I never thought I’d roll an ankle so badly that it would bring me off my feet, but as I hit the ground after slipping from the curb, I let out a cry of both frustration and pain, certain I’d broken a bone. Suddenly my typical Saturday morning run had become anything but, as I sat there trying to figure out if I could move myself or not. In an instant, visions of every single hike and backpacking trip I had been planning for the summer ahead flashed through my mind, and suddenly vanished.
“Maybe it isn’t that bad,” I thought to myself as I got to my feet and started to limp towards home. “Maybe I can get it to loosen up if I walk for a while.” It sort of worked–in my stubbornness, I ended up running nearly 5 miles home, but as soon as I took my shoe off, my ankle swelled to the size of a softball. “That’s no good…I really should go to the emergency room.”
Fortunately there was no break, just a sprained ankle. As I left the emergency room, I wanted to ask, “So, how long until I can go backpacking?” I decided that this wasn’t the most intelligent question a person on crutches should be asking, so I kept it to myself.
I’ve been rereading Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild over the last few weeks; I read it for the first time right after high school and it is one of the few books I have revisited more than once. Everywhere you look today there is literature about why this wilderness and that wilderness should be protected and preserved. Turner’s book focuses on the experience of the wilderness rather than the wilderness itself. How do we interact with wild places? He asks, and answers, in very clear terms why we need wilderness, and what it comes down to has nothing to do with the place itself. It’s the experience. We need wild places for our own well being. I think this is the wildness that Thoreau referred to in his now famous quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
In many ways, I find myself living a life I did not always intend on having. It’s not that I don’t want my family or my home or my job, or that I am trying to run from adult responsibilities. However, I am a worrier by nature, and in the rush, rush, RUSH of everyday life, I find it increasingly absurd that I worry about things which I have no control over.
In wildness is the preservation of the world. Those words echo through my head because I realize that while some people may feel anxiety over going into the backcountry (you know…survival and all that), my worried mind becomes calm. The longer I am away and the further from roads I go, the more quieted I become. Wilderness makes me kinder, gentler, sweeter. This must be a coveted quality: no other place I can think of, and only a select handful of special people in my life have ever had that affect on me.
So it was that as I sat there that morning with my ankle throbbing in pain that I saw my precious trips to the wilderness slipping away. The nearest trip was only 15 days away–a much anticipated backpacking trip into the High Sierra with an old friend.
Over the next few days, I was largely immobile. My crutches frustrated me, my foot bruised worse, and I just did not see how a backpacking trip would happen. I spoke on the phone with my friend who, understandably, had reservations about heading into the backcountry with someone who could get reinjured very easily. We decided to go on a “test hike” four days before our scheduled departure. In the days leading up to that test hike, I rested as much as possible (despite what my overactive brain was telling me to do), and I began to heal noticeably each day. While I still had to be very careful where I placed my feet, I managed to get through a 6 mile test hike with no problems. We cautiously agreed that the Sierra trip was on.
Four days and 45 miles later, with the help of an amazingly solid ankle brace, hiking poles, and the patience of my friend, I finished our trip with zero pain or discomfort. I joked with another friend before leaving that the backcountry always seems to “heal” me, and while I am pretty sure the backcountry had nothing directly to do with this, I was active, careful, and in a positive state of mind–all of which are ingredients for a properly functioning immune system.
I’ve said before that the wilderness is where I go to heal, both figuratively, and now literally as well. However, what strikes me more than anything was my state of mind on my drive home. With so much weighing me down before leaving, I felt remarkably free of burdens, worries, or fears. I think this happens somewhat naturally when we boil life down to its essentials:
go to sleep,
Yes, we need wilderness, but we must interact with it as if our lives depend on it. Because they do. Talk about putting things into perspective.
In wildness is the preservation of us.