Written By: Colin Offenbacker
Lately on the podcast you’ve probably heard me talk a lot about being out, or at the very least wanting to be out in the woods. Whether I’m talking about an upcoming back-country hunt or even an overnight backpacking trip somewhere deep in the Olympic Mountains, there is something buried within me that is simply yearning for it. Only quite recently have I become even slightly aware as to why this is. At first I thought that it might have been the allure of crossing into lands that in all likelihood haven’t seen the footsteps of more than a handful of humans in decades and possibly even centuries, but as much as I wanted that to be true, it’s probably only a small aspect of it. I tried to pass it off in more practical matters too, by claiming that perhaps it was the idea of filling my freezer with wild game so as to help offset my family’s involvement with factory farming. That too has a thread of true to it but definitely isn’t the main cause. Maybe it’s the challenge that comes from climbing up a step slope in an attempt to conquer this peak or that peak? Maybe it’s just the simple idea of cutting myself off from all external societal input? The truth of the matter is that it’s all at once, a mix of all of those ideas, and at the same time something so much bigger.
The term spiritual gets thrown around pretty loosely in todays day and age, so I am very reluctant to try and use it in this context, but the shear gravity that a person feels while in a place so devoid of human presence is palpable. It’s a very difficult feeling to explain, mostly because it’s unlike any other feeling that most people experience. The closest feeling that I can even slightly relate it to is the feeling that I used to get while I was out at sea for weeks on end. It would start to come on the first time you realize that there is no land as far as the eye could see. After a couple of days living and working aboard-ship with nothing to see but water, water and more water, that feeling would concrete itself in my mind and soon the world just looked different. Life, in its most raw and generalized form just felt different. It feels smaller. Not in a claustrophobic way by any means, perhaps it would be better described in terms of focus and import. On a ship, when it and its crew are out to sea, with nothing around for miles, if not hundreds of miles, the smallest menial thing feels more significant. To use the term I brought up earlier, they have more gravity. Something as seemingly insignificant as doing maintenance checks on a fire-hose or scrubbing and swabbing the decks take on a whole new meaning. This is probably due to the fact that when you’re “out there” the idea that even though you might have all of this modern technology around you, just in case the worst should happen, it never changes the fact that at the end of the day, it’s really only you and the rest of your shipboard family floating in the middle of a watery desert, alone. It’s part of the reason ship crews are so tight-knit. There is an inevitable reliance on one-another that’s just built in to the system. Even with this system of shared reliance in place, one can’t help but feel like an insignificant grain of sand listlessly drifting across an impossibly expansive desert. It is this one aspect in truth that is similar to the feeling I get when I’m in the back-country. Being out in that literal middle-of-nowhere, alone or with one other person, is very similar to being out at sea for me, only, it has more of that same inexplicable “gravity” to it for reasons that will hopefully become more apparent to not only you as we work our way through this piece, but also to me as I am more or less “thinking aloud” as I write this.
After an 8 hour drive on state and county highways, yet another hour or so on bone rattling forest service roads and a few hours hike up the side of a mountain I found myself pitching a tent alongside my brother on the spine of a small mountain. As we both arrived and began our hike up a supposed 2.5 mile trail, which as it turned out was more of a 3.5 mile trail, we took note of the suns position in the sky. It was just verging on the edge of early evening, but it still being the tail end of summer we thought that we’d have enough light to make it to our planned campsite just below the summit before dark. Being the safety minded individuals my brother and I are, we strapped on headlamps on just in case, verified our GPS positions on our phones and went over our planned ascension route for what was probably the tenth time and began our way up, hoping against hope that we’d make it to the top just in time to catch the sunset. If it hadn’t been for that aforementioned extra mile we would have made that sunset, never the less we were able to make it to the top and set camp just before the dying light of dusk was replaced by the darkness of night. It however wasn’t until our camp was set, bedrolls laid and camp-stoves out that that all too familiar, yet indescribable feeling began to set in. As a matter of fact I can recall the exact moment I truly began to feel like that proverbial grain of sand in the desert. I was sitting on a small collapsible stool, watching over the water on my camp stove in the spotlight of my headlamp, as it slowly come to a boil. As soon as it came up to temp, the bubbles of air turbulently rolling to the surface, I switched off the flame and quickly poured it into my bag of dehydrated beef stroganoff. I zipped it tight so as to let the water permeate my future dinner and just sat back to wait. That is when “the silence” hit me. Silence, or in at least what passes for silence in this living breathing world, is a weird thing. The almost complete lack of any kind of wind that night added to the overall strangeness in the void of societal noise. There were no planes, no trains and no automobiles. There were no hums from refrigerators or ticking of clocks. The sounds of our breaths were about the loudest noises to be heard. As our meals reached there proper soaking time, the silence was replaced by the revelry of two people laughing and joking about the days travels and the sounds of tall metallic spoons scrapping against bags of hot tasty mushy goodness. As we ate, we marveled at the spectacular display of stars in the sky and before I realized it, it was as though nothing else in the world existed other than what has happening right there at that very moment on top of that mountain. Those dehydrated meals were some of the best cuisine either of us had ever tasted and the small cup of hot cocoa I had made for dessert was again, the greatest cocoa I’d ever had. In reality I know without a doubt in my mind that neither of those things were really that great, but sitting atop a mountain, in a part of the state I’d never been to, it was that “gravity” of the entire situation that made them truly great.
As the next morning came we were up well before sunrise and again by headlamp light only, we prepared our breakfast and once again reviewed the maps, set GPS points in our phones and headed out to get into what we hunters call, a glassing spot. A glassing spot for those of you who might not be familiar with the term, is simply a nice high spot in the landscape, an overlook if you will. It’s a spot that situates you to best be able to see as much land as possible. As the sun rose and cast its warm light across the landscape it was only then that I got to take in the full breadth of where we really were. Absolutely nothing but just the most beautiful country was stretched out before me. Miles upon miles of country was before my eyes and I had one job to do. Look though a set of binoculars and do my best to examine every square foot of it over and over again all in hopes of catching a glimpse of some wildlife. Preferably, I would have liked to catch a glimpse of some black bears considering that they were meant to be my quarry for the trip, but in all honesty seeing any kind of wildlife would have been great. There is something, for lack of a better term, magical about seeing true wildlife in their natural state just doing whatever it is that they do. There is something akin to biological voyeurism at play when it comes to watching nature just kind of do its thing, and that too, feeds into that feeling one gets when out in the back-country. So there I sat, on the top of a rocky mountain top with nothing better to do than sit and literally watch the world go by.
When a person sits in what equates to a state of self-induced seclusion, there isn’t much to do while endlessly scanning the landscape but ponder the nature of things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Again, it’s an impossible thing to try to describe other than to just say that almost nothing else in life really matters. All of life’s stresses seem to just disappear, as if they were never there to begin with. Work, family, friends, bills, obligations… POLITICS, it’s all just gone. The only things that seem to matter is the gear thats either in your pack or back at camp. It’s during this period of time that serious thinking and self examination can be done in earnest. It seemingly happens whether you want it to or not. I mean let’s face it, there’s not much else to do really unless of course, I or my brother were to spot something worth taking a closer look at, that however is an entirely different conversation all together and I won’t bore you all with the details of the actual hunting aspects of the trip, that’s just not what this is about. No, this is about trying to describe the indescribable. It’s the same feeling I always get in the back-country, whether I’ve got a rifle in the hand or not. It’s a feeling of being somehow detached from our regular lives. You go to a place in your mind that you’ve been before. You think clearer than ever before. There is a small part of you that feels as if you’re on an alien planet, smelling things you’re not used to smelling. Simple things taste better as if you’re sense of taste has been cranked passed 10 to 11. There is life all around you, yet you feel as alone as you could be. It’s a strange thing to feel all at once exhilarated and relaxed. Every little thing you do, every step you take is more meaningful because, let face it, there is absolutely no room for a broken bone or sprained ankle. Maybe it’s part of that survival aspect that helps to boost all of your senses that makes mediocre things feel and taste so good. There are probably a million and a half things that go into building that oh so addictive feeling I get when I head out into the back-country. But for those of you whom might need a break from this thing we call life in our modern civilized society try dipping your toe into the waters of nature. Learn as much as you can, and slowly build up to a grand adventure into the wilderness, maybe then, you can experience the same difficulty I have when trying to explain what by all accounts cannot be explained, only experienced.