In my early twenties, my boyfriend announced he was going on a four-day backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior off of Michigan’s upper peninsula. I had never been backpacking or camping, I had no equipment, not even hiking boots, but I wanted to go on that trip.
It was only because my boyfriend was in the early love-struck days of our relationship that he tolerated me crashing his guys’ week. Maybe, I had no right to be there. The other guys were six-foot-four and experienced outdoorsmen. I was a skinny five-foot asthmatic. When it came time to divide up gear, we divided it equally. Picture it: a borrowed external-frame backpack a couple sizes too big, high-top kid’s sneakers that I’d found in a bargain bin, and half my body weight in gear on my back. It was all I could do to stand upright.
We needed to hike eight miles per day to get back to our scheduled ferry ride off the island. I stumbled under the weight of my pack, the straps rubbed my shoulders raw, my ankles twisted painfully over tree-roots. Every day, I pawned some of my gear off on my boyfriend, and struggling under the increased weight, he asked the other guys to help.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” one of them snapped.
Isle Royale is famous for its wolf and moose populations. We didn’t see a single one. On the third day, I succumbed to pathetic tears when the guys changed our route. They wanted to follow a ridge, which would add elevation gain and extra miles to that day’s hike. When we later reached a rocky beach, the guys stripped off their shirts and leaped into the frigid water of Lake Superior. I rested my weary muscles, soaking up the vastness of the lake and sky.
You’d think this would have been my first and last backpacking trip, but I went on to do many more, with that boyfriend who became my husband. And this is why. On our last day, the ferry dock was near, my pack was lighter, my legs were strong. I rounded a corner, and there was a moose. Enormous, brown furry antlers peeking through the brush not five feet from the trail. The size of this beast struck me silent with awe. I would have turned right around and hiked for another four days for a chance to see another moose like that. To appreciate this protected ecosystem in the middle of a Great Lake. For the sense of accomplishment rising from my core. For a chance to see a wolf.
I wasn’t prepared for that backpacking trip, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I had wanted to go. As a child in suburban Detroit, I was often sheltered inside, allergic and sick with bronchitis or pneumonia. I spent many days steeped in books. But the woods behind our house always called to me. My dad introduced me to the skeletal birch trees and the delicate trillium underfoot. Exploring on my own, I followed the creek that snaked through the trees, until it abruptly ended, the rippling current disappearing into a tangle of vines and overgrown brush. I imagined a secret passage to another world.
On a family vacation, we explored waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains. The power of that free-falling water enchanted me, as well as the cliffs jutting out over the canyon. I’d creep to the edge of the precipice to peer down into wide-open space; the almost overwhelming urge to jump was disquieting. As if she could read my mind, my mom squawked in protest from a safe distance back.
Later, my husband and I traveled and explored, hiking and climbing. The hazy, forested Blue Ridge, the crumbling curves of Nevada sandstone, the sheer walls of Yosemite granite, caverns in Switzerland, seaside bluffs in France, the spirit-summoning Himalayas.
And always, that urge to jump. Others have confided that they too, feel this unsettling urge, and that is why they avoid heights.
The vastness of the mountains fills me up. The forest, lush and cool, a humming pulse, the whisper of ancient trees, footsteps padded by moss-covered roots. I enter with questions I didn’t know I had, and leave with answers I didn’t know I needed.
That long ago backpacking trip to Isle Royale released something in me. I took a leap, stumbled, and landed solidly on my feet. My time in the wilderness helped give me the nerve to tackle other adventures: moving across country, becoming a mother, starting a new career.
It was only natural that my two childhood pursuits, reading and nature, would later merge. E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” When I dove into the writing of my first novel, I knew it was okay to take a risk, explore. If I got lost, I’d back-up, even start over. I had a trail map of sorts – all those years of childhood reading.
In the fold of mountains, within the pages of a story, I’m at home. Here, it’s safe to take that leap.
Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek