After we pass a dilapidated ranch two dogs run onto the road to greet us, happy Labs smeared with mud and shit, their tongues dragging on the ground. Up to mischief, no doubt about it. Chasing, digging, rolling, chewing, barking. Dogs free to be dogs. No doubt it’s dangerous being a dog in this wild country, what with the occasional wolf, mountain lion, wolverine, and packs of coyotes passing through. But then danger is the price of freedom- even dogs know it and think it’s worth it. Freedom is always dangerous, and perhaps the most important is the freedom to make mistakes and endure the responsibility of your mistakes. “Wild and free,” we say, knowing full well they go together even as we slither into our layers of security.
Jack Turner, Travels in the Greater Yellowstone-
GRANITE CREEK. I want to look at a different association of two words: danger and escape. Instead of escaping from a burning building, how do we accept a bit of danger as we escape a dull existence? Doug Peacock, a combat medic in the Vietnam War, escaped by studying and living among grizzly bears as he roamed greater Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. My escape needs are not so acute but are none-the-less real.
Three favorite mountain escapes are to the Gros Venture, Absaroka, and Teton Mountains. There is danger in this grizzled-infested area where a spread had has room to wiggle inside the print from a 700 pound omnivore, where when looping back on a trail huge tracks appeared that had not been present five minutes earlier, and where the size of scat on the trail gives new meaning to where does a bear shit-in-the-woods? Here, senses become sharper, creating an acute awareness of one’s immediate surroundings.
While this elevated awareness is generally true, it has a number of odd twists and turns that defy sweeping generalizations. A recent critter-in-the-vicinity encounter left me in the dark while Berk on the other hand went nuts. In his mind something was amiss just outside our Granite Creek camp located miles from anywhere between Jackson and Pinedale, Wyoming. The something whose presence Berk detected appeared to be limited to our immediate campsite. During the weekend much of the time, Berk acted as normal as he is capable of behaving. But at other times he seamed truly whacked, prancing around as if a demon possessed him.
“Come on Berk talk to me about what is going on”, I say trying to initiate a meaningful conversation. “I’ve got nothing to say, besides I don’t want to scare you”, was the standard reply to this and other questions. On a couple of occasions Berk adds, “Let’s go on a hike away from camp; I’ll feel better.”
We hike. Sometimes our destination is a short walk away from our campsite down to Granite Creek but on Sunday morning we are out about four hours. All of our weekend hikes were relaxed and uneventful. Berk’s behavior grew more and more puzzling to me; I continued to badger him with the same questions. Was I missing one or more danger signs? Was Berk simply in one of his moods? Regardless of this yin and yang coexistence, we enjoyed our beautiful environment being at peace outside of camp.
Whatever was or was not going on at our Granite Creek camp Berk’s expertise is not something to dismiss lightly. One illustration is what almost happened when he was not present. Years earlier outside of Yellowstone National Park, I came too close to a cinnamon colored bear feeding on a carcass, about twenty yards away. Fortunately all that I saw was its rear end running away. Thank goodness. Without Berk’s uncanny knowledge of what was going on in the next club of trees, I allowed myself and others to walk into a potentially very dangerous situation.
In remote grizzly territory, help is a long distance luxury; self sufficiency is everything. While this may seem scary or at least a major drawback, it’s actually a positive and part of the reason we explore isolated wildernesses.
Camps like like the one on Granite Creek represent escape from a rather dull everyday existence, a feeling of being adrift in irrelevance. With the natural world, especially with the potential of meeting a bear on the trail or far more frequently when it is not life threatening, ya just never know what wonders will be revealed. Just days before our Granite Creek camp, I marveled in the discovery of a single needle pinyon pine at Great Basin National Park. Excitement burst through when a forest service ranger confirmed this radical departure from my package pine or multiple needles rule used to differentiate a pine tree from a spruce or fir.
The natural world is a personal space where my surroundings are more acute. I hear the soft wind blowing through the quaking aspens as well as distant birds. The mating call of a ruffed-leg grouse is a thump-thump-thump as the male stands on a downed tree vigorously flapping his wings. A weekend backpacking trip in the Gros Venture’s put my stress-free nature philosophy to an interesting test. At dusk and again in the morning I heard a distant grouse in the late spring soliciting any and all females. It was beautiful to be tuned into the grouse’s matting ritual, taking it for what it was, not what it might be. Nighthawks while camped in the Teton’s one night grabbed Mary’s attention. “No honey what you are hearing is a nighthawk, not something moving through the trees on the meadow’s far side.” Being comfortable allows me to be enriched.
Like Mary’s overreaction, I have been near panic when the unknown was allowed to create fear. On another hike in the Absaroka’s something moving through the trees just ahead, in my mind, was not a beautiful and mystical creature to be revealed. To me it was a danger warning. I reached for the bear spray. Berk objected, but was overruled as I walked away from him to prime the new canister. Even on a calm morning with just the smallest amount of bear spray drifting towards us, our eyes stung! “I told you this would happen but you just wouldn’t listen. You should be ashamed how you overreacted to an elk moving through the forest.” Berk’s comment was short and sweet, cutting to the core. Because of my insecurity, it took several hours for our good karma to return. If I had only known that several years later at Granite Creek Berk would be hunkering down under the camp table …
Visually I have an advantage over Berk, who ought to be declared legally almost blind. In my elevated state, visual details of wildflowers are more vivid. The paintbrush flowers are a bit more brilliant with their red-orange color, yarrow’s lacy look is more intimate, the asters remain intense deeper into the fall, and the circumstances of bright purple fireweed insist on seeking out additional clues addressing the fire’s regeneration. Berk dismisses my wildflower interests with the simple prodding, “Just keep hiking, we have quite a ways to go today.” Conditional interest emerges when I point to a distant ridge. If Berk senses my interest is with photographic composition there is silence but, if he thinks it represents a destination it’s always, “Let’s go.”
On a backpacking trip in the Gros Venture’s another mental miscalculation besieged me. Well into our journey Berk and I had not seen anyone for several days. The thought of even a minor injury, such as a sprained ankle, this remote began to play a head game. When these dark thoughts were expressed to Berk, he dismissed them instantly stating more than once, “Your overly cautious behavior represents exactly why we go to great lengths to avoid thoughts like you are having. Live in the moment; honor why we are taking this trek.” Personally I just hate it being called out this way, seeing through a newly surfaced weakness.
There is one additional variable in my equation of danger and escape. I feel this heightened sense of awareness exclusively when hiking solo or with a trusted friend. Add a few more warm bodies and it’s just another social gathering. We might as well be on the deck at home with friends drinking cold beer while enjoying the sunset. This brings me to why Berk is such a trusted hiking partner- he can be counted on when needed and he values fewer words. Together we are able to enjoy our version of auditory and visual solitude without compromise. Yet we are present to help each other during periods of individual stress, This is as good a definition of synergy as any.
AT HOME It’s remarkable how Berk knows so much about me. He knows the lazy John and encourages me to push myself. “Get away from your damn books, stay outside longer, and the peace you are searching for will be revealed.” Mary found Berk after a secret two-year search for her collie boy. We now frequently refer to Berkley and Hayduke simply as the boys, as family.
Peace and Love, John
This place is truly meant as primitive, not something that is clumsily barbaric or unable to reveal profundity on the surface. It is deeply visceral, holding the darker side off human longing, and at the same time able to convey sentience, a knowledge of life. There should be a name for it, I though, a reference that I could easily use. Essence or breath of life. It is perhaps know as barakah, Arabic word for the power within, something that can be carried in a vessel of water, in a person, in a stone, that can be surrendered and passed on but is indestructible. This is why I come. It is here in the crumbling remains of La Isla. Craig