As the winds died down, and the sun began to poke its head over the Eastern horizon, our group of eleven began to stir. Unzipping the rain fly, our eyes were met with a glistening landscape, scattered with droplets of water from the storm a few hours earlier. Thankfully, our group of eleven is full of observers. We took notice of the skies one night earlier and prepared our camp site by tightening the rain flys, double checking the tent stakes, and sleeping inside our newly established shelter on the Charter Ranch.
The powerful presence of the coal plant on Billings was impossible to miss. Foreboding coal stacks dominated the skyline as we arrived yesterday and immediately ignited my prejudice towards the town as a paradigm of the pollution and climate change issues we were here to learn about.
But listening to Ed explain his life and work today snubbed my preconceived notions of the town as just a “dirty” place. As a green architect for High Plains Architects, Ed spent the day explaining and showing us first hand the work he’s devoted his life to. My lack of sleep from the our first night of camping was forgotten as I listened to the enthusiasm for which those at High Plains transform buildings from energy consuming machines into conserving and self-generating units.
After three informative, if a bit restless days in Billings, Day Four of Cycle The Rockies finally marked the beginning of our bike tour across Montana! Although we arrived here with similar interests, specifically in climate change and sustainable living in the state in which most of us live, we come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Among us are a rock climber, a bike mechanic (thank goodness!), several non-traditional students, a wilderness EMT, and an expert on dirt…err, soils. A few of us are either WRFI or bike touring veterans. I, for one, am neither.
In the first couple days, of what will be the longest bike ride of my life to date, I am quickly realizing the difference between what I need and want. The question, “where can I charge my phone?” has been circulating camp and this has made me realize more than anything just how much of my ordinary life I am leaving behind.
“Who owns this land?” is often one of the first questions that flutters through my mind as I observe the breathtaking landscapes of this region. 55% of the Colorado Plateau are federal lands, while 24% of the land is designated to Native American reservations, 6% of it is state lands, and 15% is owned and operated by private investors. Additionally in this region there are 10 Bureau of Land Management districts, 15 National Forests, and 29 federal designations that display themselves as either recreation areas, National Parks, monuments, or historic sites (information provided by a pamphlet from the Grand Canyon Trust).
“Just follow their lead, this is a traditional weekly practice many Navajos observe,” Alex our intern commented. Sauntering along the well packed dirt roads in Crystal, NM, we walked towards the tacheii (Navajo for sweat lodge). The sun was beginning to disappear over the flat horizon, leaving beautiful purple and orange colors in its wake. After passing a few houses and horse corrals, I spotted a large bonfire. There were three Navajo males standing around the fire, staring pensively into the blaze. Their names were Richard, Robert, and Chris. Robert was our main host, who put us to work vaccinating thirty sheep and tearing down an old corral earlier that day. He was a Dartmouth alumnus, with a hardened attitude. Alex, Cody, Ty, Josh and I approached the bonfire and greeted the men.
What happened next will remain with me forever. We loaded up the tacheii with smoldering rocks that we heated in the fire, stripped down to au natural, and crawled one by one into this mud hut. Instantly I felt the heat, and knew it would only grow hotter in this unique area. We crammed eight people (five of our group and three Navajos) into this three foot high and six feet long area. After we were all in, the last man in covered the entrance with thick rugs to keep the heat from escaping. The rugs also kept all light from entering, so I sat in complete darkness, alone with my thoughts. Richard told us stories of Navajo members, and the keystone elements of Navajo culture. Chris then treated us to a traditional Navajo song, in his old and deep melodic voice. His voice faded into the darkness of the tacheii as his last note was projected. Lost in his song, I didn’t pay attention to the amount of sweat that was pouring out of me. It was cleansing, purifying, and very therapeutic at the same time. Images of ancient Navajo leaders sweating and singing in these huts filled my mind.
About 20 minutes in, I felt like I was cooking alive and all the moisture was sucked out of my body. Opening my eyes, my sweat stung them strongly as I was greeted by the thick darkness. The phrase, “What doesn’t kill makes you stronger” then popped into my head as the tacheii continued to get progressively hotter.
As we exited, Richard commented upon how leaving this hut represents rebirth, just like when the Navajo tribe entered the first, second, third, and fourth worlds. Symbolically speaking, it was like exiting the womb covered in sweat, when we were born into our world. To cool down we rubbed dirt over our naked bodies and stared into the fire, astounded by our individual experiences and thoughts that were fostered in the tacheii.
Our courageous group has entered the last leg of our trip. To plunge into the depths of dark canyon and see what wonders await us among the canyon walls. Whenever I am about to go into the back country I always ask myself this one question. Where will the wild things be? During the earlier sections I was very disappointed because I felt I was in a barren landscape. However I was not looking deep enough into the layers that surrounded me. Life blossomed just not in a form I was very familiar with. There were strange noises in the night I had not yet familiarized myself with. How a strange almost technologic beeping noise was really a pigmy owl. How bears and coyotes left perfect tracks in untrammeled sand. These realizations begged me to dig deeper and discover the intricacies of how this natural landscape functioned.
What I found led to me formulating a prognosis of thought. In fact I am not surrounded by wild things out in the back country. In fact the group is the wild things themselves. Strange bipedal creatures gallivanting through the home of the bobcat, goat frog and golden eagle that have not been seen in these wooded depths consistently for years. Only a few brave members of our society still undergo journeying into these “wild” lands. They are generous enough to share their experience and love for these places with eager students. However it is only after a novice eye, ear, hand and nose is entrenched in these surroundings for days on end that one begins to learn their place while visiting another’s home.
As a civilization we for the majority of our existence did not think of these places as “wild” they were considered home as part of our natural range. This reveals an interesting shift in values. At what point in time did our society lose its affinity for open spaces and settle for tight uniform, controllable quadrants? How can we as a society continue to move forward but give these marvelous landscapes the respect they rightful deserve. For they nurtured us, imparted its lessons and knowledge upon us so that we could thrive as a species. This is why I urge everyone reading this to reexamine their definition of wild. Instead of looking at this term as a place examine it in terms of several of it synonyms such as insane, strange, bizarre and extravagant.
Nature is an aspect of life that we will never be able to fully control. But it is something we can understand very well. With this understanding of how the great system around us functions we can understand what permanently damages its integrity and what actions bolster its processes. For nature and the systems within that term are indifferent to our survival and existence. Only our civilization can guarantee our prolonged beneficial relationship with the earth. So let us reexamine what is truly “wild” or beyond belief. Living in a place where everything one uses needs to be brought and delivered to them is a wild concept. Using materials that only foster inactivity and degrade the system is a wild concept. Not eating food that will ensure your happiness and health over the longest period of time is a wild concept. The list goes on and on and I invite you to explore what was once our home because it is out there just as beautiful and silent as ever.