"I still can't believe that hike is what revived us," said Micah, reflecting on our first night in Germany. We had been traveling for more than twenty-four hours straight. We stank as any traveller does after being locked in a pressurized cabin and then thrust into city air thick with humidity, exhaust, and cigarette smoke. Before we set our sights on a new land we were packed in like sardines in the customs line. Impatient and increasingly angry people pushed and shoved, cutting in front of us. We missed the bus to get to our train on time. An hour was wasted at the train station in Frankfurt as we struggled to understand why the ticket machine would not take our money. During the train ride to our final destination, we fretted over the fact that we were arriving past our hostel's 10:00 p.m. curfew. It was quite possible we'd arrive and the doors would be locked. We were weary and dehydrated and fully expected to sleep outside that night.
We got off the train in the small town of Bacharach on the Rhine River. A young woman who had gotten off the train with us pointed to the path which led to our hostel. It was a steep fifteen minute climb to the top of a ridge where the 12th century castle turned hostel awaited us. There were no lights on this dirt and stone path. Thorny bushes attacked us from both sides, grabbing on to our backpacks as we stumbled around. And yet our worries and weariness began to fall away as we clambered up a path barely walkable by day and treacherous by night. We were invigorated. "This is what we know," said Micah, laughing as he recounted how our three years in Wyoming had taught us much about navigating wild places. When we arrived at the hostel my feet and Birkenstocks were covered in dirt. My back was drenched with sweat from the twenty-five pound pack on my back. And I felt alive and grateful.
This is what happens every time we go in search of (or stumble upon) wild places. My spirit is revived.
Last week Micah and I attended a screening of the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival in Laramie. The festival celebrates "the indomitable spirit" through a series of short films. One of my favorites told the story of Daniel Norris. He's a Major League pitcher who currently plays for the Detroit Tigers. Though Norris received a $2 million signing bonus he chooses to live in an old VW van he purchased for $10,000. During the off-season Norris takes his van (nicknamed "Shaggy") on the open road in search of wild places. Norris says he likes that when he gets up in the morning he has no idea where he's going and what the day will hold. He lives like this, on $800 a month, because he says its how he finds balance.
The wild places are what helped Norris keep going when his baseball career fell apart before it had even begun, plunging him down in the ranks of the minor leagues. And again when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Balance is having a wild place to return to when worry or weariness take hold. "May you always remember the path that leads back, back to the important places," writes Doug Woodward.
"I think I'd like to raft the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for my 40th birthday," I told Micah. My 40th isn't for another year and a half but I'm already thinking about how to get back to those important places.
"There's a way to celebrate your 40th. By carrying your poop out," said Micah.
He's right. The important places are as real as they are romantic. They revive one's soul precisely because they ground us: in dirt and sky, in bodies of water as well as one's own body. All of the nonessentials of life that fight for our attention and crowd out our joy are stripped away when we return to the important places. What's left is the sound of one's own breath while finding the way in the dark. And the knowledge that no matter what happens, in this moment, you are fully, most essentially alive.