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April 2, 2024

Running From the Wilderness

Wilderness mountains and rivers have a permanence about them that comforts me.

In the late 1990s, I joined a group of fly-fishing buddies camping on the Hiwassee River in East Tennessee. The campground was typical of those in the region — campsites fairly close together and containing just enough room to park a couple of vehicles. They usually include a concrete picnic table, a fire pit, and room enough to pitch a few tents. It always made for a good and quick weekend escape that didn’t require much advance planning and certainly didn’t require backpacking or bushwhacking skills.

The five of us had just settled in for the evening after dinner with a great campfire going. We were doing what most hunters and fishermen do around campfires: telling old stories, pondering the following day’s fishing prospects, talking about what went wrong today and what would go right tomorrow, and generally enjoying the company and comfort of old friends who share a common interest. Any gaps in conversation were more than adequately filled by the sounds of the nearby river and the evening song of cicadas. My heart was full, and I know that was true of my companions as well.

Shortly after sunset the first evening, two pickup trucks occupied the campsite across from ours. Sobriety in the arriving group was clearly a distant part of the day. They immediately produced a rather impressive boom box stereo and began to play at loud volume The Marshall Tucker Band’s hit “Can’t You See.” As soon as it would conclude, one of them would yell, “Play it again!!” And so they did…

This went on for about five back-to-back renditions, but soon, their tolerance for mind-altering substances reached a limit, and they all quieted down. Good thing, as the mood in what had been a peaceful and congenial campground was on the verge of becoming hostile.

Up at daylight the next morning to cook breakfast and organize gear for the day, I glanced over at our late arrivals’ campsite to see all of them still passed out in the dirt, and I thought, “Why?” Why come to a beautiful location in nature and then do your best to drown it all out? And then it dawned on me — too many in that era had dissociated themselves from the peace and solace of nature. Seems they only return periodically out of some curious desire to take a peek and see if it was still there.

That morning, we hiked with our float tubes slung over our backs for about a mile up a mostly abandoned rail bed that parallels the river. We entered the water on a section we knew would fish well. Over the course of several hours, we floated and fished our way back to our campsite. My love for fly fishing was rivaled by the beauty surrounding me, and the sound of rushing water only served to console my spirit. For the moment, we were literally immersed in nature.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere blip on the recorded timeline of mankind’s existence, changed everything in the way we interact with the natural world. In a brief time, we went from being stewards of the land and nature that ensured our very survival to being isolated from it as people gained a way to make a living separate from the land in urban centers.

These days, many only experience nature from the comfort of an automobile. For example, Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a stunningly beautiful place. It’s a favorite destination of my old friend Mark Alexander. He knows all the 4-wheel access mountain roads in the area, but for the bulk of visitors, the peak tourist season traffic jams feel like some big-city rush hour and dilute the true experience one could otherwise find away from the crowds. You might as well just watch The Nature Channel or National Geographic in the comfort of your home.

Mark and I learned early in life from generations gone before us that there is a big difference between being a tourist and a traveler. Tourists do the checkoff thing, never truly experiencing their destinations. On the other hand, travelers embrace the spirit of adventurers, truly immersing ourselves among the people and surroundings of our destinations.

I crave the wilderness and its solitude. I’m fine if any like-minded people join me, and I’m fine being alone. I was happy to move to the fourth-least-populated state in America a decade ago, but even it has lately become too crowded to suit me. An escape to the wilderness is good medicine, and one is currently needed to get me back in balance.

Collectively, I think we lost much as a society by mostly separating ourselves from the wilderness and the character and self-reliance it instills. Cities, with their constant noise, crowds of people, consumer distractions, and lack of natural surroundings, can tax the human brain in unnatural ways, whereas the natural wilderness ultimately soothes the core of our human nature and reminds us who we really are by creation.

William Wadsworth Longfellow, in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” wrote: “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, to me did seem, Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and freshness of a dream.”

I will spend the next few months retracing many wilderness grounds of my youth. It is my hope that each person reading this will endeavor to find the peace of heart and mind that comes with reconnecting with creation!

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