There exists some sacred, indefinable core between people who you have munched burnt quinoa with, slept beneath shooting stars and howling coyotes, and shared alpenglow sunsets with. Between our group of students this core transgressed our contrary backgrounds, histories and interests. It caused each and every one of us at the end to be utterly nostalgic at the prospect of heading our separate ways with nothing left but sweet memories and phone numbers. Yet it also taught me to value relationships much more than I ever have before.
Throughout the turbulent years of late high school and early college, I lived by a “wilderness essence,” a vision of a lawless, untouched paradise that I could reach primarily through reckless exploration: commonly alone, running along some mountain ridge and without bear spray or cell phone. This perspective characterized my relationships with people and the outdoors. During college I became infatuated with planning out the places I would go, and only became friends with other climbers or skiers. The realization that I was spiraling into a routine and not having the new experiences I had hoped for in a college experience caused me to take a leave of absence for the following fall semester to find something more meaningful than just my personal athletic development.
Coming into the first day of WRFI my head was very much centered around managing a life back home in Central Oregon, and scrambling to find something meaningful to do in the gap semester after the course was over. I felt distant from my peers- and slightly confined by the group dynamics where conservative decision-making took higher precedent over the familiar pursuit of freedom. On our first front country camp at the Nature Conservancy’s Pine Butte Preserve I ran down winding trails at 5:30 AM to experience the area in the way I was used to: quickly, more solitary, and without a plan. The wild morning encounters with skunks, deer, grouse and winding rivers confirmed my belief in a wilderness essence and in a singular mode of experiencing wilderness.
On our second day of a 30 mile, 8 day hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I decided to wet a line on a small section of the South Fork River during a little free time before dinner. I moved downstream, and found myself a mile down the river casting into deep turquoise holes before I thought to check my watch. When the sense of urgency at returning in time for dinner finally hit, I scrambled up the steep creek bank and started running back. After a few minutes another realization hit me- I had left the borrowed fly box and rod case as well as my license down beside the river! I cursed myself, and took off again back to the fishing grounds. By the time I sheepishly ran back into camp, the group was circled, munching burnt quinoa. It was an illuminating moment. At that moment I recognized that my egocentric wild desires were self-inflicting, isolating, and were less valuable than the time spent with others.
Throughout the span of six weeks I learned that happiness cannot be found just in wilderness, alone. On our last night of WRFI as we munched on burnt quinoa, I looked at each and every fellow classmate, adventurer and friend with a newfound appreciation for giving me a sense of clarity about wilderness, relationships and myself. I learned that my happiness originates through friendships over a mutual enjoyment of experiences. I learned to slow down, and focus on the moments spent outside with others rather than the speed or mode of travel. Within six weeks I began to appreciate others not for their level of gnar, similar perspectives, or granola personalities, but for their enjoyment of life and indomitable spirits. As I forge new relationships and revisit old ones, I believe I will now see in people not only what qualities they possess, but rather the soulful fire that drives them to be such diverse, inspiring people. And as a friend, I will stoke it as best I can.