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A Rash Reminder 

click to enlarge photo by Bennett Barthelemy
  • photo by Bennett Barthelemy

I remember reading somewhere that high adventure, like high treason, often comes with a hefty price tag. If you manage to finagle your way past the king's men relatively unscathed, then you are not doing too badly. My battle scars from the adventure last weekend are mostly psychological. I can expect the night terrors to subside (another boon to possessing a short-term memory that is more selective than I like to let on) with the poison oak rash.

I sometimes ask myself the big question: Just when will I grow up and become a responsible adult? When will I stop risking hide and hair in the name of fun while seeking connections to wild places and the self through endorphins, blood, sweat and tears? When will I stop living like a Lost Boy in Peter Pan's world?

Yes, it is true that I am in my 30s now and there are times when I flirt with the comfortable homogeneity of modern civilized life with all its do for you conveniences so I can laze on the futon with laptop in hand and become a social, cultural and physical amnesiac grasping at the gilded veneer of the phat life of a middle-class suburbanite. I even went so far as to become an adjunct professor at a local university, turning a blind, jaundiced and myopic eye to the sins of the establishment for the prestige and paycheck each month.

Thankfully, it only takes a few hours in the woods to jostle me out of my catatonic delusions and rediscover what is truly important. Moving out of the house you have occupied for several years also helps you realize just how dependent you have become on superfluous items that may have little more than fading sentimental value over the long-term.

After the fifth truck-bed load of items for the thrift store and recycling center, it became clear just how covetous and materialistic I had become. What good is a 12th pair of shoes really going to do me? Or a fifth edition intro psychology text from 1994? So this is your invitation, moving or not, to streamline your living space -- you will be glad you did. Ours is now streamlined enough so that we have our life contained beneath our 2-wheel drive pickup's shell (the storage shed is admittedly stuffed to the gills).

So back to the woods of last weekend ... 40 miles up the highway, I began mentally taking stock of the necessities and realized my sleeping bag never made it into the mix. This is when clarity started to re-emerge and the gilded veneer began slowly sloughing -- nothing like a little objective reality to awaken the sleeper.

What the hell are you going to do when the cute little bear cub runs off with your daypack, which held your water and the cell phone with a built-in GPS, and you're three miles from the trailhead? When dark clouds roll in at noon and the wind picks up and your sweaty cotton fourth-world slave-labor shirt becomes worthwhile only as a flag of surrender to wave over your head in the ensuing storm as you succumb to hypothermia? I promise you that when this happens you won't become food for the ubiquitous and ravenous mountain lions that lurk in every shadow. Believe it or not, buried deep within (nearly) all of us resides some vestige of instinct that can help us rise above and make it through.

It is sad how quickly we can forget ourselves and become disenfranchised and disenchanted in modern society -- but it is encouraging how quickly we remember what we have been confronted with for hundreds of centuries instead of our present one when we have to. I have always found the idea terribly romantic, to offer myself to a predator at the top of the food chain -- not that I am in any hurry. There is something inspiring from the story of the poet who had himself entombed in the tree that was very much alive so that he could continually nourish that which nourished him and become a living part of the landscape. There are worse things that can happen than becoming food for mountain lions.

All too easily we can succumb to heart disease from fast food, or, worse, lethargy brought on by electron overload from our computers and TVs. We can become Pavlovian robots surrendering free will to a ringtone or text message, compulsively plugged in to an ethereal expanse of cyberspace. Living-dead, continually rooted in an alternate reality that is akin to schizophrenia -- we try to be present but all too often we are living dually in a digital unreality.

Well, moving out of your house can help. Throw all your important things in the back of a truck and hit the road. Or better yet, sell the truck and hitchhike and take mass transit. Sleep in the dirt, eat when you're hungry and shower when you are really dirty -- like every few days. High adventure for sure, and given the current social and political climate, where a forest is good for the dollar value it can bring when parceled into a subdivision or as checker-boarded clear cuts, this kind of frivolous thinking is in jeopardy of becoming high treason.

And, yes, even poison oak is a good reminder, as well as a view of an elusive mountain lion. The wild helps reconnect us to the fact that we are living human beings in a physical world, with lots of other living things -- something we are desperately in peril of losing. John Muir knew this: He bailed out with a tiny rucksack and a pocket full of flour and survived well for weeks at a time in the mountains, living a life of high quality high adventure well into his 70s.

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