By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Winter 2000, Vol. 16, No. 2
This is the place: Hidden chasms clogged with aspen and chokecherry. Maroon cliffs against a sky defying cloud. Tawny, hip-deep grass waving. White gun dogs flowing through. Chukar partridge bursting from cover. An old and dear friend to share it. It is a country of contrasts, of flat, salt-laden playas and steep, boulder-strewn mountain slopes. Of long, eye-watering vistas and tight, hidden dark canyons.
I was there recently. I'm there right now, in fact, though I am sitting at a desk a full day's drive away. You see, this place lives in my mind.
We who are lured to wild places on this planet are drawn for a variety of reasons. If you read enough adventure magazines, you come to believe that the only reason we go is the adrenaline blast, the thrill, the danger. We are a "now" society, living fully and completely in the present. But I must admit I am a creature who enjoys the wilderness of the mind-those memories of places and people past, of shared laughs, and fond moments. It's like that old adage: You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy.
It's mental time travel. Think about your NOLS course, about a hilarious moment, perhaps, or a challenging day that ended with complete satisfaction. Years ago, when I was a NOLS student up in the Brooks Range in Alaska, I heard "mental time travel" summed up. It was the last day and we were working down over a steep scree slope so heinous and slick with August snow that all of us were cursing and muttering irreverent thoughts about the heritage of the leader of the day (me). At that moment, Todd Baird, a fellow student, said something like this: "Hey, in three days, we'll all be sitting in the office staring at the computer wishing we were back here on this @@#!" We then realized that no matter how tough it got, it would come to an end and all we'd have left was the memory of how great it was. Tough times don't last, tough people do.
Perhaps I'm an eternal optimist, but I can't remember the bad times I've had outdoors. Mishaps have become lessons and the unforgettable adventures have become the stuff of dreams. As humans, this is also how I think we should try to remember past loves . . . for the good times, the laughs, the poignant moments. The same goes for the wild places of our hearts, minds and world. We should remember the magical quality of the wilderness; sometimes just knowing it is out there is enough.
Wilderness of the mind can be visited at any time, in any place. We find solace from watching the clouds scrabble across the sky, but we can also find peace from remembering that sight. This winter, I've found myself remembering a horseback ride I took with an amazing friend up into the Wyoming high country. Spring was just beginning to show its face and the streams were gushing with snowmelt. We car camped and built a campfire and were within sight of the truck the whole evening, and though it certainly wasn't a wilderness experience, it brought us joy and contentment. Then and now, for I can still see my friend learning the finer points of leading a packhorse, hear her laugh at one of my jokes, watch a newborn moose calf stumble after its mother and smell the scent of pine on the mountain wind.
Or even two summers ago: A thin line of elk far above Marston Pass in the Absarokas, the cold wet alive feel of an egg-laden cutthroat trout in my hands, watching veteran instructor Glenn Goodrich teach an outstanding fire ecology class, hearing laughter from a nearby student cook group. Such are the building blocks of the meditation palace I construct back home in civilization.
You still have to get out there to create your wilderness of the mind. Your time may be short-perhaps only a weekend-but the memories last. You will leave the wild places, but they don't have to leave you. And that's what it is all about, isn't it? For if you don't ever go, if you don't ever take that chance-in life, love, the wilderness, whatever-you won't ever know the pleasure of recollection, will you?