Seeing “Wild”

“The important thing is to touch the earth and stand in the wind, to know that you are part of the whole — not superimposed, like asphalt.”
                                                                 Gaydell Collier, Leaning Into The Wind

Reese Witherspoon is great in “Wild”, the story of Cheryl Strayed hiking the Pacific Coast Trail and I enjoyed it immensely. Something was missing from the movie, however, and it took me a while to find it. I never sensed the joy, the discovery, of being in the wild.

While never undertaking anything as difficult as hiking the PCT, I’ve done my share of camping and hiking, mostly in the West. What stands out most about my trips, though, is not the incredible views or the pain and hardships, but the sensory overload that comes from being out in nature.

How can you be out there and not worship the night sky? It is magic and mystical beyond anything else I’ve experienced. I camped once with a group of aerospace types, and they saw the night sky differently. I identified the constellations that I knew and searched for shooting stars. They named the satellites, whose they were and what their purpose was (American, Russian, European, Chinese – communications, military).

I remember the smells of pine forest, cedar, sagebrush, rotting leaves or dead things. Desert flowers. The small plants you unintentionally crush while walking. The smell of water near a stream, freshly caught fish. Smoke from the campfires. Hot breakfast, coffee, that summer sausage sweating grease that you can’t wait to eat after three days on the trail. Freeze-dried something or other over the stove (maybe tuna? chicken?) Fresh sweat and body odor. Insect repellent and suntan lotion.

I remember the grit of granitic gravels underfoot. The soft, giving cushion of duff in the forest. The scratchiness of holly or brambles. Various tag-alongs stuck in your socks or pants. Cactus spines and the fine hairs that you almost don’t feel until later. Cold water in mountain streams, tepid water in bogs and sloughs, and hot water in thermal pools. The rush of putting your hot, tired feet into the icy stream. Greasy clothes from food and sweat. Sunburns, sores and blisters. The rough bark of pines, the smooth bark of aspen, making tinder out of cedar bark. Cold air in the crisp morning, the heat of the campfire at night. Sunshine on my shoulders (makes me happy). Hot wind filled with sand (makes me cry). The feel of spiders on the back of my neck, the soft march of a caterpillar across my arm, the bite of a fly or mosquito, and the later itch.

I hear birds and insects. Some calls I know, most are unknown to me. Eagles and Osprey careen across the sky calling out in sheer joy, I imagine. Insects click, rattle, hum and buzz. I’ve heard elk bugle, and something unidentified in the middle of the night that stood my hair on end. Wind, the clicking and whooshing of branches. Rockfall when the temperature shifts. The squeak of very dry snow. Burbling streams, lapping waves, crashing of waterfalls and rapids. Crackling of the campfire and quiet roar of the camp stove. Snoring and coughs from my companions, and occasionally the restrained quiet of sex in the nearby tent.

But there is so much life to encounter. The LGB’s flitting from branch to branch (Little Grey Birds). The Camp Robber swooping in to grab a morsel from your lunch. The Kingfisher working the river, moving from tree to tree. The buzzard hovering overhead, nearly motionless. The salamander in the path near the lake. The frogs invisible until you get too close. The voles, moles and mice tunneling beneath the grass. That snake or lizard that sets my heart racing from some primeval instinct. Interesting beetles or ants carrying out their work oblivious to my attention. All kinds of spiders in their webs awaiting prey (maybe I’ll be next?). Flying insects of all sizes and intent gathering around me, sometimes getting in my eyes or ears, and even breathed in, but not always coughed out. Prairie dogs and pika playing hide and seek. A skittish fox or coyote, wary and secretive. The startled deer crashing away. The more restrained elk moving majestically through the trees. Scampering chipmunks and squirrels, like me, more curious than afraid.

Reese (Cheryl) went on a voyage of self-discovery. I go into the wild anymore to meet nature. In seeing “Wild” I was always seeking that glimpse of nature, the creatures, the smells, sounds and feel of the wild. That may be too much for a movie to offer; I guess it’s time to go back out there, into the wild.

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