Last Child in the Woods

Wilderness: wil•der•ness: ˈwildərnis/ noun wildness, wild beast, that which is not controlled by humans (Wikipedia)

By Don Tamminga

Gallup Journey AbbeyJust north of the cabin my son and I are building down by Timber Lake, there is a spot where a cougar has dined; lots of old bleached deer bones and more recently he has buried some of his kill there. This is about a quarter mile from the cabin site and sometimes we imagine we can feel his presence, although he has not shown himself . . . yet. Many evenings after working all day, we sit in the open field in front of the cabin to eat supper watching elk roam out of the forest to feed. We have seen some huge bulls cautiously move into the open to drink some water or catch some grass to eat.

We as a family have often chased a bear out of our campsite while backpacking or encountered a bear near our cabin at Silverton. One time my son was awakened to a bear helping himself to the contents of a cooler we mistakenly left out on the porch. Many times we have grabbed the grandkids to watch a bear, elk, deer or coyote traveling nearby on the talus slope or the occasional porcupine meandering across our property (while we hang on to the dogs). One time a huge pack of coyotes started howling barely 50 meters from the cabin, likely because one of our dogs was in heat; scared the daylight out of us.

The longest backpacking trip I have ever done was with two of my sons and we were out in the wilderness for twelve days straight; that’s about all the food we could carry. We climbed six 14ers (14,000-foot peaks) during that trip and hiked I do not know how many miles. At one point we were standing on the top of one 14er looking at the next one we were planning to climb. It looked like we had to descend down into a deep valley loosing several thousand feet of elevation before we could begin ascending the next peak. There was a line of other climbers heading up the other peak because it was quite approachable from a different direction by vehicle and a short hike. So, I challenged my youngest son that I would give him a peanut M&M for every person he passed on the way to the top of the peak. Being the youngest, he took the challenge and from that point on we only saw his back and an occasional blur as he blew by people. I do not remember how many M&Ms I owed him, but it was worth it watching him blast up that peak. At the top of that peak I borrowed a cell phone to call my wife just to assure her we were all still alive and doing well.

Wilderness! Treasured! Protected! There to explore like you are the first to set foot on it. Why? Why would we subject ourselves to being that far from civilization and modern conveniences? Why would we risk potential injury and being that far from modern medical services? How can we survive being out of cell phone range? Why would we put ourselves in danger? To those of us who have spent a fair amount of time in the wilderness, these questions do not even apply. The real question is: can we afford not to? 

Did you know that there is a growing body of research that indicates that contact with nature is crucial to human development: to the physical, emotional and spiritual health of individuals? Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods calls the present situation in our society a “Nature Deficit Syndrome.” Children grow up not only with minimal contact with nature, but, at times, a fear of it. Exploring the forests in solitude. Standing on top of a mountain and gazing over miles and miles of virtually untouched wilderness; you cannot measure these kinds of experiences or how they affect the human spirit! These are centering experiences; experiences where one can sense there is something bigger then them, sense one’s place in this vast universe, putting perspective on one’s life and problems. We need them no matter what amount of physical exertion it takes; in fact, we need them partially because of the physical challenge they present! Our psyches need to wonder; we need the joy we can experience in beauty. We need to experience the vastness and raw openness of our world in order to appreciate our place and purpose. We need the physical exertion it takes to enjoy them!

If I were to indulge telling you stories about when I grew up, which of course would be riveting, they would most certainly be predominantly stories about being outdoors with friends: building tree houses, camping out and having a fire, catching snakes and frogs and turtles in the local pond or creek (actually I did not like snakes, my brother caught those), hunting with my dog and BB gun, or minimally playing some sports. Growing up this way, it never dawned on me that it could be different. Of course, there were no video games and TV was still in black and white!  However, in exchange for missing out on all of the day’s more modern forms of entertainment, I knew every turn in the creek, where the frogs would most likely be hiding, which pond could be waded across without going under, where to catch turtles, and which spots in the forest lent the best tree houses. How quickly things have changed. I remember taking a family trip with my own children where, no matter how beautiful the scenery, my youngest son was virtually buried in his Gameboy (yes I know, that’s ancient history). We almost had to force him to occasionally look out the window at something. I should say, however, in case he would read this, that that was also the son who blasted up the 14er seeing how many people he could pass before the top.

I fear that the more we are connected today, the less we are connected – both to each other as well as to nature. When I walk into school, kids are sitting in the hallway playing games on their cell phones or on some social media or texting – totally ignoring the person next to them. Most of the students I work with could not imagine going a day without their cell phones, much less a day without a shower. It seems to me that it is a rather “slippery slope from the real to the virtual . . . from mountains and streams to the matrix!” (Louv).  Video games and social media cannot even begin to shadow the kinds of experiences nature and the wilderness provide that connect us with ourselves, nature and others.  I was looking through a magazine the other day and found an ad. from a California company emphasizing their environmentally-friendly green approach by offering a solar-powered tanning salon. Think about it; a solar-powered tanning salon! How ironic is that? Talk about a slippery slope!

There are more reasons why I think the wilderness is important for us. Here at Rehoboth, I am in charge of the challenge course that we have on campus. Challenge courses sprang up some years ago partially out of the desire to give a wilderness experience in a more controlled and fixed setting as opposed to an expedition setting. In order to create an avenue for training students to facilitate the ropes course, I teach an outdoor leadership class that teaches outdoor skills and culminates with a four-day backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.

One of the perspectives that I try to teach through the outdoor leadership class is a tolerance for adversity. Let’s admit it, we have become soft as a society. We expect things to be easy. We expect to live comfortably with all the necessities and we have little tolerance when that is not the case (maybe not for those who have to deal with Midwest winters!).  Wilderness experiences help build mental strength in the face of difficulties. Carrying 45 pounds of gear on your back, cooking over a small stove outside after a tiring day of hiking, filtering your water before drinking, bathing in 40-degree water, all of these kinds of experience develop the mental stamina it takes to face adversity and not panic.

I remember a backpacking trip with my sons and a group of young people where it rained every day for eleven days straight. Each night we set up tents in the rain and set out clothes either in tents or placed carefully under trees to dry out. Each morning we had a few hours of sunshine where we dried everything as much as we could while we packed up and then took off hiking again in the rain. We were miles from vehicles, from shelter, from any comforts other than what we could create. We learned a ton about dealing with adversity.

My youngest son and I backpacked the highest mountain in the continental US one summer (Mt. Whitney in California) and to get there we drove through Death Valley. We wanted to experience just a little going from the lowest spot in the continental US to the highest spot. In Death Valley, we rolled the windows down on the van and turned off the air conditioning. We wanted to experience the reality of the heat in Death Valley during the summer; it was over 120 degrees. Our technology has taught us that we can simply go through a place like Death Valley in comfort and with ease. We miss something by that. Actually, my son still thinks I am nuts when he talks about that experience. When we arrived to climb Mt. Whitney, we found out that the permits to climb it were sold out because so many people were climbing that day. We also found out the regular trail to climb it was 13 miles long, but half of it was paved! Not our style; too many people and not true wilderness. So, we got a different permit to travel the mountaineering route, which would take us an extra day or two. The mountaineering route, which was empty other than us, included a dicey technical climb up a couloir and a rock ledge that were both exposed climbs and icy and then tops out on Whitney from the back side of the mountain. We had a fantastic experience and the satisfaction of topping out from a totally different direction than any of the others climbers where they could only watch us make the final ascent, wondering where in the world we had come from with full backpacking and climbing gear. What a gift to be able to do that with my son!

We need these kinds of experiences in order to help us create an attitude towards life that sees life as a gift and a celebration.  You know you are alive when your heart is pumping out of your chest as you make the final ascent up a mountain or standing on the edge of a canyon ready to rappel over the edge, or taking a dip in an ice cold mountain stream or as you approach a rapids. We are so conditioned today through media and advertising to look at our lives from a deficit, from what we do not have, wish we had or think we need . . . we are more than consumers! Rather, we can look at life from its abundance, life seen as a gift and a celebration, recognizing that the important things in life are not bought, they are not possessed, they are free and they are given and we can all experience them.  You do not need a huge bank account and you do not need to be an expert. You simply have to get out there and do it and in that we are all equal and equally gifted! The wilderness belongs to you; go enjoy it.

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