The Healing Power of Wilderness

When we’re itchy, disillusioned, lost or confused, sometimes all it takes is a moment in the snow, the shimmy of a leaf, a night under the stars to set us right. Local authors weigh in on how the Colorado’s outdoor places work magic on our inner spaces.

By: Andrew Kensley, Blair Oliver, Laura Pritchett, Tracy Ross, and Shawna Jackson Van

Untrammeled

A father ventures to the backcountry and into the wilderness of parenting.

By Blair Oliver

WE WERE LOADED FOR BEAR. That is, we clanked into the northern reaches of Rocky, three of our seven packs stuffed with the hard, plastic kegs engineered to keep our freeze-dried mac ’n cheese, Pad Thai, and toothpaste from the mama and cubs sure to greet us at our backcountry site. One of our teenaged boys—okay, mine—had recently discovered a hack to Pokémon Go, an insidious shortcut that allowed him to succeed in the outdoor adventure game without leaving the couch, so when my friends proposed an actual father-son camping trip as an intervention in their own parenting crises, I enlisted us to join them. We were certain a couple of cold, arthritic nights playing cards by flashlight would unpick the hard knot of damage our improvisational approach to fatherhood had wrought. Time was of the essence. The lions might prowl our perimeter, but huddled inside our thin-walled but well-lit tents we’d teach our sons the old tech and to pretend they weren’t afraid. Our own fathers had never taken us camping. Forward ho!

Mist snaked from the creek tumbling along the well-worn trail. I took up position at the back of our party. I wanted to maintain clear lines of sight as we entered the golden bowl of the valley, where the creek joined another and became a river. We’ve learned to be afraid in the woods. The clerk who’d sold us the canisters had warned us. The signs at the trailhead had warned us. Our entire cultural history had warned us. The wolf was the villain, and the mist snaked from the creek. Most of us weren’t unhappy that the closest we got to nature was the tank at Red Lobster.

I also wanted to be last in line because every few feet I was raising my sleeve and surreptitiously glancing at my watch, which counted my steps, monitored my heart rate and used GPS to track our progress. Apparently, the device told time, too. I knew enough to be ashamed about this compulsion, but if you didn’t have the data and corroborating photos, the hike, run, or ride didn’t happen. The quantifiable self was still a self, if a pitiable one. I already knew I’d post the selfie of me and my son with our backs to the waterfall and the one with our backs to the moon. Even more distressing, this was supposed to be a rest week in my cycling training plan. The key to recovery after a hard block was to be as lazy and useless as possible, yet here I was acting as if I were industrious as a Sherpa. Each virtual flight of stairs, I understood, would drop me from third-to-last all the way back to second-to-last in my next race. The night before, I’d paused in the suddenly hot embrace of bed to gape at the backlit graph of my heart. Zone 5! My wife calmly unstrapped my watch, then beat me with it.

“Most of us weren’t unhappy that the closest we got to nature was the tank at Red Lobster.”

Back in the park, my heart broke a little to think that my boy would grow up to be like me. His tousled, unwashed head led the way, dipping and rising with the undulations in the trail. I hitched up my pack. My son was impossibly blond. He was so good it hurt that the world wasn’t. He craned to check on our 15-year-old Japanese exchange student, who’d been coerced into participating in our desperate expedition by long-distance calls from his own father, adding international pressure to my attempt to be a role model. I’d learned to communicate with our guest via an elaborate system of feigning to understand each other, and as I made the vague waving motions of a birthday party magician, I saw my son smile. Every man should be lucky enough to be an embarrassment to his son.

The clouds peeled, then scudded from the jagged peaks before us. Rocks sparked from the riverbed. Later, after we remembered all over again there was a difference between parks and nature, we’d bravely, albeit slowly, unfold from our tents and show our sons how to cast flies to the brook trout rising in the shallow pools. They’d played Reel Fishing, the video game, but now they’d have to get wet. A park, or what generally passed for wilderness, was enclosed, and all threats to human visitors were aggressively minimized. We built trails and bridges, posted fences and signs until it was safe to go back in, to bring our boys. The signs not only had text but illustrations of what the bears and mountain lions could do. If you got killed in a park, it was probably because of something you did, but if you got killed in nature, well, that was just the way things went.

The boys charged mindlessly ahead, ignoring our injunction to stick together, one large, scared, mostly incompetent group. Anticipating such unruliness, we’d burdened our children with not only our failings but with every conceivable piece of equipment we might need and couldn’t carry ourselves because of the canisters. Even with the signage, I couldn’t remember if we were supposed to play dead or fight back against the bear.

Dare I say, the kids bounded like deer through the meadow? Their bloated bags disappeared, then appeared again through the grass, well beyond the hard lines of the trail. At what point, I wondered, aghast at the gear and flasks of whiskey spilling from their packs, did camping cease to be camping? Do we draw the line at the bottle of hand sanitizer I stooped to reclaim? The RV? I weighed my theoretical appreciation of the Leave-No-Trace ethic against the likelihood of us getting lost off the trail. I dropped the bottle. I was a little lost Hansel, leaving items in the wilderness so we could find our way back.

The first rule of bear country was to make a lot of noise. That was what I was thinking when we approached our remote, long-awaited site, a patch of bare dirt marked by a post beneath the trees. Of course no bear was waiting. The only ones left were up a neighbor’s tree or scavenging take-out from the dumpster. Beyond was more meadow, though, and the trout stream. Sun illuminated the high ridge of the Rockies. Here was perspective. Surely we’d have reason to yell at the kids soon, but for the moment, as they began to snap the tent poles in place and align our footprints without consulting the instructions we’d laminated to waterproof, we three fathers remained silent, maybe even appreciating the cool air nipping at our bug-sprayed legs, almost as if we were proud. I resisted the urge to check my watch. My pulse was slow and steady. Raising sons was the real wilderness. The way was untrammeled, no matter how many had gone before us.

Enough

When grief is overwhelming, solace comes from one tiny leaf.

Shawna Jackson Van

I put a chair in front of a picture window overlooking Grand Lake. It is late afternoon, September, and the angle of the sun on the water makes it look deep silver. As soon as I sit, the sun streaming in the window becomes hot; I close my eyes and focus on my breath, but the heat feels increasingly more intense, so I move my chair sideways to look out instead over the Arapahoe National Forest—also a stellar view. Still the sun feels insufferable, my mind jangly. I talk myself out of a frisson of exasperation and move again, this time outside where I find a large boulder, situated among the evergreens, but an afternoon breeze has picked up and the air feels autumn-chilly. The pages of the book I’ve brought with me, Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, rustle loudly, irritatingly, next to me. I impatiently pull my sweater tighter over my shoulders and am suddenly infuriated. Nature is not cooperating. The sun, the wind, the view—all of it hinders me.

I pack up again and move to another building on the grounds of the retreat center where I’m staying. It has a charming wraparound porch, and I spy a place where I will be out of the wind but will still have a view of the lake. Standing on the porch, the lake is glorious—and the leaves on the trees in the forests behind the lake are just starting to change. I have found the perfect spot, finally, and with some relief, I sit on one of the deck chairs, its seat still warm from the afternoon sun, only to realize that now the porch railing is directly in my line of sight, blocking my view of the lake.

The tears come now, and I fight them back. Though I’m alone, I’m embarrassed to be weeping over something so trivial, and I berate myself for my own fragility and frustration.

The irony is that my assignment this late afternoon is to find a focal point in nature and meditate for 20 minutes. I have signed up for a three-day yoga and meditation retreat because I’m grieving, over-worked, fraught, intensely uncomfortable in my life—I figure one way I can right myself is to go anywhere my Sprint wireless won’t work, where I can listen to the trees, get on my mat, and work it all out. Now, here I am. Too hot, too cold, too furious, still broken-hearted, and even surrounded by glorious views, none of it is enough; I am sure there is something else better, more perfect, more complete, more. I startle with the realization I have managed to leave nothing behind, instead packing my internal distress and dis-ease along with my hiking shoes and yoga mat.

“I figure one way I can right myself is to go anywhere my Sprint wireless won’t work, where I can listen to the trees, get on my mat, and work it all out.”

he irony is that my assignment this late afternoon is to find a focal point in nature and meditate for 20 minutes. I have signed up for a three-day yoga and meditation retreat because I’m grieving, over-worked, fraught, intensely uncomfortable in my life—I figure one way I can right myself is to go anywhere my Sprint wireless won’t work, where I can listen to the trees, get on my mat, and work it all out. Now, here I am. Too hot, too cold, too furious, still broken-hearted, and even surrounded by glorious views, none of it is enough; I am sure there is something else

better, more perfect, more complete, more. I startle with the realization I have managed to leave nothing behind, instead packing my internal distress and dis-ease along with my hiking shoes and yoga mat.

Done trying, I bring my head up off the back of the chair, when slowly my eyes begin to focus on a grove of aspen trees growing near the deck right in front of me. I sharpen my attention towards the tree closest to me, its leaves quaking in the wind. I notice the color is just starting to turn from green to yellow starting at the center of each leaf out, tiny wonders. I narrow my focus further to just one leaf, and even from my seat, I can see the veins traveling from the golden center, narrowing at the outer, greener edges. I widen my gaze to take in miniature alpine evergreens, lichen-covered rocks, some kind of red berry on a bush, a tiny pinecone, the half-moon barely visible in the not-quite evening sky. My stomach, a fist, unclenches.

Rilke writes, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.” I know my suffering is my own searching and discontent; it’s everything I do to avoid feeling the existential ache I was born with. “Out there” is a lovely place to look, but lovelier still is what is right in front of me—the small, sometimes humble, always beautiful things that simply want to be seen. My tears don’t stop. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for an aspen leaf, this place, the sun, the wind, my own breath. The answer I need is already here, waiting.

Mother Knows Best

How vulnerability in the wild makes us stronger.

By Andrew Kensley

The light breeze turns into a tent-bending gust. Rain tests our roof, followed by the haunting sounds of munching and crunching behind the tent, and a devilish wail from somewhere in the woods. It’s only 12:17 am.
I breathe deeply, trying to coax myself into a couple hours of decent slumber. My thoughts fade, my body releases. Almost there—Tap tap tap.

“Dad,” Sophia says, “My tummy hurts and I think I’m going to throw up. But I think there’s a bear outside. You have to come with me!”

I slip on my shoes, unzip the front door and head into the collapsing darkness. My headlamp scans our site like a lighthouse. No animals that I can see. But really, that’s no consolation. My 10-year-old squats in the bushes, vomits, and we climb back inside.

“I feel better,” she says. “But I’m still scared.”

Join the club, I hear inside my head. “I’ll protect you,” I say.

And in that moment I realize that our nylon shelter, while adept at shielding me from the more tangible elements of nature’s uncertainties, will never be enough to insulate me from myself.
A few years ago I went backpacking alone in Rocky Mountain National Park and was up most of the night trying to ignore the ominous snorts and grunts coming from the nearby bush. Black bear? An elk? A Charles Manson acolyte? I might have slept a couple of hours, but mostly I was waiting for daylight. That fear has stuck with me.

Every summer I take my daughters camping, where I adopt the persona of the archetypal positive-at-all-costs dad. I make a mean stir fry over the campfire, pitch tents and preach about stewardship for our planet. What I don’t know, I fake. So far, they seem convinced.

No matter how many times I venture into the woods or actually contemplate the statistical unlikelihood of us being attacked by a wild animal, my fear of not being able to protect my kids from nature’s fiercer elements remains intact. We’ve seen and heard bison, deer, snakes, all manner of varmints, and have shuddered when park rangers talk about the big cats that stalk the wilderness. Looking big and making noise are fine on paper, but neither my kids nor I have illusions of wrestling a mountain lion. We know who’s boss out there.

I’m no Bear Grylls, and my Swiss army knife’s utility essentially tops out at the bottle opener. For an involved father with a bit of perfection complex who works hard to be a positive role model, this accepted vulnerability is a tough one to swallow. I’ve basically conceded defeat to the natural world. And it feels…liberating.

I think it’s because unlike work, home, the gym, or any other contrived Western gathering place with its cushy redundancies, a campsite and the environment in which it resides strips us of barriers. The proximity to other creatures, lack of protection, the need to depend on our own wit and wisdom, they all help release the tethers and let vulnerability take hold. In an instant, we are human again.

Every year, like thousands of other twitchy outdoor junkies, we exit our bubbles knowing that the infinite starry sky, the doe practically reclining in the camping chair and that exquisite lingering smell of ashes in the fire pit serve as more than just ambience. It’s precisely this discomfort we crave, so we can also feel the relief that comes with waking up the next morning.

Yes, having the car 10 paces away significantly eases the burden of advanced orienteering skills, and perhaps our pay campground in a national park, with its bathrooms and general store, isn’t exactly Chris McCandless-esque. But when I’m miles from home with my kids, tucked into a thicket of piñon pines, without cell service and standing sentry against wild beasts while my daughter pees in the bushes, I accept that being human means both conquering and being conquered, sometimes in the same moment. And both are best done outdoors.

Mother Nature could care less that she makes us feel alone and afraid. She doesn’t really need us, but knows full well we need her. At least she’s polite enough to keep inviting us out. Somewhere she sways in her REI hammock, pulling levers and pushing buttons, and occasionally spilling from her Nalgene bottle with a wry smile.

The Councel of the Sandhill Cranes

We all need a compass with which to navigate and land a life.

By Laura Pritchett

They sound like the purring toads of spring, their landing looks like a sweet and soft-moving tornado, the smell is river at dusk, dank and cooling. The sheer number of them is what astonishes, group after group circling and circling, then lowering, settling into sunlit water. There are, after all, nearly a half million of them. But more than all that, what I feel is their ancientness. It sends an odd sensation down my throat, similar to the one I get when gazing at the Milky Way from a desolate camping spot. They are so old; time and space so vast. Sandhill cranes are considered to be the oldest known bird species, a fossil dating back 10 million years ago found in Nebraska, our clue to their enduring presence.

And here I am now, not far from where that fossil was unearthed, having come to see them in my own one-blink of time, in a universe thought to be 14 billion years old, wanting to put my life in perspective, wanting to clarify the course I have taken, and what my landing spots might be in the time I have left. After all, time here is so limited, and I feel the urge to pause, to look down at the compass of my life, deciding which directions I have come from, and where I want to go, and where next I want to land.

I’m with my daughter, who is agreeably missing a few days of high school to join me for a Nebraska Adventure, and we stand at sunset in a blind at the Rowe Audubon Nature Sanctuary outside of Kearney. Ohhh, she says. Oooh, I say. Ohhh, she says. We touch each other’s shoulder and watch until dark has settled and quieted and all the birds have too.

I knew it would be astonishing. But despite this mass migration spot of theirs being so close to Fort Collins, I’d never quite made the trip. But I have hoped to never fall into that “I’ll do that someday,” especially now at this midpoint apex in my life, when I want to pull out the metaphorical and real compass more often.

I’ve clarified that I do not—not now at least—want museums and cultural or historical sites or thrill-seeking adventures—there is something that calls me toward quiet wilderness, toward something more ancient. Perhaps it has to do with the need for silence in order to pay attention to all the possible directions, the thousands of them. Which ones shall I take in the time I have left? Something about being middleage seems to suddenly require this of me. A midlife crisis, if you will, only instead of crisis, it feels the opposite—calm and still and watchful.

As I drove east on this adventure, I realized that there are cranes in each of the four directions from Fort Collins, and each has a special spot to for us to bear witness to their migration, and that I should see them all.

East is here, along the Platte River of the Sandhills of Nebraska in March.

West is Steamboat Springs, in September.

South is at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, in November.

“There are directions I might take that I have not yet heard or noticed, yet.”

North is Wyoming, where the cranes breed in the greater Yellowstone area, and the population in the Yellowstone-Teton regions begin to flock and gather in September for their flight south.

Spring and fall—this is when the sandhill cranes pass over us, on their long journey to breed up in Canada and Alaska, then back down south to winter in Texas and New Mexico and Arizona. Back and forth, each year, for millennia. We don’t often see them, although they fly in large groups of up to a hundred, but we can hear them if we know when to listen, which is most often in the afternoons when warm air forms thermal columns and the birds soar, and what to listen for, which is a sound that is hard to describe, but once identified, is impossible to forget. Once you’ve heard the cranes, you will always hear the cranes.

Which is, perhaps, why I believe seeing them is so important. If something off your radar suddenly becomes on your radar for good, for life, and you will never not notice them again—well, there must be other things in life that are similar too. By listening for them, and to them, I realize how much I don’t know. Both about my life and the larger universe. And that makes me want to keep looking in, and keep looking out—to realize the humbling truth in that old adage that “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

The cranes are a start—even the small tangible details. What I learn about their lives delights me: I knew they were large, a seven-foot wingspan, but I did not know that their feathers have a reddish brown color, from preening with beaks covered with iron rich mud, the iron oxidizing and blending with their feathers. I knew they mated for life, but I did not know of their spectacular courtship dance, where they leap high in the air, with their bills skyward and necks arched over their backs. I did not know that the lesser subspecies of sandhill cranes will come over Fort Collins, usually all in one day, and that the social media birding sites light up along the way as everyone calls out for others to notice. They are everywhere around me—north, south, east, west.

These ancient cranes remind me to get still and listen; look with clarity for possible paths; chart my course, and, above all else, to realize there are courses I don’t even yet see. There are directions I might take that I have not yet heard or noticed, yet. But once I do, like the cranes’ sounds, I won’t forget. I need only to get still and pay attention so I can hear and see in the first place.

This September, I went to the Yampa Valley Crane Festival. I find myself at The Carpenter Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy and well known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. There I watched the sandhills at sunset, flying above the Yampa. I thought of the line of poetry, William Stafford, where he warns us not to “go smoke’s way”—to not let your life drift by, like smoke, without really directing it. Instead of going smoke’s way, I want to go like the cranes, in sure and firm directions.

I have other stops to make. Up next is the Bosque del Apache, or perhaps Tucson. Either way, I’ll keep checking in with myself. To see if the wilderness of my experience matches the wilderness of my heart and to see if, given the usual restrains of time and money and obligations, I am traveling well on my journey. The cranes’ patterns repeat, like a phrase in the music of history—whereas I am just one note. I know, though, that I can use their quiet and profound and wild ways to help me select what to pull and keep on my radar. To help me check in as we all must: If I’ve given my life enough thought, which requires time; if I’ve made the right decisions, which requires courage. Time and courage are what I need now.

Soft Landing

Lonely, confused and isolated, I left my home and marriage to find my inner ski bum.

By Tracy Ross

Who knows how many people have driven the serpentine curves between I-70 and Winter Park, not knowing why they are driving them or where they are going? When I first did, back in a whiteout on the first day of January 1998, I had no idea what Winter Park was, that it was a ski resort in the realest sense, with true black diamond runs and lifts that zigzagged across 3,000-plus acres. I thought, in all honesty, that the name was too obvious. What buffoon would call a resort in Colorado winter anything? Didn’t summer happen there, too? And park said “small, for children.” But I took the exit, driving east, from my parents’ house in Las Vegas, and crept in a two-wheel-drive rental car past the old Empire (pre-Tomatoes), and cried because the windshield wipers on the car couldn’t work fast enough to clear the thick, wet snow that conspired to blind me and send me careening off the road into a ditch or a Christmas card flocked pine tree.

Down the long straightaway which to me now, 20 years later, is far scarier than Berthoud’s switchbacks. By the time I reached those, it was January-6-o’clock-10-below-zero-pitch-black. Now I cried because there were no guardrails on the steep sides of the road and my imagination pitched their outer sides into oblivion. Nor did I know what lay ahead of me. I was on the run from an emotionally abusive relationship involving a toothless Scottish dog musher I’d married and followed to Alaska. While there, I’d met my first real Colorado girl, Julia Stephens, who lived with her sister in a ski house on Ptarmigan. She’d keyed into me instantly, seeing a cellular-level pain I’d carried from the time I was a small girl that I thought I’d become good at hiding. She’d look me in the eyes and ask, pointedly, “How are you?” She was 13 years older and, speaking that question, somehow friend, sister, mother, spiritual guide and therapist in one person. And when she talked about Colorado, about the ski resort she lived in but I’d never heard of, Winter Park, the dark trees, the steep, avalanche-prone bowls and faces, and the pillows of downy-seeming snow formed around her. I knew I wanted to go even before I knew I wanted to go, and that Julia would be the one to save me. We mentioned it once, before she left Alaska to return to Winter Park and resume her life as beautiful, athletic, fearless, outspoken she-ski-bum. I watched her pull out of Talkeetna. I knew I’d see her again in short order. That time came the following January.

“I knew I wanted to go even before I knew I wanted to go, and that Julia would be the one to save me.”

The tears continued to flow as I wound to the top of Berthoud in the whiteout and then saw that I had to wind back down it. Between the snow and the dark, I couldn’t see the beautiful land that spread out below me: More snow than I had ever seen, more steep, treed faces—all, unlike where I’d come from Alaska, accessible from ski lifts. I had downhill skied as a kid, then Nordic skied through boarding school and college, and “backcountry skied,” on the right gear, but never with any pitch, during my two winters in Alaska. Colorado she-ski-bumming boiled in my blood, yet I didn’t know how to make it happen. That problem was solved when I finally made it all the way down the pass, crept, now alone, past the then-undeveloped Mary Jane, and past the also tiny and quaint-seeming Winter Park base, which had no village. On into town, to the place Julia had told me to go via pay phone at a gas station in Georgetown. My stop was Fontenot’s Cajun Restaurant, where another true ski-bum angel worked. Greg McFadden’s first words: “Well, hello, friend.” His second: “Are you a skier?” “I think?” I answered. And Greg’s third: “Well, here’s a comp ticket.”

Charlie Bucket couldn’t have felt the explosive promise I did when that waxy ticket passed from Greg’s hand into mine. I looked at Julia, who gave me the same friend-sister-mother-guide smile she’d given me before. That night she took me to her sister’s house. I couldn’t sleep, clutched my lift ticket all night. The following morning, I got my first taste of how I’d transform myself from lonely, confused, isolated wife of scary toothless dog musher into strong, outspoken, rebellious, outside-all-the-time she-ski-bum like Julia.

I donned every piece of warm clothing I had, borrowed a pair of Scarpa Telemark boots from Julia and rode the ski bus to the base of Winter Park. I affixed my ticket to my jacket, worked Julia’s boots into my Black Diamond Tout Neige skis and rode the old Yan triple lift to the top. Then, consulting no map, I made my way to Bradley’s Bash. There, in the trees on the side of the run, I made a few clumsy turns. But instantly, I felt a tickle behind my ears. It was joy and freedom—the true currencies of skiing on snow. Then, as if on cue, it began to snow under a fat, round sun. I could feel the flakes on my cheeks, my new home’s way of saying, “See, this is what you will get.” The heat, however, wasn’t from the sun. It emanated from my heart.

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