Let's be honest. We all want to know everything. As a species, we are gifted, or perhaps burdened with the ability and curiosity to seek answers. To understand something to the fullest extent, to know the ins and outs of a subject, to ascend to levels of expertise, are ends held in high regard. It is a way to separate our identity from others, and to make us feel special. It benefits our lives and our society. It makes us comfortable, and provides us with the feeling of security. Whatever the reason, it is a commanding force in the lives of many, but as the famous philosopher, Socrates, once said, " Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."
There are few things as gratifying as understanding, especially in wilderness. To finally feel at home in a particular mountain range or river system, to understand the geographical relation of landmarks, to feel at ease traipsing across a wild land, with no map in hand, is profound. Its prospect is one that keeps me returning to certain areas, time and again. These wild polygons of rock and water ,stand as puzzles, as collections of potential adventures, that haunt the imagination. Each area, has its own colors, its own shapes, its own characters, and its own voices, that slowly blend together to form an identity. Sure, you can study a map and survey a mountain range, read its scale, notice its drainages, and repeat the named features in your head until they become legend. Maps are springboards for the imagination, to be certain. Hours spent scouring contour lines lead to dreams of personal adventure and discovery, but for me, that’s where their significance halt.. You cannot know a place by simply referring to its two dimensional representation. Days, months, and years spent poking around in its creek beds, scaling its peaks, traversing its meadows, sleeping under its canopies, and veering away from the established trails are what lead to that end.
There to the North, were the Six Lakes, nestled amongst crumbling buttresses. To the West I could follow Packsaddle Pass, as it poured over pyramid ridge and into the granite creek drainage. There it hooked south around the grace that is Antoinette peak. To the East, from whence I had traveled, i watched the source of the Gros Ventre tumble down past sentinels of red sandstone, flowing furiously until the mighty Wind River mountains were pushed high into the clouds. I knew where I was. My familiarity with the land in each direction gave me comfort and satisfaction, even as a cold rain began to accompany the wind. This was the final piece to a puzzle that I had been consolidating for years.
Breathing deeply of the wild wind, the shivers of accomplishment unexpectedly began turning to ones of despair and nervous realization. I knew where everything was. The mystery had vanished. Despite being hidden by layers of broad massifs and fine ridge lines, I was certain that a highway bisected the distant valley to the south. I was sure that at the bottom of that creek-bed to the west, bustled a gawking population of tourists and shoppers. The endless, virgin vistas were, in reality, fragmented, stressed, and shrinking. There, in some of the wildest country in the continental United States, I didn’t feel so small anymore. I had Unknowingly, upon reaching the summit, verified a deep fear… The world was shrinking.
Wilderness is more than trees and water and animals. It is concocted in the imagination. It is a state of the mind. To feel small, to feel insignificant, to feel overwhelmed by remoteness and terrain allows for the construction of "wilderness" in our psyche. I realized, at that moment on the ridge, that to be in the wilderness is to be in the unfamiliar. Without that trace of uncertainty, discomfort, or sublime wonder, the wildness of a place is diminished.Such a torrent of bittersweet thought was brought to an abrupt end when the weather turned for the worse. Quickly the mountain and I, were consumed by the forboding cloud. An icy rain and wind began to thrash, and a deep rumble rolled… It was time to go. Hastily I made my way down the slippery scree flanks of the mountain and into a steep, forested draw of White Bark Pine. As harsh as the storm seemed, I knew it would pass on swiftly, as the late-summer storms do. I decided to hunker-down and wait it out. Opening my by backpack to retrieve an additional layer of warmth, my thoughts raced. There I was, back on the edge of discomfort. I was getting cold. I was damp. I could no longer tell precisly where I was in relation to the mountain. Simutaneoulsy, I was being cradled by the peace of a primeval forest in which I had never trespassed. Though minuscule in area, it was unlike the surroundings timber. It was a refuge from the tumultuous weather. It was a protected pocket, hidden between ledge and root, softened by a thick bed of moss, and looking out to sprawling willow flats, and the source of an alpine river. I again, was in wilderness.
These days, I continue to pour over maps, explore new terrain, and attempt to better understand the places that I venture. I still cherish the feeling of knowing and learning a landscape, but it’s no longer about having an end goal. As important as it may be to focus on a place and understand it, it is also important to realize the health of perpetuating a sense of wonder and curiosity. One can always refocus their lens, look closer at a landscape, and observere its intricacies further. The real achievement, is not to simply to “figure it out,” but instead to walk that ridge-line between knowing and wondering, to pay most attention to where one is and just enough attention to where one isn’t.