Walking nurtures an open mind… The sky is like an upturned plate—a big platter of openness filled with thoughts.” –Liz Caile, A Life at Treeline
In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes that people who are lost in the wilderness and survive often have in common that they prayed. Those who are found but only in the nick of time and only by good luck have in common that that they failed to recognize or refused to admit that they were lost.
Whether or not one believes in God or a god, exactly, it seems to me that the act of praying is, fundamentally, admitting that you’re lost. That you’re a small person in a big landscape and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing there. You don’t have to be a literal believer to recognize that.
According to Gonzales, the mere fact of acknowledging this existential reality can be the difference between life and death.
In one of her more recent posts, the eloquent blogger Andi O’Conor wrote about the woo-woo factor in her life, and how her intuition had guided her to pack her birth certificate and a couple of other key possessions before she took off on a vacation. While she was gone, her house was destroyed in a wildfire.
When you live in a place like Boulder, CO, you become familiar with stories like this, and you don’t feel that self-conscious talking about “the woo-woo.” In fact, it’s only when publishing, say, blog posts for a broader audience, that you would even refer to it by something as facetious as “the woo-woo.”
But as Andi was pushing her post live, I’d been struggling myself with a post on my own relationship to the mysterious, and have only now got around to writing it. Because it’s painful for me. I used to live fairly well immersed in the woo-woo. But for several years now, I’ve felt like my connection to it has been broken. Like I, too, have had to refer to it facetiously, because what I used to see as patterns and significance now seemed possibly random.
This winter I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle and I’ve had a lot of time to think. Also, no ability to walk. But really, over the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of time for walking and reflection in general, due to a lot of factors. And I realized for me, walking really is praying. As a child I wandered around in the woods, exploring Indian trails and roads established by American colonists. After college I found myself in Eldora, CO, hiking mining roads and Arapaho pathways, and something settled in me, a recognition. We know these ways, my body said to my soul. I’m a small person in a large landscape. As long I know how to be lost, I’ll know how to find my way.
Once, when I was housesitting for the singer-songwriters Cosy Sheridan and TR Ritchie, I hiked up on the Moab Rim Trail. It was later in the afternoon and I misjudged how quickly night would fall in the desert. It was stupid of me. I didn’t have a warm enough jacket, a headlamp, or matches. I was the last person out. Because it was a slickrock trail, it was hard to tell where the path went. As the twilight bled into night, I got lost. I picked my way across a couple of ravines to peer over the cliff to the Colorado River. There was a shelf below me and I thought that might be the trail. But if I climbed down to it, I wasn’t sure I’d get back up, if I was wrong. It was getting cold, and darker by the minute. I knew that if I tried to get back to where I’d been earlier, I might fall into one of the ravines I’d passed. I called out, but there was no one to hear.
I prayed. I am not exact about God. Assuming the term “woo-woo” is a little too loose, let’s call God the numinous, for now. I decided to try to reach a promontory outlined against the stars. Just as I attained it, a car was backing out of the trailhead parking lot below me. Its headlights illuminated my own car. I could then estimate the angle of the trail and tell that it was above me. I was able to climb to the trail and carefully make my way down.
Had I not reached the outcrop exactly when I did, the car would not have have backing out just then, and I would not have had the orientation I needed. Was it my prayer? I don’t know. I asked for help.
I was a small person in a large landscape who found a way.
I want to end this post right here. But I can’t. Because for the past few years I haven’t been able to feel this connection, to feel that there was anyone or anything paying attention, that if I prayed, or was lost, it would matter. Everything felt drained of significance. Even if I had an intuition or felt guided, it just seemed like it would add up to nothing in the end. So what if I packed a birth certificate? My house would burn down with many things I valued more inside. Last week I was talking to a trauma specialist about how it felt to watch the Highline—this special trail where I would jog and hike several times each week before the broken ankle—about how it felt to watch it burn during the Fourmile Fire. I said it felt like a psychic attack.
Perhaps, though, it occurs to me as I write, feeling attacked by nature is still a way to sense a connection. And I know fires are part of the landscape. I know they’re natural. But there will come a time when I will get lost and there will be no way out.
In her stunning memoir, Perfection of the Morning, the otherwise stolid Sharon Butala writes of mystical experiences that occur while walking around on her ranch in Saskatchewan. In To Kill an Eagle, members of the Lakota tribe describe sacred visions as rising out of the land.
That’s what usually happens for me, with my writing. Creativity comes from being outside. From moving in landscape. This ability to easily tap into the sacred, the mysterious, is what I’ve been missing. I don’t know exactly what broke my connection to the woo-woo, but I hope some walking around brings it back.