Thursday, August 1, 2019


For some of us, it wasn’t our first time in a wilderness area. For others, it was all firsts. The plan
this time was for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a million acres of forest, rivers, and lakes left behind after the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet 17,000 years ago. 

Last year, it was fathers and sons in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. This summer was husbands and wives in northeast Minnesota. 

The BWCA and The Bob each cover a million acres, and they’re two of 765 designated wilderness areas in the United States, totaling almost 110 million acres. When the Wilderness Act of 1964 set it all up, it defined these areas as:
“...lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, that retains its primeval character, that provides opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of experience.”

Land primeval? Life untrammeled? Solitude? Unconfined? Where do I sign?

We each have our own reasons for wanting to see wild places. The fishing, maybe. Or the traversing of a rough landscape and knowing that you’re not just stepping out of a tour bus at a scenic overlook. These things you're seeing, you have to work for them.

Some of us, it’s the camp experience we look forward to. And why not? We’ve been human and on the plains and around fires for 200,000 years. Cities only showed up about 9,000 years ago. Chicago wasn’t even incorporated until 1837. Evolutionarily, we’re creatures of the woods and the waters, not of concrete. Why wouldn't we feel at home here?

Me, I look forward to the quiet. I want to say “the silence,” but I’ve never heard silence. 

As I sit here at my desk in Indiana, I hear the sump pump kick on. Through my open window, a boisterous toddler yodels three doors down. Hammering from construction on the other side of the neighborhood. A truck, jake-braking on the interstate a mile distant.

There was none of that last week, our second morning in the BWCA, when I crawled out of our tent at 04:45. “Where are you going?” Jill asked, sleepy.

“Watch the light come up.”

At the edge of South Temperance Lake, I sat on bedrock scraped bare by a glacier 20 millennia ago. Night gave way and jack pines and birch materialized out of the mist. It was like piecing together a dream: images emerging slowly, in fragments that come together to form something whole.

I was here, too, for what solitude and silence I could find. In The Singing Wilderness, Sig Olson wrote:

“Over all was the silence of the wilderness, that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes.”

I listen with my inward ears, but I’ve never found complete silence. 

Always, just in front of what must be the true silence, there are subtle sounds. My breath. I can hear my blood moving, a rhythmic whoosh. Then a background hum that must be the chorus of cells singing as they conduct their tiny bits of current. This was as quiet as it would get, so I listened and watched the light come up.

There’s a peace in solitude, and I sat at the water’s edge before dawn. I thought about where I was this time last year: on the road to Montana to meet the boys in the Bob Marshall. I was taking a break from driving, outside a coffee shop near Boulder with my head down in my notebook. I was aware of the light feeling that goes with having no responsibilities, other than to be in northwest Montana two days from now.

I started scribbling notes. Updating my time and distance calculations. Culling my gear list to get my pack as light as I could. How we’d be walking on the

spine of the continent. The gift of having land where you can walk and nobody can say you can’t be there. Thoughts about scales of time – our 90 years, a tree’s 500 years, a mountain’s 500 million.

The words were coming, and I was writing something about “solitude”: how we can hear things that we can’t hear when the air is full of busyness and distraction. I looked up as a four-year-old girl exited the coffee shop ahead of her father. She marched in a dress covered with pink Minnie and Mickey Mouses. In her hand, a single straw, which she held aloft like a ceremonial scepter.

Her pace slowed and she looked over at me. She stabbed her scepter in my direction. “Who is THAT MAN?“ she demanded.

I looked past the girl to her father, who was balancing a tray of Starbucks frappucinos.

“Who is what man?“ he responded. He looked at me and gave me the once-over. He looked back to his daughter and I heard him say, “Just a man. Doing his work.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her. I looked down at my notebook with its pages filling up and the top of the next page titled, “Solitude.“

Yes, I thought. I was doing my work. I am doing my work.

The girl climbed into the family minivan while her father distributed the vanilla fraps. Solitude is good, I thought. But little interruptions can be okay, too.

1 comment:

Josh Lanier said...

Beautiful piece, Joe. So glad you had this adventure, and exceedingly glad you shared it with us, your readers, here.