A visit to the actual wilderness

This weekend I went hiking in the wilderness with my wife and two oldest kids. My friends in the UK should understand that the state of Idaho is actually larger than England (if you don’t count Scotland) even though it has only 2 million people instead of 50+. Several large swaths of it are still true wilderness. Not a single soul lives there for miles and miles – not a single cabin. Into the edge of this we walked this weekend. Despite many camping trips as a child (and as an adult) this was the first time I had been on a very long walk from the nearest road and hours from the nearest power-line. My wife dreams of exploring these kinds of places. I listen to her stories.

Sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste.

Saw: Untouched rivers and many trees touched by fire and lightning without intervention. The sun moving slowly across the sky, the shadow of the mountain serving as a dial. Fish jumping, a muskrat mooching from our campsite, tiny birds with long beaks hopping. My family from many angles as I climbed the rocks on the opposite shore. And everywhere stinging insects – yellow with black stripes, black with yellow stripes, and some with a proper fifty-fifty mix of black and yellow.

Heard: The river’s unending din, louder and more steady than any freeway. The sizzle of driftwood lit to heat coffee in an old tin can. My own footsteps across the clanky river rocks – no ninja walking possible.

Touched: Stung by wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and bees. Bitten by strange flies of mythic proportions. In my food, in my eyelashes, in my daughter’s hair, in my sons blood stream making his hands and fingers inflate. But also the breeze on my face, the unhindered starlight on my skin at 2:00 AM.

Smelled: The freshness of the trees, the foreboding of rain down the canyon, the arrival of rain on the sand bar. The chicken soup my wife made and served in collapsible bowls before we all collapsed ourselves. Where is the soap, the scents, the engine exhaust? Smells in nature are spread wide and thin. It is man who collects and synthesizes and refines them, exploding some and covering up others. The rain and smoke mellows them all fast.

Tasted: Wild berries and not-so-wild nuts. Fresh water straight from the river. The bug that flew into my mouth. The cookies I stashed in my pocket.

I also read, my back propped against a mossy rock, several chapters of Jamie’s Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. I couldn’t help but realize that all of the “cultural liturgies” he analyzes – the shopping mall, the sports stadium, and the university only exist in the large city. Only the most distant rumors of these things have been heard of here deep in the sticks. Here, in the U.S., we are all familiar with these institutions because we can drive to them with our cars, even if we live on the edge of the wilderness. In Ethiopia (for example), there are 80 million people but about 63 million of those are rural and may never visit a mall or stadium, much less a university. It just makes me realize how the book is only valuable in a specific context. It has great ideas in it, but if one was going to translate it into Amharic or Oromo, at least half the book would need to be completely scrapped. How many other books do we have like that and don’t realize it?

Anyway, back to the wilderness. I’m sure I’ll go back again. It was a nice contrast to the bustle of Seattle the previous weekend. Both were a nice contrast to the daily rhythms of the office. I’m glad my wife can introduce me and the children to its beauty. I would be but a poor spokesman myself.