Earlier this year I read the book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. It’s a sad and inspiring story about Chris McCandless, well told by Krakauer. There’s also a movie with a soundtrack by people you’ve possibly heard of, and they’re also good.
I think Chris’s tale is a classic tragedy, in the sense of:
a dramatic composition [...] dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through a flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, as fate or society, to downfall or destruction. —dictionary.com
He died so young, and of course I’ve been swayed by romanticizing in book, movie, and song form, but I think he was a great person. I’m saddened by his death out in the Alaskan wilderness, but grateful to learn his story and be moved by it. (If you don’t know the story, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you he dies. It’s not a surprise ending.)
I can respect his pursuit, even while not yearning for quite the same adventure, and certainly not the same ending. From my position of middle-age comfort, thoroughly corrupted by civilized amenities, I can’t see living on the road and in the wilderness like that.
But I still very much feel the need to find that… something. Answers? A better way to live?
And I do love nature. I love to visit it for a morning or an afternoon. A day hike at a state park is wild enough for me.
I wouldn’t mind living closer to it, but I get a certain unsettled feeling when I stray from my familiar suburbs, away from the bland comfort of strip malls and big box stores. Yet it’s so beautiful out there, and I enjoy getting away from the city, let’s say to one of my favorite places, the north shore of Lake Superior…
Out past Duluth, there are many parks along the lakeside highway 61, where rivers cut gorges and make waterfalls and cascades. Gooseberry, Tettegouche, Temperance, and farther and farther into the wild enough. Sometimes you arrive at a quiet time, and you can always take a trail away from the windshield tourists and sample the freedom of nature on well-maintained trails.
This year a new adventure, off the highway, and a bit more wild, to George H. Crosby Manitou State Park. Driving down a gravel road, my happiness increasing with each mile. It felt like escape, getting away from civilization.
We started on the Humpback Trail, and perversely, I found myself thinking of Disney World. As much as my preferred vacation activity is a hike like this one, a solitary immersion in nature, I love Disney World even while resenting the Disney company for various reasons, and not loving the crowds of people that their parks draw. I don’t understand how it is I’m not turned off by the incredibly manufactured and artificial environments and the milling throngs, but I’m not.
So here I am, out on a new trail adventure, exactly where I’d most like to be, and I’m thinking of Disney World, as if some Imagineer had constructed this whole thing for the pleasure of the park patrons. It was a strange limitation of my imagination to think a person would have to create this place for it to be so perfectly pleasing to my senses.
Maybe despite my doubts, it was God, the ultimate Imagineer. Maybe this is what Chris McCandless found out on the road.
But this cathedral was provided by nature, of course, until some park workers cut the trail. As we started on the trail, a man and woman were just finishing it going the other way, and then we saw no one. I love that. It’s part of the illusion of the adventure. I’m not Chris, out there really living in it, but I’m visiting it, and I’m loving it.
I’m keenly aware of the contrast to my typical Tuesday at work, late in the morning. I wonder how it is that we merely exist so much of the time, only to have a few days of really living.
Our goal was the cascades shown on the park map. There was a shorter route, the “Middle Trail,” but I liked the feeling of the path less traveled. The trail was maintained, but not wide and not even. In places it narrowed considerably. We never felt lost, but there were times when I felt we were really out there, especially given the complete absence of people. It’s that suspension of disbelief, maybe much like you feel at Disney World. You’re not that far out in the wilderness. It’s a park. Not completely tame, but it’s safe enough, and you can enjoy the fantasy of exploring.
It took us about an hour to complete the challenging trail, through hardwoods and over rock faces and many elevation changes until finally hearing the music of running water. Down a slope through trees, and there they were. The cascades. We joined the river at the very top of them, which made for a great view of the calm river and stately pine trees above, and then down over the rocks and rushing water to the pool below.
And there was nobody there. We spent an hour in the area and had it to ourselves the entire time. At one point early on, we sat on rocks next to the water, watching it rushing over the rocks, listening to it. I may have had the epiphany I’m always hoping for on these trips, but I’ll save it for a later post.
Eventually it was time to start back again. What made it time? Why couldn’t we stay there forever? But we began the bittersweet hike back. Maybe hunger and thirst and the heat made a return to civilization enticing enough to walk away from the wild enough.
And now I’m sitting at my desk at home in the suburbs. We’ve been home for months, with many unfulfilling days and weeks in an office, and my walks have been short jaunts around the neighborhood, and I think often about that hike and how good it felt to be out there. The freedom to go where you desire and spend as much time as you’d like. Having the choice to live the way you want. The joy of loving what you’re doing…
I’m not pursuing it the way that Chris McCandless did, but I’m still looking for those answers. I may find a glimpse of them in the trees and rivers of a state park, but still I’m searching for that better way.
I haven’t gone enough into the wild.
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit with a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, Ron, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty. And so, Ron, in short, get out of Salton City and hit the Road. I guarantee you will be very glad you did. But I fear that you will not take my advice. You think I am stubborn, but you are even more stubborn than me. You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life. But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover. Don’t settle down and sit in one place. Move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon. You are still going to live a long time, Ron, and it would be a shame if you did not take the opportunity to revolutionize your life and move into an entirely new realm of experience.
–letter from Chris McCandless to Ron Franz