I didn’t get eaten by a grizzly bear. I didn’t even see a grizzly bear. I didn’t have any kind of epiphany or even a moment of life-affirming humility, so by those metrics my trip was a failure. The idea that one’s relationship with Nature is something to be discovered or maintained is so pervasive that I found myself wondering during the planning stages about the status of mine. In thinking about it I realized I had bought into one of the fundamental splits of Western philosophy–culture vs. nature. This binary has been with us since Plato, and for Americans in particular since Thoreau went on vacation at Walden Pond.
I’ve been to Walden Pond. It’s fifteen minutes from downtown Boston. It’s a park. But parks, including the national parks which are thrilling and majestic and as full of Culture as could be desired in order to feel safe, are distinct from wilderness. Wilderness is scary. It reminds one how fragile humans are, how scarce clean water is, how cold rain can be. The thought has occurred to me each time I go night skiing, safe in the chairlift, how easy it would be to die within hours of falling into the pines if I had no way to contact Culture.
But discovering oneself in Nature does not mean confronting the dangers of the wild. Instead, there’s a great egoism in removing oneself from society to find some inward truth. There is no part of human nature that demands absolute solitude. Instead, solitude in a park is a request for everyone else on the planet to leave you, to leave me, in peace. It’s the same effect as deleting Facebook for two weeks.
Which is not without its benefits. Our identities are composed of the various roles that society requires us to fill–coworker, sister, cousin, neighbor, customer, etc. It can be exhausting when the myriad false niceties add up to a fundamental denial of one’s own needs. But we don’t need to pretend that Nature is something that exists outside ourselves, our coworkers, our cities.
I noticed, during my vacation from society, how my mind buzzes nonstop. It became starker with the inability, due to being in or the forest or occupied driving, to sate it through endless feeds of social media activity. It’s a defense learned from my parents, my mother in particular, used to distract myself from unresolved trauma. A meditative calm would require confronting that trauma, which would mean initiating contact with my ex-girlfriend, which would mean freshly defining my identity relative to her in a way that I would rather not. So I continue to avoid it.
There was one meditative moment, when it was refreshing how still my mind had become. On the last night of my trip, after biking almost 40 miles, I sat with a tin cup of tea, using water I had boiled over a healthy fire. I set the cup on my leg, and noticing how good the warmth felt on my tired muscles, continued to run the mug over my quads as if I were ironing my pants.
The rest of the time I was narrating the trip to myself, a somewhat annoying habit. Or I was thinking, inexplicably, about work (these identities don’t die suddenly). I thought about the many ways my trip could suddenly plunge into disaster–leaving my wallet at a grocery store, getting a flat, getting pulled over, not paying for my campsite in time, forgetting my headlamp, not finding firewood, and so on. Or I was simply busy with a schedule that felt more hurried than I had planned on–pitching a tent, making a fire, preparing a hobo dinner, boiling water for oatmeal, pulling warmer clothes out of my bags.
The third night of my trip, as I lay in my sleeping bag, I felt a physical loneliness, a desire for some sort of comfort. I reached my arm, like some worm’s proboscis, out of the hole of my mummy bag and pulled my hoodie in. It was cold, and it chilled me as I tried to cuddle it so I put it on. The feeling persisted the next night as well, and there was no way to satisfy it.
The first night I had a nightmare in which I woke up to grizzlies running wild through our campsite and campers excitedly trying to evacuate. One of the grizzlies was bipedal and slack-jawed, carrying a tree limb with which to bust out car windows and get at campers’ toothpaste. The next day I hiked alone, bear spray on my belt, jumping at the noise of each chipmunk. The trail was more populated than I expected, and I relaxed to where I stopped clapping before each blind corner. Being the only one with bear spray at the ready, I decided I could put it in my day pack. The hike was beautiful.