In The Absence of Courage

I take an annual retreat into the wilderness alone. This experience has been something I have craved and looked forward to for the past 20 years or so I have been heading into the wilderness of New Mexico and southern Colorado. These moments have been precious and allowed me to reinvigorate my heart and mind. I typically choose a meditation for the retreat and try to stick with that approach for the days I am alone…it has been a remarkable series of experiences. On this trip, I chose the teachings related in the book Enlightened Courage by Dilgo Khyentse.

With plans in place, this year turned out to be quite different. As I began my preparations doubt creeped into my mind. I felt a sense of fear and trepidation as I worked through my checklist of things I had to carry. My list was short and my pack relatively light for such an excursion; nevertheless, a sense of dread filled my mind as the day came closer to depart. I was, as I would come to discover, not ready for this experience.

One aspect of a solo retreat or solo backpacking trip is to get your mind ready for being completely alone; or, rather, completely away from people. It’s a misconception that you will be alone on a solo journey. You bring your entire life with you; family, friends, enemies, fantasies, positive and negative thoughts, and, in fact, every single thing you have ever imagined. It’s all with you. You are, in fact, not alone at all.

My mind was crazy in those days leading up to the trip, and I knew I was struggling. I saidto myself, “it’s just the nerves of being in the wilderness, alone, nothing more…” Those words filled my mind as I pushed aside the thoughts and emotions I faced.

Driving to the Trailhead

The four hour drive was uneventful, but in retrospect I made some bad choices that enhanced my crazy mind. I eat a vegan diet and have done so for the past few years; on my drive I made a bad food choice, eating some food I normally would not have eaten. The thing is, sticking to a plan, staying disciplined and focused is one KEY to doing well on a solo retreat. Allowing for the possibility of change and unexpected events is FINE…making bad choices is, actually, not the best way to go…so, when I ate the vegan tacos that were fried in corn oil, it hit me hard; my stomach was queasy and I felt gross.

This one errant choice made a big difference in my experience. I had stomach pains that lasted for a couple of days….it made my mind spin into a crazy place…too, that one choice kept me from getting into that deep place of meditation, constantly distracting me and keeping me unsettled.

As I approached the trailhead, I knew that a solo trip was probably not the best idea. I stopped at a couple of campgrounds to find a place to camp. On this Thursday afternoon, sites were available AND they only took cash. Since I had only $10 for the trip, owning to my current state of financial difficulty, I could not reserve a site. I reluctantly decided to press on.

At the Trailhead

The hike I planned is one I know. The well-trod trail leads into the heart of the South San Juan Wilderness. Almost entirely lined with Aspen, Pine, and Spruce, the path is as close to an idyllic Rocky Mountain hike as any I have ever seen. Wandering along Elk Creek, the way leads to high country meadows in this part of the San Juans. The creek meanders and rushes through the canyons and its sound is never far from the hiker’s ear. That pleasing and melodic sound I craved, and as I packed my pack for the final time, I felt a slight sense of relief. As I would discover, the feeling of calm was fleeting.

Distracted by packing and checking my gear, I filled my water bottles for the last time. The parking area was filled with day hikers, I imagined, and that gave me some comfort. I donned my pack, or rather lifted the beast on to my back, fifty some odd pounds of clothing, food, shelter, and water. I was off.

On The Trail

The hike along Elk Creek, as I mentioned, is idyllic. I signed into the trail log and found just one other group headed West into the wilderness. They were hours in front of me and I knew I would not see that group on the trail. I was, as it turned out, alone as I walked into the wilderness.

The bridge across Elk Creek begins the journey..remember to turn left!

A solo backpacking trip is a singular event in one’s life. (Pun not intended) Most folks that I know are either astounded or horrified that anyone would travel alone into the wilderness. The most common comment is “what about bears?” I’ve heard and seen many bears in my travels; not one could give a rat’s ass about my presence in the backcountry. The snorts of a bear around a campsite are not an uncommon experience. One night I opened my tent to the sound and flashed my headlamp at a decent sized bear. The animal looked at me from about ten feet way and then went back to snorting around the area. Bears are the least of a backpacker’s worry (at least in the lower 48).

The second most common comment is “what about mountain lions or cougars?” Now that one animal does give me pause. Mountain lions, unlike bears, are on the prowl for a live meal. In the Southwest, a reader can find plenty of stories of mountain lion encounters with humans. At the same time, those encounters, when put into the context of ALL encounters with animals and humans, is a very very tiny fraction of catastrophic events in the backcountry.

The truth is that the most common experience and danger for a backpacker is their reaction to changing climate conditions and terrain. Simply put, our own choices are the real danger. On many occasions I’ve gone through rain storms, snow storms, wind storms, and on and on. I’ve shivered my way through a night, using emergency blankets to warm me when snow and temperatures have fallen. I’ve had to wake in the night to warm water for students in the midst of hypothermic reactions, and have aided folks with broken arms, legs, toes, and fingers. Burns from cooking are also common incidents in the backcountry as people are bold about their expertise at creating and maintaining a fire. I cannot count the number of people I have helped who have burned themselves on a backpacking stove or at a fire! The real danger, as it turns out, is ourselves.

As I made my way on the Elk Creek Trail headed West, I listened to the sound of the creek, found solace in the breeze, and reveled in the delicate motion and sound of Aspen leaves. I paused, occasionally, and simply watched the leaves flutter in the breeze. The feeling of serenity that came was fleeting and welcome.

About 1/2 of a mile into the hike, my daughter’s bandana around my neck as a talisman

The Elk Creek First Meadow

After exactly 3.06 miles I descended into the meadow to locate a site for the night. At the far end of the first meadow on Elk Creek is a cluster of Aspens and Spruce. In those trees I searched for a site. As I wandered the small area, came through a tight copse of trees to see a line of Alpacas. A small group with two HUGE tents were camped in an open area, the first time in all my experiences I found fellow campers. I exchanged pleasantries with their trip leader and searched for a more distant site. About 300 yards away, to the East of the meadow, I found a spot along the creek….a downed log between two trees made for a perfect resting spot and a small open area, just enough for a tent, allowed me to pitch the tiny (and LIGHT WEIGHT) backpacking tent. I found my spot.

MSR Hubba Hubba NX placed in the perfect spot

In past years, the good luck of finding a new camping spot with a perfect place to prepare food would have made my heart sing. On this night, a sense of dread creeped into my mind. Slowly, gradually, painfully I felt a real sense of despair.

On these kinds of excursions, we take with us exactly what is on our backs and in our minds and bodies. If we bring a distracted and terror-laden mind, those feelings will grow and spread. If you bring in a sore ankle or knee, a pounding headache those physical traumas will become overwhelming.

In my distracted state, I prepared my food, a new backpacking meal from Patagonia Provisions. The food was exceptional (and vegan). At the same time, my stomach pains resumed from the earlier meal, and while the food provided some sustenance, it added to my unrest as that queasy feeling overcame me.

After I ate, I wandered the meadow, pushing back my crazy mind with photography. As the sun went down, I captured the place as best as I could…

Elk Creek, First Meadow, an evening in the South San Juans

I walked back to my campsite and sat down with the intention of mediation. This first night in the backcountry was going to be one I will always remember.

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