This blog is titled Spirit Mountain Wilds, and I originally named it this because for me I find Spirit in the wildness of the mountains. Wild-ness proclaims unpredictability and lack of control ; wilder-ness connotes alone-ness, at best, or loneli-ness, at worst. The experiences that I crave with Nature are both wildness and wilderness. It is interesting to me that our society’s use of the word wilderness for these Nature experiences instead of the word wildness obfuscates the fact that the wilderness is wild, that bears will kill you, that mountain lions will stalk you, that wild buffalo are not Black Angus. As a society we prefer our wilderness less spicy.
Wilderness is risky business no matter what wildness you are experiencing. You have only yourself to rely on If you lose your way in the mountain. It is a sign of decay in our society that people head into the wilderness with only a cell phone and expect that Search and Rescue will come running to lift them from any danger they may have gotten themselves into. If you do not prepare with adequate clothing, water, food and a means of orienting yourself and if you cannot rely on your inner senses, or if you ignore what both fact and intuition communicate, you can die.
The news locally concerns a plane crash in the mountains of eastern Washington state. A Montana couple in their 60’s were flying their 16 year-old granddaughter home to California after a visit. The plane crashed into a mountain. We now know that the granddaughter was the only survivor of the crash. She was skilled enough in wilderness survival that in spite of burns and other injuries she was able to walk out from the crash to the road and get help. It took her three days alone in the wildness of the Washington mountains to be able to get to safety. It took Search and Rescue another day or two to find the site and the bodies of her grandparents. I do not know what her intuition told her, but what she did was correct – heading down until she found a stream, following the stream until she found a trail, following the trail until she found a road.
Wilderness is about the unexpected. You are never sure what you will find as you tread your way deeper and deeper into it. Who or what will you meet? What will be asked of you in the next moment? How will you meet the challenges? What will impress you? These same thoughts and questions appear again and again in encounters with wilderness but also in encounters with disease. Where this journey takes you neither the medical team nor loved ones can accompany; you must face this wilderness alone. In my life, dealing with an ultimately terminal cancer presents many encounters with wildness amid many late nights wandering the soul’s wilderness. Some days the wildness of the disease and our lonely passionate tango are overwhelming.
When I used to hike in the wilderness I came up against my limits, both in terms of technical skill and fitness. Preparing to go hiking or camping involved assessing my capabilities and weaknesses, anticipating the risks, planning methods of handling them (bear spray, compass, water purifiers, broken-in boots), and making sure that others knew where I was going and when I would return. For me prudence involved not going into the wilderness alone, having someone watch my back as I watched theirs. Other questions involved whether I was well matched for the venture ahead; the characteristics of the trail (length, elevation gained and lost), the life cycles of the indigenous wildlife .(are the bears just waking up and hungry), and other self-reflections.
With cancer only a bit of information is known, just enough to be frightening but not enough to prepare, and coming to terms with the fear is the first and foremost task. I find that the fear mutates just as the cancer does over time. I cannot prepare for its wilds in the same way. I can attend to my spiritual life and strengthen my spiritual muscle, I can assemble a group for social support, i can encourage loved ones to communicate openly and honestly about their fear, I can learn the general behavior of the disease. I can do all of this but what I cannot do is project a model of my behavior onto the mix because, unlike hiking, kayaking, and other myriad wilderness activities, I don’t know exactly what the disease will do to me (losses in function, quality of life, etc.) and I don’t know how to die.
This wilderness is very lonely and disorienting. No matter how successfully I may manage one challenge, there are six others right behind it that I have never seen before. No time for self-congratulation, I only have time to throw myself at the next challenge. I don’t know what I am doing other than facing each one, and sometimes I don’t even do that well.
Two years ago I was visiting friends in the U.K. and France. The trip had been hard and not fun. When I returned home I learned why: my heart was failing (thanks to chemotherapy) and my tumors had grown so large that they pressed on the nerves in my chest and paralyzed both my vocal cords (I couldn’t breathe) and my stomach (I could not digest food) along with a few other less threatening issues. It took the better part of two years before I started feeling better. While I may be feeling better the permanent toll of this on my body is that I feel I have aged at least 10 years. I am now considered ¨medically fragile¨ (look it up, it’s a thing). My doctors do not want me to travel any more.
This experience was wild, uncontrolled, and existentially threatening. I don’t know how to be an old person, which is what I have become almost overnight. The landscape is very lonely and only I can make it better by wrestling with the demons and listening to the silence. My world has gotten so small and there is no way to fight my way out. As in Nature’s wild- and wilder-ness, I have to rely on my intuition and feel my way along the trail until I come to terms with it all. I trust the wilderness. It is scary and uncomfortable but history has shown me that it is also worth knowing.