Would you ever choose to have a wilderness experience? For me, the answer is a definite “It depends.” First, I need to know whether we are speaking literally, as in natural wilderness, or metaphorically, as in a spiritual or psychological wild place. And second, we have to agree on a definition for wilderness.
I’ve had lots of wilderness experiences, both literal and metaphorical, and hands-down I prefer the literal kind. But even when we stick to the outer world, we still need to be careful of definitions.
Let’s pretend we’re going on a vacation in the wilderness. We could choose to enjoy a week at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, which is part of Walt Disney World in Florida. According to the Disney website, we could “escape to the rustic majesty of America’s Great Northwest” at the lodge, which “celebrates American craftsmanship and honors the beauty of the untamed wilderness.” That’s quite an achievement when one considers that the lodge sits on reclaimed swampland just outside Orlando. For some reason I think there’s just the tiniest bit of hype going on here.
I must confess that on a scale of Heaven on Earth to Hell on Earth, I place Disney properties firmly toward Hades’ end of the spectrum. I blame it all on business travel. I used to attend conferences at Disneyworld, and I always found it a deeply dissatisfying destination for business. I never learned to appreciate a smiling desk clerk ordering me to “Have a Magical day” while I faced the prospect of spending the next 10 hours in a series of freezing, dark conference rooms listening to speakers drone on about the latest advancements in tender authorization or digital storage. But I am certain that most people do not carry my anti-Disney baggage, and that at least two of you (Tim and Patrick) would consider the Wilderness Lodge positively celestial.
When I think of a wilderness vacation, my thoughts go back to a trip that Jim Ginn and I made to the Gates of the Arctic National Park a number of years ago. We kicked things off by flying several hours north of Fairbanks, Alaska to a tiny village named Anaktuvuk Pass. From there we backpacked through the mosquito-infested tundra until we couldn’t stand it any more. We saw very little wildlife, with the exception of a half-eaten caribou leg that we nearly tripped over while hiking through a rather narrow passage between some boulders. Fortunately we did not meet the carnivore who’s dinner we interrupted. After three days of being bled by insects while stumbling through lumpy, mushy swamp I nearly cried with relief when we finally boarded our flight out of the Arctic. By the time we got back to Fairbanks we were both so tired that we dragged our backpacks through the airport, wearing holes in them. But believe it or not, from a safe distance of about a decade I resolutely claim that I preferred that wilderness vacation to the Mickey Mouse option. Finding our own path through those glacial valleys was spectacular at times, and we did not meet another human during our entire hike.
Things get more complicated when I think about wilderness metaphorically. I’ve certainly found myself in emotional or spiritual wildernesses more than once. I’ve been frightened there, even petrified. While there I often wished that my emotional wilderness was filled with fiberglass pine trees and water slides, with lots of cold beverages and yummy treats at hand. But my psyche always ends up filled with mosquitoes the size of sparrows, with the occasional large carnivore thrown in just for fun. I’ve been forced to slog my way through a spiritual swamp to find my way back to a firm footing. I couldn’t cheat and let the concierge handle all the messy details. I certainly tried to take more pleasant shortcuts, but they never worked out very well over the long term.
I’ve tried to keep my emotional and spiritual crises controlled, manageable, hidden, and certainly not messy. But again and again this approach failed. My problems simply festered and grew until something blew up. My faith. My mental wellbeing. Relationships. Things always had to go KABOOM before I could truly move on and regain my internal equilibrium.
So what will it be for your next wilderness experience, whether metaphorical or physical? True wilderness can be a scary, lonely, annoying, life-threatening place. But that’s the kind of wilderness I need sometimes. For me, magical days are rarely included, and when they do appear it’s inevitably an annoying illusion.