Saturday, January 22, 2005

Writing on Writing - Part 4

Originally published on March 16, 2004:

The Uintah Range in northeast Utah is the only mountain range in the United States that runs east to west. It is a rugged range with high peaks that include King’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the state. It was also where I spent the summer of 1974 as part of an outdoor education course through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) of Lander, Wyoming. It was my college graduation present.

The course started out in Lander at the NOLS headquarters, an old lumber yard. NOLS was founded in the 1950’s by Paul Petzoldt, a rugged outdoorsman who as a teenager climbed Grand Teton Peak solo in the middle of winter. He started NOLS to teach people how to live in the wilderness and in doing so develop a sense of independence and learn about their own limits and abilities. Perhaps it was the last elements that got to me to go. I had never been an outdoorsy kind of guy, although as a kid I had spent two summers at camp in the Rockies learning to ride horses and hike the trails. NOLS, however, would be different. My group (or “expedition”) was made up of twenty or so men and women from ages sixteen to forty-five. We would be out for six weeks learning all there was to know about hiking, backpacking, and living in the wilderness.

Among the pieces of equipment I carried was 3 x 5 spiral notebook with 70 pages. I had picked it up on impulse at a newsstand in Denver’s Stapleton Airport while I waited for my Frontier flight to Wyoming. I had never kept a diary before, but something made me spend the twenty-nine cents. I started keeping a detailed journal of the trip right then: the first entry was on Sunday, June 9, 1974 at 10:15 a.m. And I was faithful to that little book for the next six weeks, often writing small entries two or three times a day of my moods and impressions, even down to what I had for dinner each night. I kept a separate notebook for the classes we had on flowers, first aid, mountaineering, and so forth, but this little notebook was my refuge. It was small comfort, but when you have nothing to read other than a rather worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, it was all there was.

The last four days of the expedition were spent on what they called “survival.” All of the remaining packed-in food has been either eaten or burned; you are left with nothing but your backpack, your cooking equipment (including a fishing pole), and your clothes. The members of the expedition are split up into groups of four or five and given directions on where to go and when to meet up at the trailhead at a specific time four days hence. With that, you’re off.

My little group made good time in our first couple of days and we found ourselves on the shore of a small but fishless lake on the east side of King’s Peak, twenty miles from the trailhead and day ahead of schedule. Two of my group decided to hike over the next pass and look for a lake that had fish, and another member, who had taken a vow of silence for the duration of the survival, went off in another direction to explore and be by himself. That left me alone at the campsite to ward off any wildlife. And so I spent an entire day alone in the middle of a mountain valley.

At first it was pleasant enough – I slept for a while, made a diary entry, watched some hawks and even caught a glimpse of some elk and mountain goats on the far side of the lake. It wasn’t until about noon that the silence and the solitude began to get to me.

I was all alone. For the first time in my life I could not see or hear another human being, and I was in the middle of a valley that was probably five miles long and at least a mile wide. The only sounds were the wind in the trees, the occasional bird call, and the lap of the water on the shore of the lake. And since there were no walls to echo, even if I shouted, my voice would go nowhere. And even though it was a clear and warm day in the middle of July, I couldn’t help a feeling of foreboding, as if there was some kind of danger out there.

Maybe it was the lack of food. Maybe it was the solitude – I hadn’t read a newspaper or heard a radio broadcast in four weeks (and this was the summer that Watergate was reaching its climax; we were all wondering what was going on “out there” – would we come out of the wilderness to find Nixon was no longer president?) Maybe it was the realization that if something was to happen to me that day that no one would know and nothing could be done. A ruptured appendix? A slip on a rock? Evacuation would take days, and all they could do is carry out my body.

King’s Peak loomed over the valley. Our hike in had taken us three-quarters up the side of that mountain before coming down to the shore of the fishless lake. There was no sign of human habitation anywhere. I suddenly felt very alone, very scared, very lost. I wrote an entry in my course notebook: “The wilderness does not care if I live or die out here. It doesn’t notice me. We humans are so arrogant to think we can do anything more than just survive out here without the grace and permission of nature.”

Late that afternoon the rest of my group returned with a nice catch of fish and we ate well that night – it sure beat chewing on mountain bluebell salad as we had done for the first couple of nights.

It would be another two years before the meaning of that solitary day would come clear to me. As in the fashion of all good theatre majors, I discovered that the only way to avoid getting a job in the real world was to go to grad school, and I had done so in the fall of 1975, entering the University of Minnesota to get my masters. But this time I had a goal – getting into teaching – and after a semester of trying acting, the words of my old professor came back, and I switched my field of study to playwriting. One of the degree requirements was to write a play and have it produced. I didn’t know it then, but my little spiral NOLS diary would come in very handy.

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