There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sense of coming home to our whole terrain. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of wild. That is also where – paradoxically – we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild. Gary Snyder
When traveling to Ethiopia several years ago I didn’t take or read a guidebook. I never did when going to a new place. I didn’t want that experience – I wanted an experience, mine. I didn’t want the best restaurant or place to stay that some random travel writer had pre-lived for me. I didn’t mind missing out on the must-sees and dos. I wanted something real, something authentic, stories of my own to tell. I wanted to feel the place on my skin, to have the dust of the land stick to my sweat. I wanted to stumble upon the best ful for breakfast, not read about where to find it. Time spent traveling with an open heart, leads me to make instinctual decisions as to what to do next, how to adapt and move naturally in a new space. Authentic experience doesn’t manifest itself when one holds expectations or tries too hard. Openness leads to desperate decisions sometimes, like the ones that land you in the back of a random jeep, ducked down under a tarp, to get through a military checkpoint just to shave a few hours off a bus ride. On another occasion, I left my pack with all my belongings at a lone roadside shop in the desert to ease the climb up a cliff to a monastery to see twelfth century carvings. Other times choices are liberating or lucky perhaps – like an unscheduled overnight bus stop ending in an impromptu game of ping pong in the middle of a village with the locals crowded around to see the white guy’s moves. Sickening and unpleasant choices too – like holding Deanne’s hair back above a pool of piss while she puked her guts in the latrines. It is all a part of letting wild be.
Stepping off the trail, literally and metaphorically, offers the opportunity for us to catch some of the deeper nuances of our surroundings. Remembering my times in Ethiopia, that engendered some of the richer, more colorful experiences of my life, I’ve been happy to find myself instinctively applying a similar approach to my ventures into the wild.
The trail is cozy and comforting hugged by huckleberry bushes, under the thick cover of western hemlock, red cedar and douglas-fir. As I follow the path up out of the trees where it fades onto the smooth Skagit gneiss, I think back to my time in Ethiopia. I’m unsure why these memories suddenly pop back into my head; perhaps it’s the liberating act of breaking away from the safe and known, releasing myself from the confines of the trail out into open space. The wind kicks up offering with its bite a reminder that fall is on its way. Black bear bounds up ahead. Pika and marmot stare. White plucked bird feathers are scattered across the heather. Clouds, some wispy, some thick and dark, envelop the Pickets up ahead. In and out, poke the peaks. I remove my shoes to feel the shades of rock on my bare soles – warm, cold, warm, cold – another way of sensing shadow and light. Mosquito settles on my arm, positioning itself to suck my blood. I watch it with interest, letting it indulge. This past month, I’ve slept in my tent only a handful of times preferring instead to spend nights in the open air, tucked into the wholeness of the world around me. Some mornings, I’ll wake with that clammy, uncomfortable feeling of sticky legs when the bag is too hot for the season. Other times, I pull my knees up to my chest to stop the shivers of a night too cool. Life, uncontrived, seems simple yet holds remarquable complexity. Wild is a way of being.