By Kris Norbraten-Duvernay, Women’s Wilderness Climbing Instructor
I grew up in the 80’s. Going outside was not only encouraged but demanded. I swung upside-down in the front yard oak tree; burned twigs in terra cotta pots behind the garage; concocted cologne from mint leaves and hose water; rode my bike smack into a redbud tree; even chucked pecans at passing cars. These were the outside endeavors of a girl growing up in suburban Houston.
It was fortuitous that my parents made enough money to go on family trips but not enough to take fancy vacations. Our car was a dark brown Oldsmobile station wagon with sticky fake leather bench seats and a backwards-facing third row. This was the vehicle we loaded up for family camping trips to the Texas Hill Country and the Arkansas Ozarks, where I discovered my love of forests, rocks, and trails disappearing around the next bend. All of it existed for my exploration. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
When I graduated high school in 1994 I was primed. I’d spent enough years cheering on the sidelines at football games and on stage performing as a dancer. It was time to get dirty. An opportunity to backpack in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado arose; I was in. I got on a Greyhound with a bunch of kids from Houston, Texas to Creede, Colorado for a six-day trip in the Weminuche Wilderness. I’ve never been the same since.
I returned to southwest Colorado several years later to guide trips for high school aged kids, trekking all over the Weminuche, crossing streams, postholing in thigh-deep snow, cresting saddles, peaking 13ers and 14ers. The location was only half of it, though. The other half was watching what happened to the people who came along.
Reflecting back on my time in the Weminuche is why I sought out a field staff position with Women’s Wilderness. It’s a large part of why I believe in what we do. Things happen to people in the wilderness that don’t—that can’t—happen anywhere else. Being in the backcountry offers something to the human body, mind, and spirit that can’t be duplicated in everyday life. When a person leaves normal life behind (just for a while) and enters a wild place, she has the opportunity to come face to face with wonder. She has the opportunity to change in a way that can’t happen anywhere else. This is why going into the wilderness, spending time there, traveling there, sleeping there, be-ing there, is so revelatory.
“Why can’t I just go on a hike?” you might ask yourself, or, “Why can’t I just sit in a cozy cabin and write in my journal?” Here are five answers to the question, “Why wilderness?”
- Silence. Entering the wilderness is an opportunity for true quietude, a rare occurrence we don’t get in everyday life. Every day our ears and brains are filled with noise—traffic, television, phone calls, construction, voices, children, conversations, planes, trains, and automobiles. The cost of living in an industrialized, technologized culture is constant sound. In the backcountry we are allowed to leave the din behind, shocking our senses into silence.
- Self. Even if you go out with a group, going into the wilderness is a true exercise of being alone with yourself. First there is the silence, then there is facing the self. Once everything quiets down, you begin to hear your own voice inside your head. This can be frightening but it can be incredibly refreshing—even empowering. You are given the chance to assume ownership of all things you because, let’s face it, no one else is going to do it—no one else has the supreme benefit. Whatever you find inside yourself—all the darkness and all the light– you get to grab onto it with both hands and take it with you when you leave.
- Solitude. Silence + Self = Solitude. Whether you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or in-between, going into the wilderness is your chance to finally be truly alone. You’ll never get this back home—not in an age of iPhones and Facebook, not when productivity is so highly valued and reflection is so underplayed. You’d better jump on it.
- Sovereignty. Whatever your spiritual worldview, wilderness is a rare window into the Divine. If you take time to look, and have eyes to see, you will find it. Perhaps you believe Nature reigns supreme; perhaps you believe in some version of God; maybe the Self is ultimate; maybe you believe in Nothing; perhaps you don’t know what you believe. Regardless of where you’re coming from, the quiet and self-reflection afforded in the backcountry is an opportunity to explore.
- Sanctuary. Wilderness is a private, safe, beautiful place to reflect, break down, worship, expand, pray, face fears, blow your own mind, and embrace life—whatever it offers. You’ll find a different kind of grandeur outside, built right into mountains, streams, trees, and sky, than you will from anything made by human hands. Wilderness has no walls; it will never speak your secrets.
Silence, Self, Solitude, Sovereignty, and Sanctuary. There is no bedroom, no hallway, no secret hut, no therapist’s office, no book club, no concert, and no rom-com on earth that can fill the gaping void inside the human spirit for the self-discovery that going into the wilderness facilitates– and there is no way to know this truth for sure until you take a risk, venture out, hoist a backpack on, lace up your boots, and go see for yourself.