The Limits of the Individual
August 2001 — text & photos by Austin Pick
"The human being is a social being, nothing except in relation to other people; yet the essential human being is the private self..." —Joseph L. Blau
My time in Minnesota rounded itself off nicely. Despite increasingly aggravated relations between one of the other assistant cooks and the rest of the kitchen staff —a series of conflicts that twice required the intervention of the Camp Director— the experience, taking on, as it did, a quite interesting flavor, was insightful, and ended with a flourish. A banquet was held the last night of camp, themed after a Quiencinera, a traditional Mexican "Sweet Fifteen" celebration. As such, we served a traditional formal dinner in four courses. I acted as head cook for the meal. The entire menu came off flawlessly, and our entire disjointed kitchen staff was able, for a short time at least, to coexist comfortably. Good food is good like that. Farewells were disheveled and hasty, which I suppose is alright with me anyhow; saying goodbye seems frivolous with those we hope to see again down the road...
Too soon I was on the wing and stumbling though the postmortem maylay of airports and telephone cables, trying to find someone to pick me up when I landed. I had the good fortune of sharing the flights from Minneapolis to D.C. with a guy named Trent who'd just completed his studies at a seminary in Texas. Our conversations during the three-hour layover in Chicago were, as can be imagined, interesting, insightful, and warm. In the end it's often just the language that's different really, maybe...
Then there was a series of brief collisions with Andrew Davis, who hoisted me from the late-nite airport circuit; with miss Carly Veditz, whom I surprised at her little back-hills summer camp, where we spent the weekend like little kids, horsing around and swinging from trees; with SCI for wild night at Wolftrap; and with Jason McCarty for a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with the Baltimore bus service, trying to get him on a greyhound to Canada... then home home to see the fam and shuffle possessions, have a lunch-time highschool reunion with Michael Hudson, then on to H-burg for a Mike-D send-off and move-in session...
That all sortof settled, I packed my bag again, but this time in effort to extract myself from the hustle...
I've just returned from a 10-day solo backpacking sojourn in the highlands wilderness of West Virginia. While the entirety of the Eastern United States was sweltering under an alleged heatwave, I was submerged in the cool ethereality of a rambling mountain canyon and the loose mire of my mind.
Otter Creek Wilderness Area, part of the Monogahela National Forest, is a sprawling canyon shaped by the tumbling, beautiful Otter Creek and flanked by mountains. No roads or permanent structures --except two open-faced shelters-- fracture the wilderness. The trails running through are skittish and marked only by stacks of stones; finding one's way often depends on map, compass, intuition. At the turn of the century the entire canyon was extensively logged, and a railroad system was somehow strung through the rugged terrain. The forest has since returned, and the railroads removed, though traces still remain; many of the trails run along old grades, and hiking through seemingly untouched wildness I occasionally came upon remnants, artifacts: a rail spike, a stretch of still-buried ties, an old bridge trestle, now nothing more than a once-neat stack of rocks peaking shyly from the mountain-side.
I made my home here for ten days. Knowing that at one time men and trains had roared through such a rugged yet tranquil place, altering and corralling the landscape, fascinated and haunted me. Though the area is large enough to and does support a stable population of black bears, I saw none, although on my second night I woke to a distinct presence, a dark bulk in the bigger black, who maybe saw me the same in his mind as we held our breath for a moment, me sitting up and asserting my space with silent determination, until there came the sounds of a shuffle of retreat. I woke again several times in the night and early dawn, each time to the snuffing and pawing of a bear in the forest around the large clearing where I was sleeping, before rising in the morning to take his place...
Exploring, I hiked a lot of miles, carrying with me only what I needed and really nothing else, basically food, clothing and shelter. I took no tent, just a few tarps to make a burrito of myself or build a shelter in the event of rain. By some perhaps amazing fortune, it did not rain until the last day, during my hike out in the morning. I slept under the stars every night, the wind-snapped forest above backlit in a dream cinema-scape by her radiance the Moon. My water I borrowed from the river and the streams. I brought simple foods, carried no stove and made no fires. No music, no books or anything, just some small things I'd written and wanted to meditate on. My approach was basically comfortable Minimalist, or, as others have said, "roughin' it." Such simplicity and release from clutter and distraction was gracefully refreshing. At the end of ten days I had produced (including the little litter I picked up along the way) one ziplock freezer bag 3/4 full of trash.
My diet consisted of a variety of breads and crackers, peanut butter and hummus, granolas, nuts and berries, power bars. I drank only water the entire time, and without the influx of caffeine or the occasional alcohol nicotine thc and the oddities that go into our processed food, I gave my body a chance to detoxify itself, and within about three days I began feeling really wonderful, full of energy, healthy, alive: a feeling that only increased as the days passed, immersed in the beauty of the wild world.
Bill Howard and the Great White Hope had dropped me at the trailhead on US 33 about two hours west of Harrisonburg, and I began my journey by hiking up and through the mountains for a few days before descending into what is not unlike an imagined Paradise Valley, and a love affair with the river. Otter Creek is the playful mountain stream of our old-mind memory, flowing endlessly through labyrinths of boulders, spilling waterfalls into inviting swimming pools, cooling the air and feet and restless spirit. Though I would often explore up in the mountains during the day, I spent all but three of my nights by the river, taking electric showers under waterfalls, lounging on sun-kissed boulders, listening softly to its stolen songs and supposed secrets.
But even such a forgiving wildness is likely to confound the concrete-minded. Strangely, my hardest night was my last. I left the river valley to hike back up the mountain, planning to hike back down in the morning along the same trail I'd come in on, so as to meet Bill at the trailhead. I was hiking east on a trail that meets the north/south ridge-run that I'd hiked in and spent my first two days on. I started up in the late afternoon, and the trail seemed to go on much longer than I'd expected, no clear junction in the abundant overgrown thick. As dusk approached I passed a landmark, a peculiar bend in the branches of a tree, that I seemed to recognize as being up on the north/south run, but opposite my intended direction.
Darkness was fast falling, so I left the trail and made camp, high up and not lost, persay, but perhaps a few miles out of my way. That night a big front began to blow through, and I was precariously perched atop the mountain, massive trees swaying and creaking in the cold far above me, animals and unknown things rustling and scurrying all around, sometimes approaching and insisting I scare them off while the winds increased with the darkness, threatening storms and throwing out phantom spirits in the moody forest. Moreover, I was down to just half a bottle of water, having been anticipating the stream just down the trail from the missed junction, now suspected to be fairly far off. I slept alright despite, and had just packed up my gear in the morning and was headed for water when it began to rain.
To my surprise there were only a few full days throughout the journey that I saw no humans. I met a few other backpackers and fishermen, and saw several more distantly, but was mostly alone with river and mountain. I met only one other backpacker, out for four days, who was hiking alone.
Having removed myself nearly as much as is possible from the warmth of other people's immediacy, the juggling of things, and any responsibility other than my own survival, I perhaps for the first time experienced true solitude. Although sometimes a little disquieting, and not quite at all what I had expected, it is a strange and incredible experience to be as completely alone as a great rambling forest or any other corner of the living earth will ever allow.
I find that walking greases the gears of mind with a rhythmic fluidity, and hiking for miles everyday, I was able to observe the mysterious workings of my own mind with remarkable clarity— its tangents, insertions, attentions, connections, departures, its quantum quirkiness, etc. In fact speaking about it now I speak of it as a thing separate from myself —when in fact it IS myself (isn't it?)— for often it (I?) seems to move of its (My?) own accord, much like the river, spilling as it does through an endless assortment of memories, concepts, scenarios, fantasies, and collected artifacts, leaves in the wind. My dreams, being a more observed and less directed flow of the same stuff, were consistently strange and transportive. There is an energy in the wilds that seems to bring Mind somehow more into the fullness of itself, spontaneous, creatively fluid and illuminated by some inner impulse...
During their travels in New Mexico my dad and brother stayed the night at a youth hostel frequented by young travelers and backpackers and such, and my dad later made the comment that many of the lone travelers there seemed to be "searching for themselves."
But in reviewing my own situation during those ten days, I quickly fell into a deep feeling of being blessed with where I am, not searching so much as exploring. Perhaps the single most amazing effect of a Removal experience like mine is the perspective it gives. As they say, you don't know what you've got till it's gone, and with nearly everyone and everything that composes my life far away, I realized with a new sense of profound depth how much everyone means to me, and how much I Love. By about the fifth day I was already feeling anxious to return to our paved world and get back into it all, and staying only deepened the acknowledgement.
I'm thankful for the length of time I was able to remain in the wilds, in particular because it seemed that this anxiousness came not only from an honest appreciation, but also from a felt experience that my self is something shaky, that I don't fully know myself beyond what I say and do, beyond the things that occupy my activity and attention in the our everyday world. I extracted myself from the hustle so that maybe I could know myself, yet sometimes mind seemed to spring continually toward the bustle of things rather than simply settle... Still, there was a tranquility there, lying in the sermons of the sun, and being immersed in and absorbing so much beauty and peace and quiet, I could not help but wish that all of you were there with me, doing the same. In the end, I sense that the experiences of living are often amazing to the degree that they are shared, despite the distances we manufacture. With that said, I very much look forward to seeing you all again, be it soon, or further down the trail.
Yours with Love, A
...halfway between the gutter and the stars...
Note: "About a year later, while studying abroad in Australia, I learned of a Buddhist meditation tradition that offers 10-day intensive silent meditation courses at centers around the world. I took my first vipassana course in November 2002, and found that my solitary wilderness sojourn (curiously, also 10 days long) was a remarkable prelude for the practice of serious meditation..."