Paul Andersen: Coming in from the wilds
Returning from the wilds to “syphillisation” ain’t easy. Some never come back, and some wish they hadn’t.
This summer, I will run five hut trips for Huts For Vets, a nonprofit that serves veterans. We go to Margy’s Hut at the edge of the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness near Aspen. Margy’s has become like a second home to me and my son, Tait, who works these trips as hut master in a place he’s been visiting since childhood.
The first sight of the hut, hiking up from Sawmill Park, shows the roof peaking below the distant summits of the Elk Range in a sea of mountains rising like waves on the horizon.
The hut has a particular fragrance of wood from the thick logs that form the walls, of old fires in the stoves, of the aromas of countless meals prepared in the cozy kitchen. The hut holds memories of love and laughter, and we feel it.
When the trips are over, we must force ourselves to leave the peace and quiet of Margy’s, which is artfully perched on a timbered ridge at 11,300 feet overlooking the escarpments of the Williams Range. Here there is no cell service, no Wi-Fi, no radio, no TV, no media — and thank God for that!
When the trips are done, we must plunge back into what most of us consider the real world, the place where news happens, where mundane relations take precedence, where life is lived. It is on the mountains where the spirit comes alive, but that’s not considered real by most of the civilized world.
The men and women veterans we bring here from around the country discover deep comfort during three days lived at Margy’s. They hike the trails, climb the mountains and commune together in the quiet confines of the log cabin that was built over 30 years ago by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.
Margy is the nickname of Margaret McNamara, Robert’s nature-loving wife, and it is to her memory that this quaint and beautiful hut is dedicated for all who love it — especially veterans who find peace and healing there.
If the hut experience is not the real world, then we need a reality check. Wilderness is a very real place. Considering that we humans lived 1,000 times longer in wilderness settings than we have in industrial society makes wilderness more real than the frenetic madness of industrial life with all its inputs, noise and distractions. That life is still new to our species.
So how do we return from the wilds once the wilds have taken hold of us? Some never do. Like Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” Or Everett Ruess, the artistic desert nomad who disappeared in the remote Southwest in 1934, leaving a collection of beautiful letters describing his ascetic pilgrimages.
Meriwether Lewis never really returned from the wilds after his expedition with Capt. William Clark, a two-and-a-half-year odyssey through Thomas Jefferson’s Great American Empire. Not long after his return, Lewis took his own life, having survived dozens of scrapes during the expedition.
As more and more humans flock to the swelling phenomenon of mega cities, the wilderness becomes less and less known, an endangered topography accounting for only 2 percent of the lower 48 states. Yet the wilderness is both restorative to the human soul and a legacy for the American character, where it was honed at the edge of the frontier.
Ann Morrow Lindbergh, the long-suffering wife of the scandalous aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, described in “Gift from the Sea” her return from a quiet island where she sought respite. Her “island precepts” included “simplicity of living, awareness of life, work without pressure, space for significance and beauty, time for solitude and sharing, and closeness to nature.”
To come in from the wilds, one must first go out into the wilds seeking wilderness precepts that are hidden amid what Lindbergh called “the welter of life.” We are fortunate to have the wilds right outside our doors, if we can just grant ourselves the permission to explore them — and to return from them enriched and rewarded.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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