It takes months of planning for a paddling journey into the wilderness. The Walton brothers toss around ideas, the maps come out, the routes, and access to them are studied, dates are penciled in, then, finally, train and campground reservations are made. In the month preceding any trip, my husband begins an internal transition from here to there as the necessary equipment comes out of storage to join the growing pile in our living room. Sleeping pad and bag. Cook stove. Dry bags. Bear bag. Throw bag. Cooler. Camp chair. Hammock. Swiss army knife. Food list. Boots. Water shoes. Dri-fit clothing. Camera. Tent and fly. Fishing pole. Hat. Rain gear. Maps. You get the idea. Just now, Mark and Hugh and two more of their brothers are in the early phase of staging their September trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a trip three years in the planning.
Why so much planning? The wilderness is, by necessity, wild and weathered, unsympathetic to the needs of a paddler. The wilds don’t care about your life or your death.
I call this the cosmic indifference of the wilderness.
Yes, the wilderness is untamed and unfettered. And all around, usually invisible in the forest deeps, and the dark swirls of river and lake is the predatory character that drives all creatures to eat, shelter, reproduce and live – as good a description of survival that you can conjure. If you are going to test yourself against the elements of the wilderness – its fire, air, water, rock, flora, and fauna, then you better know what you are doing.
So, when wilderness paddling, you learn to be on the lookout for threats like underwater rocks or deadfall trees, swirling eddies, confused currents, high water, low water, storms, lightning, fires, bears, moose, and poison ivy, to name a few.
Daily life is actually not all that different. It goes merrily along like a calm, placid river, and, unawares, we become lulled into forgetting our creaturely vulnerability to hidden threats to our wellbeing: sickness, accident, injury, infidelity, terror, poverty, and death. We can go from flourishing to foundering in an instant. This was true for Hugh when his leukemia diagnosis came out of the blue, followed by the ten-year slog of treatments before a life-saving bone marrow transplant. You simply can’t plan for that.
Even with maps, you don’t always know where you are.
Food can’t satisfy your deepest hungers- for life to have meaning and purpose, to belong, and to be loved.
It’s true: all the planning in the world can’t prevent you from incurring harm in the vicissitudes of this life. Just ask anyone who’s come within a bear’s breath of dying.
Still. We learn from the wilderness that there is a flip side to almost everything.
Beauty masks pain. Tenacity is a product of frailty. Love necessitates sacrifice. Suffering is never meaningless. Meekness and tenderness makes for strength. The water can bear you up or take you down.
Time in the wilderness confirms the relationship between the sober realities of life and its loveliness, courage, and peace. The virtues are God-inspired, and there for us to cultivate if we would only abdicate our need to control. Yes, life is fragile. But, our own can be enlarged, enriched, and emboldened if we embrace it in all its grit and grace. Yes, life is demanding. How will you traverse it? Emerson wrote that the dowry of the wilderness is precious to any who seek it. When will you start planning to get out and go?