“You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature.” -John Muir
It is no secret that John Muir inspires me to no end. While my love of nature and being in the wild places has done more to heal and calm my soul than any other aspect of my life, Mister Muir made it his religion. Every time I step into the woods, I lose connectivity with not only my cell service provider, but with the likes of the modern world. What wild refuge would John Muir have found in today’s endless series of hashtags, shopping centers, gluten-free water, and email? What would his sermons be in this year’s existence?
“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul” - John Muir
I did just that, this past weekend. Leaving Sarah and Shelby behind on Friday, I drove to West Virginia, arriving on a mountaintop in the clear, moonlit chill. After a brief call to Sarah to inform her of my safe arrival, I turned my phone off and retired to sleep in the truck, with the next day’s sauntering eagerly awaited.
“I don't like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not 'hike!' Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It's a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, 'A la sainte terre', 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them.” - John Muir
The morning light had me up and moving, with a quick text to Sarah (again, to let her know of my current state of “alive”), and then...airplane mode. From that point, I was not connected to the outside world, and it was glorious. I would not have service anyway within 300 yards of the old dirt forest road I was parked on. I knew that this would be much, much more stressful on Sarah than I, for I was connected to no one, and everything. She had to allow her uncertainty to be background noise, when all it screamed for was the forefront of her mind. For my part, the uncertainty of the back-of-beyond is welcoming.
I am aware of my humanity much more so when it is all I have to rely upon. I needn't worry about a printer being down, or an unpaid bill, or even christmas gifts when there are hypothermia, ankle sprains, and bears to be aware of. When there are mountains, all of my “things” seem inconsequential. This, unfortunately, is something that I am not sure that many understand. Death itself is simply another beautiful part of nature. Only when I am in the rarified air of the mountains do I ever think to myself “What a wonderful place to die”, which, by that very reasoning, ensures that I want to live to experience more of it.
“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” -John Muir
My senses, my faculties, are all in eruption when I am alone in a spruce grove. The simple smells of the trees and earthy decay, the taste of natural water, the sights of clear air and mossy boulders, the babbling sounds of both creek and red squirrel, and the feel of crisp, slow breeze against my skin, contrasted with the concentrated warmth of a small fire. My widowhood slips away. I accept Megan’s death for what it is...death...no different than an old, dead river birch lying on the cold, damp ground, covered in fungus. It is beautiful, and gives back to the world what it has taken in life so that others may live on. It leaves just as important a legacy as Megan did, given the surroundings. She is with me there, just as she always was. As are Sarah and Shelby. Physically present? No. In my soul? Of course.
Though perhaps not as carefree and fervent as Muir, the woods are my cathedral. They are the place I go for respite and confession. They are a place of worship and love and faith. Faith in my abilities to live on this earth. Love of those left behind, and wishing they could share in this experience, while knowing that their very absence is what kindles this love more strongly. Worship of the fact that the tree I am leaning against has stood silently and still for one hundred years, through fires, floods, and blizzards, yet travelled much, much further than me.
“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God's wild fields, we find more than we seek.” -John Muir
I sought only a trip to the mountains, a small campfire, and some morning coffee in the woods. I found, as I always do, that each and every thing in nature, including myself, is part of a system. Nothing is fated, yet nothing is mere luck. Death will always occur, as it has for eons, as will life. The only questions are “when” and “how”. I find that mud on my boots and scratches on my hands are not “ugly” or “painful”, but stories. I find that those we’ve lost are themselves stories, whether it be the love story of a couple, or the story of a storm that knocked an old tree to the ground. How I would have loved to read that story as it was written.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” -John Muir
Being disconnected from the world only connects me into it. I think of Sarah, knowing her past experience with losing Drew, and momentarily regretting that I cannot send an “I’m OK” message to her to sate any discomfort (to say the least) she may have. That thought passes quickly, followed up with the knowledge that it is better for me to actually BE OK than to send a series of ones and zeros through satellites and wires, focusing more on being in the world than telling the world I’m in it. I think of Shelby, not there with me to climb around on the boulders or play in the creek with me. I think of Megan, enjoying that she is now part of this air, land, and water that surrounds me like she never could be before.
I think of John Muir even. He never sauntered in the West Virginia mountains to my knowledge, but I think he may enjoy sitting by the fire with me, preaching how he did not read any of these observances in a book or have a map. He experienced them firsthand and for himself, learning, loving, and delivering “sermons” on what he saw as home.
So do I.
“The sun shines not on us but in us.” -John Muir