The Most Valuable Lessons

It’s funny what turned out to really be valuable on my trip. After all the planning and training and classes, the single thing that was the biggest help was something I learned in rock climbing. No, it wasn’t the Figure Eight knot, which did come in handy, and god knows we used carabiners all the time – even to attach the first aid kit to the raft. It was something completely different and unexpected.

It was positive thinking.

During the course, I was two-thirds of the way up the rock face, hanging on for dear life with the tips of all ten fingers and the inside edges of both big toes, looking incredulously at the only possible place to put my foot next – a razor-thin sliver of granite above me at an impossible distance and over to my right at an impossible angle. There was no way I could do it. Not even close. Then the instructor hollered up at me.

“Sally. Hey, Sally! Look at me!”

Tired of looking longingly at the unattainable ledge while my hands started to cramp, I glanced down at him, just a little bit irritated.

Once we made eye contact, he said “Do THIS!”

He wasn’t pantomiming some slick maneuver that only the professionals know. He was exaggeratedly nodding his head up-and down, up-and down. The international symbol for “yes.”

I felt my head start to nod in response, and before I had turned all the way back to the rock face, my foot had swung over onto the miniscule ledge and I was lifting myself up to new heights.

The moral of the story: Don’t psyche yourself out.

Time and again, when faced with yet another something I had never done before on the drive and in the Refuge, I would think “OK, Sal, you can do this,” and I would nod my head up-and-down, up-and-down.

Sure enough, I would find the courage to turn Daisy into the intimidating campground full of RVs and persevere until I found the perfect, quiet tent spot nestled into the trees. In the Refuge, instead of staying down along the river close to camp, I would nod my head and find myself clipping the bear spray onto my pack and heading off into the unknown, telling the others “I’ll be back before the sun slides behind that peak” because “I’ll be home before dark” doesn’t work when the sun doesn’t set.

With my new-found confidence, I would simply stand up when the time seemed right, when the angled light would illuminate a far outcropping and compel me to see for myself what, exactly, the next valley contained. I didn’t pull out a map; I just put one foot in front of the other cross-country, following my nose and my intuition, nodding when necessary to reaffirm my resolve.

Every once and a while I would amble along a caribou trail worn deep into the tundra or step gingerly along the narrow, light-colored lines drawn in the steep mountain scree by the hooves of passing sheep. I found that there is magic in walking an animal trail. It puts you in intimate contact with the land through which you walk; it enables you to imagine the world from the animal’s point of view, identifying the sources of food, shelter, and safety as they would have done.

After I had hopped my way over dry tundra hillocks that strangled my ankles, floated my way over saturated tundra sponges that swallowed my boots and filled them with water, and scrambled up tumbled shale to the outcropping that had called to me, I would find a place to sit on a boulder etched with black, white, orange, and yellow lichen hieroglyphs and catch my breath.

That is when I would feel it, a tug at my chest as real as if a rope had been tied to my sternum, the other end of which was buried deep in the bedrock. I would rest there, invisibly but viscerally tethered, being pulled along by the rotation of the earth.

I have felt lesser versions of this before, but in the Refuge, the feeling was all-encompassing, intense and immediate.

And I have finally decided why that was.

It was another lesson that came as a surprise: what a profound difference it made that the Refuge wasn’t embossed with the imprints of man’s dominion. There are no trails, no signs, no names on most of the peaks and passes. Those things keep you separate, keep you looking at the world through the lens of a civilized human being in a definable, controllable landscape.

In my previous experience, even when I was hiking cross-country far inside the wilderness of the Sierras, I always thought of myself in relation to the trail I had diverted from or the road I would cross if I kept walking. But in the Refuge, I could not think of myself in relation to anything human; I could only think of myself in relation to the natural world that had ahold of me.

Without the distortion of the lens, I was able to see that I was not actually an individual standing on top of the landscape, observing it. I was able to see that I was a part of the landscape, participating in it. How it felt to me was that my atoms had lost their cohesion. Instead of remaining separate from the world around me, my atoms dispersed into it. I was gifted with the absolute understanding that I am an integral part of an infinite whole.

Had I not nodded my head and found the courage to walk off into solitude and sit in stillness so that I could sense my atoms consorting with those of the earth, water, and sky, I may never have had this insight. I may never have heard Mother Nature hollering: “Hey, Sally! Look at me!”

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