This story is adapted from the introduction to my dissertation, Alternative Wildernesses: Finding Wildness in 21st Century America.
My first real encounter with the wilderness occurred in April of 2001. I was a sophomore at Kent State University at the time, working toward a degree in computer science. It was the week of Spring Break, and I was about to embark on what I was sure would be my greatest adventure yet in twenty years of life.
If I'm being honest, my roommates and I hardly needed an excuse like Spring Break to take a trip out of town. Like many college students post-Kerouac, the road trip was our preferred method of weekend relaxation. Tracing impromptu routes across Ohio and its neighbor states, we drove to see new places, to meet new people, and to have any and all experiences that were novel to us then, so recently freed from high schools, parents' rules, and the boundaries of hometowns. We would spend weeknights pouring over atlases for hours, looking for an interesting place name, a confluence of rivers, or the all-important green splotch that marked the dimensions of a State or National Park and, extrapolating from that two-dimensional map, we'd spend the rest of the week imagining what those places must look like in reality. Then, as soon as the weekend hit, we'd drive to them and find out for ourselves. Usually my trusty Dodge Intrepid would roll back into the Harbourt Hall dormitory parking lot by Sunday night, but sometimes it was more like Monday night, or even Tuesday night. We were all good students, but we were constantly juggling the practical need for scholastic success and the instinctual need to replace the abstract symbols on our maps with the experiential reality of the places that they represented.
Spring Break, though, was going to be special. With nine consecutive days of freedom from classes before us, such juggling was unnecessary. We were fully, wondrously free – albeit briefly – and we intended to take full advantage of that freedom. To us, our road tripping was high adventure, and during this Spring Break we were going to elevate that adventure to a whole new level. With so many possibilities open before us, we had decided to try something new: backpacking in the Appalachians. Not only would the drive to the trailhead be our longest yet – the distance from Kent to Asheville, North Carolina was a then-astounding five-hundred miles – at the end of our road stood the summit of Mount Sterling, five thousand, eight hundred and forty-two feet up in the misty roof of the Great Smoky Mountains. Significantly, only one of the four of us had any backcountry experience at all, and yet our underpreparation only added to the excitement and to our anticipation of the unknown wonders that surely awaited us. After all, we agreed, backpacking was just walking while wearing an oversized bookbag. How hard could it be?
Plenty hard, as I found out almost immediately. I had come down with laryngitis the night before our trip, but we had left the next morning anyway, banking everything on the hope that the illness wouldn't migrate beyond my throat if I took care of myself during the drive. Instead, the pain intensified during the long trip south, and after an arduous first afternoon of hiking, I was also suffering from gouges on the crests of my hips and collarbones from the frame of my ill-fitting, borrowed, top-heavy backpack.
By the time we reached our first camp, I had a full-blown fever; unfortunately, my substandard sleeping gear wasn't at all up to the task of regulating my fluctuating body temperature at four thousand feet during an Appalachian April. Sleeping only in short spurts punctuated by nightmares that featured frostbitten fingers and toes falling off and dissolving into the dirt, I spent most of that first night crouched within the vestibule of my tent, curled into a tight ball, watching the waning moon crawl across the sky.
I had done a lot of camping with my family when I was younger, but it had always been car camping of one kind or another, and much of that “outdoor” life had taken place within the safe, comfortable confines of a fully furnished camping trailer. Now, miles of walking away from a car that would take another hour still to drive to anything remotely resembling civilization, barely able to see my hand in front of my face without the aid of a meager headlamp beam in the dead of night, facing total silence only broken occasionally by sounds that were just as likely to be the footsteps of a bear as the whispering of the wind to my untrained ear and overactive imagination, I was absolutely terrified. When dawn finally came, I couldn't remember ever having been so happy to see the sun.
Throughout the course of a fever-addled, wearying march to the summit of Mount Sterling that second morning, the odd claustrophobia that had struck me overnight only intensified. Drawn to my own idealization of the Appalachians by a desire to experience the beauty and solitude of the wilderness, I instead found the reality – the space and the silence – overwhelming, suffocating. It certainly didn't help matters that by the end of the second day's hike, three of the four of us were feverish to some degree, and we spent that night – idiotically, in retrospect – on the summit of the mountain, freezing cold in Kmart-quality sleeping bags, our bodies partially exposed to a driving wind thanks to a set of broken tentpoles. Looking back now, this confluence of small disasters might read as darkly comic; however, at the time our situation was no less dire for the fact that we'd ended up in it by underpreparing. Fifteen years later, after many subsequent backpacking trips, summit ascents, and other assorted outdoor adventures undertaken in far more dangerous places under more difficult circumstances, I still look back on the Mount Sterling trip as the closest I've ever come to being in mortal danger. And yet, that danger was precisely what forced a change in my perspective with regard to the wilderness.
Toward the end of that second night, it slowly became clear to me that, amazingly, we weren't going to die. We had been and would continue to be uncomfortable, certainly, but the air was warming with the coming of the sun and we had a downhill hike all the way back to the trailhead and the car. We had passed through the eye of the storm, so to speak, and recognizing that odd strain of success gave me enough confidence in my own abilities to finally feel that I could meet and navigate this strange natural world on its own terms. In a painful, roundabout, humbling, but ultimately effective way, I had learned my place in the wilderness.
Once the sun had fully risen, the others awoke and we found that during the night all of our water – both for drinking and for cooking the food we so desperately needed to eat – had frozen solid. Solid enough, we soon learned, that while the paltry fire we were able to get going in the snow and wind might have been fit for singeing fingers and burning holes in gloves, it wasn't going to melt the thick ice tubes our water bottles had become. There was nothing for it but to skip breakfast, pack up all of our gear in a hurry, and scramble back down the mountain, hoping the warming daytime temperatures would eventually thaw our only hope for sustenance.
By then, though, none of this really mattered much to me. I awoke on that third day to the chirping of winter birds and to the sun slanting through the tall conifers to the east. I awoke with the earth below my feet and the sky above my head, and the mountains of the Appalachian range marching along the horizon before my eyes. I smiled and it cracked my windburned lips, so I smiled some more, wiping the blood off my chin with the back of my glove.
That morning, I realized something profound about my relationship with a world far more fundamental to the human experience than the one that we call “civilization,” and I've spent the last fifteen years trying to find the best way to articulate what that lesson was.