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Backpacking and Self-Renewal in God's Country


Bob Hyman

I try to get up into the mountains every year to flush my soul of the burdens accumulated from dealing with everyday life. I recently returned from a two-week backpacking trek through Philmont Scout Ranch as the Crew Advisor for a group of young Scouts and Venturers. Philmont is a 215 square mile paradise located in the rugged Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico. Of all the mountains I have ever climbed and the wilderness I have ever explored, Philmont is my favorite. There, I can immerse myself into a past that I first experienced as a teenager, and have intimately come to know as an adult. It's my way of escaping from civilization back to the majesty of nature's wilderness.

But just what is the wilderness, and why is it important? Without wilderness, the world is a cage. Hiking into the wilderness means getting away from everyday life as we have come to know it and getting back to a more primitive way of experiencing nature. Backpacking is nothing more than a longer, more intense hike into the wilderness. A backpacking experience means different things to different people. To some, it is a physical challenge - a test of one's endurance or stamina. To others, it is a knowledge adventure - a chance to learn how and why things exist in the natural environment. But to all, it is a firsthand personal learning experience - a chance to learn about one's self, and how we fit into the overall scheme of the world around us.

"Wilderness holds more answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask." - Nancy Newhall in This is the American Earth

Backpacking is more than just hiking and looking around. To get the most out of the experience, you need to change the way you see and think about the things around you. You need to fully immerse yourself into the experience; to become a part of nature rather than just an observer.

"Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee." - Job 12:8

The following story illustrates how my personal thinking about the wilderness has changed over the years:

"There, in a high fork of a quaking aspen, a dark small shape stands against the sky. I rest below it. My companion, a lone hawk owl, regards me with brief curiosity, gives an avian shrug, and looks off towards the Tooth of Time. I try to put myself in its feathers, see with its eyes, and feel the lightness of its bones in the wind. As the first star flickers against the cold blue of space, the owl and I pause together, fellow travelers in hard, lonely country. I am overcome with quiet gratitude for life - the owl's and my own - and for all the others who left their telltale signs and tracks around me."

Thirty or forty years ago, I'm not sure I would have understood. The owl would have been a momentary curiosity. I'd have stopped briefly, maybe waved my arms to see it fly, and moved on, vaguely unsatisfied. As a young man, I often missed the nuances of smaller moments, the ones that often hold the most profound truths of our existence. I wanted a point-blank grizzly, a pack of wolves, or a double rainbow each time out - or better yet, all three at once. Of course the country was too sparse, the nature of life too diffused for that sort of nonstop melodrama. I set myself up for almost continual disappointment.

A by-product of my drive for big thrills was a systematic, willful ignorance of the country I thought I knew. The extent of all I didn't know, and told myself I didn't care about, would have shocked me if I'd been able to look down from some great height. I remember a time, not so long ago, when any bird smaller than a robin was of little interest, and I never stopped to wonder if that flicker in the brush was a dark-eyed junco or a redpoll, let alone a Wilson's warbler. The ground at my feet was a collection of, well, plants and rocks. Sure, I could recognize poison ivy, and I knew the difference between sandstone and granite, but my knowledge went only as far as the dictates of utility or simple chance required.

Like many who came of age during the fifties, I feared and hated forest fires. Unduly influenced by Smokey the Bear, I thought fire to be an evil menace that destroyed the wilderness. Only now have I come to realize that fire is an essential step in the natural continuation of the forest environment. Looking back, it's easy to understand why I thought so many parts of nature inconsequential. True respect seldom grows out of ignorance.

I wish I could say there came a momentous change of sorts, one defining, instantaneous breakthrough when my perspective altered. I can't point to a moment or even a year as a turning point. I think, in fact, that there was none; each day was a step on a faint, looping trail, one that doubled back, faded out, then reappeared. Something was changing, I knew, each time I ventured out into the wilderness. But the change was not about seeing. It was about sensing an entirely new paradigm, the essential dignity, worth, and value of all living things. The life and death of a red-backed vole or a white-crowned sparrow was just as dramatic, just as noble, as that of a mountain lion, if you only leaned in and watched.

There's little doubt that photography played a part in the way I saw. The more time I spent looking into a viewfinder, the more I found myself funneling down on small details - nuances of light, the exact shape of a leaf, the glint of an eye.

I began to carry along my bird, plant, tree, and rock books, and to study them at home when I wasn't outdoors. Lives and stories began to unfold, each a mystery. The more I knew, the more I realized the extent of my ignorance. But it was precisely this understanding, arriving at the point where I sensed the beauty of all I didn't know, that changed my way of seeing. As living things, we are all bonded by the same essential truth: There will never be enough time, and each life is, in a sense, our own. Like a lone hawk owl at dusk, we wait, our bones frail in the wind."

Each mile along the trail brought a new and exciting discovery: Anasazi petroglyphs that have marked the cliffs for centuries, prehistoric Tyrannosaurus Rex footprints etched forever in hardened mud flats, and scars from forest fires both recent and ancient. We found traces of man's impact on the land, ranging from abandoned logging railroad right-of-ways to miners' shacks and trappers' cabins. Soon we lost track of the number of deer, elk and other wildlife whose homes we were sharing.

With each passing day, we became stronger. As our senses became accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells, we became almost one with the wilderness itself. We witnessed thunderstorms that far exceeded the display of any man-made light show and experienced the power of a sudden flash flood down a narrow canyon. We were pelted with rain and hail, and survived freezing nights and blistering days. We climbed sheer rock walls just so that we could rappel back down again. And throughout it all, we left no trace of our ever being there.

Every evening after dinner our small group would gather around the campsite and reflect upon our experiences of the day in an exercise we called "Thorns and Roses." Each of us would, in turn, tell the others of the one thing we liked least and the one thing we liked best about our day. This sharing of emotions and baring of the soul allowed others to empathize with our personal feelings, and to better understand the group dynamics that affected our team as a whole.

Afterwards, someone would invariably begin singing the "Philmont Hymn," a song originally written by John Westfall and now handed down from one generation of Philmont backpackers to the next. Soon all would join in, and the melody would loft softly into the twilight. Later, we would head silently to our tents, tired and ready for rest, but eagerly awaiting the adventures yet to follow.

Silver on the sage,
Starlit skies above
Aspen covered hills
Country that I love
Philmont, here's to thee,
Scouting Paradise,
Out in God's country ---

Wind in whispr'ing pines
Eagles soaring high
Purple mountains rise
Against an azure sky.
Philmont, here's to thee,
Scouting Paradise,
Out in God's country ---


All too soon our wonderful experience neared completion. I know all of us dreaded leaving the wilderness and returning to base camp. On the final morning, we all got up before daybreak and climbed the rugged Tooth of Time in the darkness. Sitting there on the summit, we watched in awe as the glorious sunrise gave birth to a new day. Mere words and photographs cannot do justice to the impact of that simple event. The aches and pains from the trail flowed from us as we were bathed in the warm sunlight. Like the new day, each of us was reborn and re-energized, ready to face the challenges of civilization once again.

Nature created this wonderland over millions of years. Philmont is an impressive place, grander than any man-made cathedral or monument. Savor it, become part of it, and you'll realize that this beauty isn't just the result of nature's destructive forces wearing away at the land, or of man's feeble attempts to conquer it. Time created this place and serves us all lessons, if we're willing to listen and learn.

If you spend enough time in such a place, an ancient and subtle sense of reverence is called forth, as is silence and respect. Heed this signal, rest with it patiently, let the land steady you, and eventually, you'll be rewarded with a gift of knowing.

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