This weekend my sister texted me a picture of her wrist. It was broken, and pretty gross. Not “bones sticking out of the skin” gross, but still not something I’m going to post here on this family-friendly blog. She was doing a really long trail race in the wilderness, longer than a marathon, and fell. It was four miles to the next exit point, which probably sounds like a long way if you haven’t spent much time in the wilderness. I do spend some time in the wilderness, and it didn’t sound crazy to me at all. When I took a stick to the eye during a wilderness hunt in Colorado, it took almost a whole day to get to the nearest urgent care. When my wife did a hike on the Appalachian Trail and had to end it early because temperatures had dropped to thirty six with winds of thirty miles per hour in May, it took her half a day to get off the mountain. If these numbers seem crazy to you, and dangerous, there’s a good reason why.
I grew up in the era of nature as spectacle. We watched it on TV and marveled at the majesty of tall mountains and graceful animals. It was all so pretty, so wonderful, and it was all over TV. We glorified nature and made it into something magical, and people came to think of it like they think of Disney World: happy and pretty and fun. We were shocked when mountain climbers died, or people were killed by animals, because it didn’t fit with what we saw on TV or in zoos. It just didn’t make sense. How could that happen? But as I think about these wilderness incidents, and the death of that poor toddler in Florida, I’ve come to realize that we’ve forgotten something important. Here it is:
Nature may be pretty, but it’s also trying to kill you.
Perhaps this makes you never want to go out in nature again. Or perhaps you see me, and others like me who enjoy the wilderness, as daredevils who eschew caution and take needless chances. That is not me. I’m a chicken. I don’t take chances in the wilderness. I play it very, very safe. But I still go, and I will keep going until I can’t anymore, because there is a profound truth waiting in the power and ferocity of nature.
Out there, the world does not rest on my shoulders. Out there, it’s not all up to me. Out there, I’m small, a bug that is easily squished. So why go?
Because being small makes me free.
This is the complete opposite message of our culture, which tell us that if we can just get what we want, we’ll be happy. That contentment comes from exerting our will on others. Like the Disneying of nature, that is a lie. I do not feel free when I have control. All I feel when I’m in control is pressure. Instead, I find freedom in letting go of control, and there’s no better way to do that than to get out there in the wilderness. That’s why I go: to be part of something bigger than myself, to remind myself how small I am, so that I can be free.
So the next time you feel pressure, like life is a bigger burden than you can carry, try the mountains. Literally take a hike. Get out there. Just be smart about it, because there’s no point in going if you don’t come back.