt like home just as much as the woods had.

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