Alone with the Bear: Adventures in Wilderness Solitude

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

Anxiety enveloped the students like a cloud, the energy of eight people trapped in a van crossing vast spaces in the Big Sky Country. Our transport reached the Northfork of the Blackfoot trail after several hours on the road. We piled out and began unloading our heavy packs and laced our boots tight. Posing for pictures, we all crowded in front of a big, box-like Winnebago motor home that had somehow found its way into the trailhead parking lot.

On the trail and into the wilderness, the twelve day of the Wilderness and Civilization program at the University of Montana was ongoing. We were one of several groups that entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex from multiple portals with the intent to rendezvous in the wild for several days before taking alternate routes out of the wilderness. We knew little about each other, but as we made our way into the Scapegoat Wilderness area, the pleasant October sunshine and easy trail grade began to spark a sense of intimacy. Dexter, the group leader and a professor of English, began inquiring about my former tenure as a professional wilderness specialist with the USDI Bureau of Land Management. Between breaths I tried to explain the details of my wilderness review in the Wyoming energy extraction economy.

It was then a wilderness ranger emerged from nowhere onto the trail ahead of us in quieting my reflected anguish. He immediately engaged Dexter into an easy conversation. Good technique, I thought. It seemed I could now rest my case against the “burrocats” and trek quietly along internalizing the surrounding wildness. But there was something odd about the ranger, a contextual mistake in his appearance seemed apparent. As he stood easy before us, I noticed his trousers were creased and spotless with no mud anywhere, not even on his boots. He showed no signs of weariness that normally follow a ten mile trek in the wet and muddy environment we were about to enter. He told Dexter about and alternate foot trail that would keep us out of the mud and horse dung, intimating he has just walked out using it.

“Thanks,” we muttered.

He had no idea that I had seen through his ruse. As we hiked, I noticed no tracks of anyone having walked this way – today or any other day. We walked the half mile through mud and dung to the alternate trail and one could easily see the crud on our boots. His technique had been to linger about the trail head, wearing a back pack and hiking boots in order to teach wilderness etiquette. In my reflection, I thought it a good approach to preserving the solitary experience of wildland visitors while permitting him the chance to encourage right behavior and good conduct in the wilderness. In this way I reasoned he did not accost people in the middle of their wilderness experience but gave them a chance to enjoy the solitude.

As we reached the junction, everyone in the group remained energetic with high morale for the adventure ahead. We chose this site to eat our lunch. It was on a bench above the river. There was something of a steep incline to access the fresh mountain water but Dexter and I decided to traverse down to the water for a drink. The icy liquid numbed our hands as we submerged canteens into the rushing water. Pouring over the boulders, the cascade was alive with negative charged ions, which seemed to wash the civilization away from us. It felt good and refreshing while creating something of a perfect moment in time.

Having resumed our trek, we made our way to the convergence of the dry fork with the north fork of the Blackfoot River where we rested briefly along the trail. Packs aside and feet elevated, the waning sun was still strong enough to feel good in the crispness of an autumn day. However our campsite beckoned and in response to the need to secure the night we moved on while the light remained. Selecting a campsite removed from the others, I wondered about this group considering how they might view their wilderness experience. Would they see it as a holy thing, were “man” retreats for communion with the spirits or nature persons? Or would they be primarily interested in a social recreation or “primitive” party? The camp will tell, I thought.

Together as a group, I assumed there would be a communal fire but the question remained – would it be reflective and subdued or rowdy and festive. Some short time later while finishing my meal, apart form the others, there came a raucous cry, something like a crow breaking the silence, when Julie exclaimed “eat till you puke” – “haw, haw, he, he” – as it echoed into the deepening night. Along to consider and meditate wilderness solitude, my mind reeled like sporting days past when colliding with a running back at full steam. The bonfire was on replete with a harmonica and flute as if we had camped in some recreational backdrop to the city.

Might there be any room for the spirits in this environment, I mused. It was something outside my experience, like the difference between a modern pow wow and the traditional vision quest; I was jarred by the commotion. Had we left civilization back there in Missoula, or just brought our party to the wilderness, continued my thoughts. The group spirit was just too strong for my meditation upon the land.

As I had no wish to join the rowdy group, I had made a small fire nearby my camp. While I fed the flames quietly with small sticks I had gathered earlier, Dexter came by to join me. Having heard something of my abiding concern for environmental ethics together with the escalation of a potential nuclear war emerging in the political climate of the times, he inquired about my views on the problem. Dexter had a keen and penetrating mind that would often get to the point of the matter while deriving powerful insights into the inquiry. As a result, conversations with him were often enlightening as he made you think out your responses and clarify your ideas in a way that separated the shaft from the grain. You could not help but benefit from him as you came away from the conversation empowered with the clarity of having examined your thoughts.

At the time, I was nurturing a thesis of atomic metaphysics contesting the virtues of anthropogenic fission and fusion experiments. My thinking was along the lines that the fission of matter was a non-natural process engendered by humanity to create atomic bombs while fusion was a normative process enlightening our day with the light of energy. As such I postulated that fission was an artificial corrupting up matter that leaves a profane and deadly radioactive after effect. Of course radiation was a by product of fusion as well but the difference being it did not profane standing conergies of matter and being; on the contrary merged them in a oneness of union while generating a life giving solar radiation that empowered photosynthesis. Hence, on the one hand fission broke down the bonds of matter releasing a deadly cataclysm while on the other hand fusion merged cohesion of matter while generating energy to light the world. From this perspective, I mused the splitting of the atom was an unethical practice that ought not to be supported in the moral universe of human endeavor. Dexter had apparently heard about these thoughts from my philosophy professor mentor Tom Birch who led another group in this wilderness adventure. Curious it seems he had chosen to inquire into my idea that evening.

Overhearing our discussion, some of the others began to join us. They came perhaps seeking their teacher and his approval but they had their thoughts too and wanted to share them. My thesis had emerged from concern for nuclear holocaust as the Reagan administration proposed tactical battlefield weapons in defense of our European allies. The debate being coined in the absolute narrative of Western styled freedom versus its denial in communist states. Framed in this manner, there was no alternative to question the merits of freedom, an abstraction, in stark contrast to life, an organic reality, itself. It was a mind over matter ideology threatening wildness as the generative force of being. Perhaps it was not the ordinary after dinner conversation for a group of adventurers having begun several days in the wilderness but then what better place to confront the mad abstractions growing from our civilized existence where ideology triumphs organic existence.

As we sat there in the epicenter of wildness, Dexter’s inquiry had launched my emerging thoughts to an ethical response to an emerging nuclear crisis. Did this measure of seriousness have a place in our wilderness experience? Might it be an intrusive impact upon our wilderness adventure? It seemed to me, the concern was again formulated in an intrinsic versus and utilitarian ethical debate. Where we here on the one hand to enjoy our personal pleasure of a primitive unconfined recreation or on the other hand to benefit from a communion of the soul in wildness? Perhaps as an ending day fare, the discussion was fuel for meditation upon our moral relationship with the land as we set out for our wilderness quest.

In terms of the wilderness experience, my thinking on the matter has always been shaped by my traditional Native cultural inheritance, which has stressed the need to commune with the spirits or nature persons as a means of acquiring power and establish a harmony ethic with nature. Hence I have always tended to see wilderness as a spiritual adventure where the wild spaces are sacred as home to the spirits. Conversely I had learned in my reading and social experiences of Western based society where civilization had domesticated the wild, there is a need for primitive unconfined recreation to rejuvenate the soul as it dissipated in urban life. In the later case, there is something of a utilitarian value in the anthropogenic recreational experience of wildness. However good one my decree this valuation of wilderness it is I assert an anthropocentric way of looking at the fount of life. Whereas in the Native valuation of the spirits or nature person, there is acknowledgment of the other derived in the moral notion of intrinsic worth. Wildness in this view demands moral standing and the response obliges reciprocity with nature.

My thoughts aside the social compact of the group experience was emergent as people took their place about us in the chilly evening air. Overhearing our discussion, Jim began commenting on how nuclear power can save wilderness. He advanced the idea of partisan nuclear scientists who sold a peaceful use of atoms for energy production in a power hungry world. He suggested nuclear power reduces the consumptive demand for resource extraction but gave no thought to the secondary by products of lethal radioactive wastes that must be isolated from biological forms for a virtual eternity. While his initial assumption is wrong, the resource extraction demand is not lessened by the acquisition of uranium but in fact heightened in the exploitation of wildlands in the endless demand for energy. Oblivious to the second problem, Jim grew sullen and silent as I pointed out the waste storage problems. Later in Missoula, he threw up his hands and walked away from the program telling others he intended to pursue a career in geology like that of his father rather than become a conservationist. A self-serving anthropocentricism had long ago shaped his axiological worldview. Jim was off to become his father and forget his mother.

As I contemplated Jim’s position, there was a popular muse formulating in my head, it was called “The Last Resort” composed by the Eagles and featuring a lonely vocal set to a somber tune.

She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee,
Just as her father came across the sea
She heard about a place people were smilin’,
They spoke about the red man’s way, how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere to the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand or a place to hide

Kent, another student, sought to assert an anti-nuke argument but it was not well thought out and his formulation floundered so that he lost attention and faded into the background. It was as if he had taken the position simply to steal the group’s interest and bask in their attention but clearly he lacked the ability and the reason to sustain his argument. He was the scion of a highly successful Wyoming attorney and the domination was apparent in is ready assertions to get attention while his arguments never panned out in rational discourse. Later back at the university, he sulked away from the program failing to read a book and feeling abused when his assertions never measured up to rational inquiry. The sobering song rolled on in my head.

Down in the crowded bars out for a good time,
Can’t wait to tell you all what it’s like up there
And they called it paradise, I don’t know why
Somebody laid the mountains low while the town got high

Maybe the wilderness would help him to find himself but he needed that before committing to his university studies. It was apparent he had to escape the shadow of his father, but perhaps it was on the horizon, as he appeared interested in a young woman who next ventured a comment. She was from suburban Orange County in California and had earlier expressed her wilderness ethos in reading the region’s expansion onto the orange groves south of Los Angeles. Robin’s remark were tinged with history that marked the expansion of urban sprawl upon domesticated lands, which had already been dramatically reduced of their inherent wildness. It was an event, she could only know through history reflected in either readings or anecdote that happened incidentally to come her way. Indirectly it addressed the nuclear argument with the problem of the anthropogenic growth ethos that powers Western economic systems. Again The Eagles’ sobering words flooded my head.

Then the chilly winds blew down across the desert,
Through the canyons of the coast to the Malibu
Where the pretty people play hungry for power
To light their neon way and give them things to do
Some rich man came and raped the land, nobody caught ’em,
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes and, Jesus, people bought ’em
And they called it paradise, the place to be,
They watched the hazy sun sinking in the sea

Robin had entered the conversation intent on asserting the need for a nuclear deterrent assuming we must protect our freedom at all costs but when I pointed out there is no freedom if we are all dead, she let it go while we shifted the conversation toward social factors contributing to the narrative. It was an ideological metanarrative – singular absolute universal truth clam – obliged out of an abstract purity fueling our death wish teleology.

My internal musing continued as the last template of the song moved me.

You can leave it all behind and sail to Lahaina
Just like the missionaries did so many years ago
They even brought a neon sign ‘Jesus is Coming’,
Brought the white man’s burden down, brought the white man’s reign
Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God
And you can see them there on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about what it’s like up there
They called it paradise, I don’t know why
You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye

As Dexter stood to leave, my argument had taken a different track tacking the metaphysics of Western society rather than those of nature but there was more to the argument. It entailed an idea grounded in the process metaphysics of life in its endless give and take with the manifesting will-of-the-land. Both Dexter and I knew it was a viewpoint that would require more discussion at another time. For the moment we retired our thoughts and prepared for bed.

As the sounds of night stalking wildlife filled the darkness, we slept with an essential rest weary from the trail and depth of our conversation. My night was very restful and I awoke with the sun well before the others. As the morning sunlight began burning off the night chill, I prepared and consumed my breakfast. Afterwards I broke my camp and packed my things so that I was ready to hit the trail when Dexter emerged from his tent. Taking a moment, I approached him to speak about my plans to hike ahead and meet the group at a prominent campsite for our second night out. It was the place where the Scapegoat gives way to the Bob Marshall and nothing but a mark on the map. It was a campsite that could meet the needs of a group such as ours so we agreed to rendezvous later in the day at that point.

As I prepared to hoist my backpack, I noticed a young woman looking directly at me. She had emerged from Jim’s tent. It was Leslie, a dark eyed woman of Asian-Caucasian heritage, and she also seemed ready to begin the day’s trek. Without a word, our eyes met as I made secure my backpack and turned onto the trail. Shortly afterwards, I looked back and there she was just ten feet behind me in her effort to keep pace. Again no words were spoken and we just continued hiking deeper into the wilderness. It was tempting to think and dream romance, but I had begun this trek with the intent of studying the literature of wilderness solitude and advance my thesis on the subject and she was apparently with Jim so I walked onward with little attention to her.

As I contemplated my experience with the BLM, I recalled a District Manager who had once accosted my senses with his compliant, “I can find solitude in my closet what are we doing looking for it in all these wide open spaces?” He was responding to a clause in the 1964 Wilderness Act that served to partially define wilderness within our inventory guidelines. We were to evaluate solitude as a factor of landscapes and their suitability for wilderness designation. The manager’s comment was a highhanded dismissal of our wilderness inventory. Involving the largest inventory unit in Wyoming, he sought to express his assessment of the purpose of our Congressional mandate to conduct wilderness inventory and study of the public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. As a professional wilderness specialist working on the adjacent district, I was obliged to listen to him because the inventory unit overlapped both districts with ours have the greatest extent of land. It meant a kind of joint inventory between the two district personnel and I feared his staff had already seemed to have made up their mind in a position agreeable to their District Manager was shafting me.

In the meeting I was not buying his dismissal of the unit’s wilderness potential and when my opportunity to speak emerged I painted a very different picture from that of his people. In the place, I saw outstanding opportunities for wilderness solitude and primitive unconfined recreational activities that characterized our guiding inventory mandates. He was not happy but I pressed on with a thesis I had been formulating concerning the intent of the framers of the law as to why they included wilderness solitude in the definition of a wilderness area. The manager’s dismissal of wilderness solitude served to show how uninformed he was on the intent and purpose of protecting wilderness areas in the first place. Indeed the remarks seemed to fail a comprehension of the spirit of the law, as I understood inherent to the 1964 Wilderness act. This incident, of course, would not be the first time in public land management that a bureaucrat had sabotage a poetic understanding of land management as it speaks to a problem of professional training associated with the failure to include the humanities in forest conservation and land management curriculums. Indeed from my experiences in federal land management, I was engaged in wilderness, recreational, and cultural resource activities that in and of themselves demanded an understanding of the humanistic heritage inherent to our public lands, national forests, parks, and other holdings. There is, in my opinion, a crying need for studies in what may be labeled forest humanities reflecting the literature, history and cultural heritages bequeathed to our public lands, etc. Otherwise we are not serving the administrative demands, which our conservation laws entail in land management activities. Although vaguely aware, at best, of this mandate during this time I was determined to share something of my own intellectual quest in this matter. Hence, I began speaking about the literature that had inspired the notion of wilderness solitude – writers such as Thoreau, Muir, Marshall, Douglas, Carson, and others – were at the fore of my intellect acquired long ago in public libraries during my youth in Maple Valley, Washington. There was, I declared, a literature of wilderness solitude that had inspired that clause within the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Well I am sure my audience had neither the desire to hear this argument nor the training to understand it. I may as well have been taking to the walls for all the good it did but the experience nonetheless merits reflection. It was clear to me, this local District Manager either too arrogant to acknowledge his obligation under the law or too blind in his ignorance of nature writing to begin to understand his responsibilities to the land. As a result, the best he could offer was to sabotage the law with his baseless definition of wilderness solitude. Rather than draw upon the agency’s mandates as established by the Washington office, he interpolated a kind of cloistered solitude in lieu of wilderness solitude as a means of expressing his will to dismiss the unit’s suitability for wilderness designation. His minions got the message and were prepared to follow their leader, however, I was not giving in to his coercion even if it cost me my job.

In response, I went on to explain we can objectively measure topographic and vegetative screening as an indicator of cloistered solitude by simply studying topographic geological survey maps. Most likely I asserted we would find this area suitable under those terms but that is not the intent of wilderness solitude within the wilderness act. The wilderness movement had in mind, I asserted an experience matching the nature writers who addressed and advanced a “literature of wilderness solitude” which I presumed to be “the poetics of the soul as it embraces wildness.” After all these years, I remember my words, “It is the manner to which wildlands contribute to the poetics of the soul that makes wilderness solitude and this insight is reflected in the law.” The miscreant manager has no answer as he sat looking around the conference room and I knew it was the beginning of the end for me.

The experience weighed heavily upon me as I conducted a wilderness review of some two million acres of public land in southwest Wyoming on the BLM’s Rock Springs District. Working with my colleague from the adjoining resource area, we began a joint effort examining one of my units to prepare a prototype report. one that could be used as a primer for the other inventory units. It led to the crafting and embellishment of the wilderness inventory guidelines to include some of these literary, historical and cultural ideas associated with nature writing and wildlands. Relying upon readings from my youth and during my undergraduate years, I shared the ideas with my colleague and our techs. My associate called it “flowery language” but then he was a Montana boy with a background in outfitting. Although he was not so receptive to the poetics of wilderness, he did understand and appreciate the values of a wilderness experience. We seemed to have a rapport that lead us to respect nature for different reasons but nonetheless reaching to an essential appreciation for what I was later called the “will-of-the-land” as I came to derivate the meaning of the notion that is wilderness in respecting it evolutionary propriety as a function of ecological process. Conversely the administrators had other thoughts, just as I had learned from the adjoining District Manager in his remarks about solitude.

It was early summer when our District Manager called my summer technician and me into his office to discuss our work. He had been briefed concerning my draft report and apparently like his counterpart from the adjoining district he sought to establish his position and authority on the inventory process. Although my colleague from the adjacent resource area had called it a good report and stood by me, the district recreation planner a man of very limited imagination and ability, failed to grasp the report’s intrinsic significance as it attended to an attempt to address the intent behind the Wilderness Act. With my report in hand, the District Manager declared,

“You are inventorying other areas and nine of ten of them should drop.”

Aghast I looked at him with incredulity at his dictate, I had not even seen the other units much less reach a conclusion on them. It seemed he had no regard for an objective and professional inventory. Flustered, I began quoting our inventory regulations and before I finished, he broke in saying,

“Don’t quote your God damn regulations to me. Just do it.”

Delivered with a menacing intimidation, the message was transparent if I knew what was good for my professional career with the BLM. It nonetheless challenged my professional integrity and I was not about to give that to him. Hence with this edict echoing in my ears, I began the wilderness inventory of eleven units comprising nearly two hundred fifty thousand acres of wildlands. About those times, one might say it was a summer of wilderness and as the season passed I spent my days and nights exploring some remarkable landscapes while making an effort to discover genuine wilderness solitude and accompanying supplemental values – ecological, cultural, historical and scientific in nature. Wild values possessed by the public lands despite years of neglect and abuse. In the end, I returned to the DM recommending nine of eleven units for further study forward bringing them into the next phase of our wilderness review. It was the calm before the storm as I faced an onslaught of retaliation cast in the charge of insubordination. Faced with an angry contempt and retribution, I defended my actions speaking to the local and statewide media. Shortly afterwards I found myself suspended for having exercised my first amendment rights, something that the courts would later take away from federal employees denying my quest for justice.

The suspension – a three week period – proved fatal but in an effort to find some solace I engaged another wilderness adventure heading south to Arches, Zion, and the Grand Canyon to further engage the poetics of wilderness solitude.
In my absence, however, a crafty Area Manage with beady eyes formulated three memorandums directed specifically at me and although absent by forced decree each lead to a failure of duty that I could not engage. It was a paradox – termed Catch 22 in literary circles – as I was obliged to perform certain duties but prevented from doing them by administrative suspension. Some months later, each failure from these untimely memos served as a reason for termination. Under this regime, there was no recourse – no means to validate my professional career and let justice be served – it was an dictatorial edict designed to remove me and end my “insubordination” as a working professional land manager with integrity.

In the following months while I awaited the end, my duties were systematically stripped and I found myself engaged in a kind of trickster ecotage restoring damaged wildlands. For instance, in some cases seismic activity from the fifties had created trails made by pushing juniper trees over with a bulldozer blade. It has left some scarring that was noticeable but no one had given any thought to its rehabilitation as the land retained an essential wildness in character. It was still spring like at that elevation with moisture in the ground, so I reasoned that you could still plant and make things grow. Since I had very few duties and for certain a limited time remaining to me although I had not been given a termination letter, I reasoned that I could put these spring days to use helping restore the wild character of some of my wilderness inventory units. With a nice new four-wheel drive pickup complete with a wench, I set out at the terminal point of these seismic trails and began winching the skeletal trees back into place covering the intrusive blade marks. In and under the shade of the breastwork I was creating, I transplanted small juniper trees and pushed their berry seeds into the soft moist earth. There was a sense of particular pleasure in restoring these torn places and giving the earth a chance to recover its wildness.

On one particular April day, I was hard at this ecotage when I noticed it was time to go back to the office. Although I knew I was going to be late, I thought not to call in with my radio because for the most part no one ever did this unless it was under severe winter alert and as a professional you were expected to do your job even if it required overtime beyond an eight hour day. There had been no chatter or calls sent out to locate me, but when I reached to top of a rise suddenly I noticed my colleague coming the other way. He radioed the office reporting I had been found when as far as I knew I was not lost. It was another nail spiked into my record, the Area Manager had called out a search and rescue mission on a day when I worked in shirtsleeves and bore the marks of perspiration. It was later said that I was in danger of exposure from winter conditions that had never been apparent where I was working.

Although the time for planting passed before I could rehabilitate other areas, there were additional things I could do to restore the balance of wildness to manmade intrusions on these spaces. Some of the units had ways that were near impassible and subject to severe erosion. With a little help these could be made impassible and as long as they were within the review process no one could reconstruct the passageways. Locating the most likely erosive sites, I used my Pulaski tool to help the elements make their washouts impassible. Helping these endangered wildlands with the process of erosion and restoration was a parting legacy to the BLM that gave me a sense of trickster creator, as I knew his activities from my tribal oral narratives; Bobtail, as we knew him, was my guide.

It is from this legacy that I arrived in Montana at the university determined to make a difference in my academic platform of wilderness studies and the philosophy of ecology, as well as a formal attention to Native American religious traditions. And it is for these reasons; I was along with Dexter in studying another context of wilderness solitude while formulating a philosophical treatise on its explication.

Somehow in the meditation of walking, I had lost track of Leslie in fact even of myself as I recovered my identity when a blister chafed my foot. It was an awakening where I found myself atop the continental divide. Taking a moment I sat atop what I later learned from my Pikuni-Blackfeet friends to be the Backbone of the World. It was an amazing perch as I looked out over some of the most pristine remaining wildlands on earth. But then from my professional training, I realized I was no longer on the trail and in fact on no trail at all. How had his come about, I asked myself. You read and hear of runners and others in a state of Zen like ecstasy becoming one with their environment and I mused this experience was just that a moment of wilderness solitude. Later I read a paper of a wilderness canoe trip reported as religion and surely this is exactly what I was experiencing there atop the Backbone of the World.

Reckoning with my map I determined, I was on a direct vector from where I had left the group to our rendezvous point at Pretty Prairie. It seems my subconscious knew I needed to be away from the social group and it had lead me to bushwhack my way to this point of continental elevation. As I had oriented my position, I could see where I needed to be on the next day so as to make my way to the rendezvous site where all the groups were appointed to arrive in two days time. The ridgeline was broad at this expansive locale, so I pitched my tent and slept atop the world. During the night I noticed it was getting colder and I awoke in the morning to snow already accumulated to an inch or more on the ground. It was to prove the mark of hardship as I had no trail, but I knew direction and I set our downhill to a stream that would take me to my chosen campsite. I faced the elements with heart and determination as I crossed the untrammeled wilderness. It was difficult, as I would often slip on the snow and despite my rain gear everything seemed to be wet. It was a timeless adventure as I would fall, slide, curse, and admire the magnificence I alone beheld in traversing the steep slope.

In crossing the great divide, I had left the Columbia River watershed and entered the headlands of the Upper Missouri. Following a small rivulet down the face, I knew it would take me to the headwaters of the Sun River where I wished to camp for the night. Dimly, I thought how these waters made their way across the continent to another ocean. Flowing through the high plains, badlands, pastures, fields and cities, the Missouri nourishes all. It plays no favorites and asks no favors for its gift but we all depend on it. Standing on the spongy grass beneath a snow laden spruce, I thrilled to this insight into the earth’s ecological consciousness.

The water in the rivulets, plummets down the mountain face just as I had while it gives life to the country thousands of miles distant. As I made my way, I lunged over these sheer snow covered slopes slipping and falling, crossing and re-crossing the engorging creek at the bottom of a V-notched canyon. Exhausted in this rough going, the creek ravine broadened giving way to a narrow bottom that offered passage free of the impossible slopes. There was, however, a tangled mass of downed trees, which made my traverse painstakingly difficult. Cascading down the drainages, the autumn snow melts moved from spruce boughs and other vegetation into the stream and I found myself wet and chilled to the bone. Eventually with great relief, I intersected the trail. With a short respite, I managed to retrieve some lemon drops from my pack as a means to combat the fatigue.

Down the darkening trail I trudged while seeking a campsite and a place to build a fire. In this solitude, I comprehended the intimidation of predatory elements where I alone could secure my fate. It was dark when I reached the campsite and I knew I needed heat to warm my core but first I dad to drop my things and start my stove to warm some water. I had some hot chocolate in a side pouch that I poured into the bubbling water. It was soon ready and I fairly scotched my throat gulping it down. With a candle, I managed to get some shavings burning so as to add tinder fuel that sputtered but caught and began a warming fire. Soon I had gathered enough wood for the night and I began drying out my gear by the fire. My boots steamed with the heat and some clothing hissed as it dried. With the chores complete, I turned in for a restful night alone in the wilderness.

Next morning, the third day out, I found my boots stiff as boards but at least my clothing was dry and I managed to lace the boots tight and start down the trail towards the Pretty Prairie rendezvous site. The trail was consistent with my map so that I was again oriented to my wilderness surroundings. The bewilderment was past as landmarks were clear along the trail. However, my muscles ached from the ordeal and I began to tell myself, just a little further, just a little further. Without realizing it, I had made nine miles with only one to go in reaching the rendezvous site so I decided to camp nearby the trail in an open prairie-like forest environment – it was a meadow laced with Ponderosa Pine trees. As I turned in for the night, owls hooted, coyotes howled, and elk bugled. Alone in the wilderness, I thought? Wilderness solitude, I concluded, is the enchantment of being overwhelmed with nature at one with being. “In wildness is the preservation of the world” had been Thoreau’s truth and I think in that moment I knew what he meant.

With the sounds of wildness all about me, it had been a night of enchantment accompanying a compelling mood, which gave voice to verse and I composed a poem in the soft morning light. The images flowed effortlessly as I sat within my little tent and the rain fell softly on the fly covering it.

Great Bear

Follow your curiosity
the truth is in your heart
the truth you know.

Adventurer of the North and Bering Straits,
the new world, Turtle Island awaits.
A million years ago Alaska called you –
a million years ago you crossed.

Great Bear, curious wanderer
do you still scent the winds,
are you fishing King Salmon waters,
do you claw and mark the aspen stands,
are you lured still to mountain rivers?

What kind of bears are these –
playing hide and seek with their shadows,
gazing at sunsets and shooting stars,
sliding down snowbanks and hiking in moonlight?
Curious Onlookers, keepers of power and natural dignity.

Great Bear, Montana’s majestic
Ruler of the land. Legendary master,
Glacier King, mountain monarch –
I need to know you are there.

Great Bear, “the looming other”
From the Rocky Mountain wilderness.
Less are the horse, the dog and even the grey wolf,
Kiayo, master of instinct and reason,
Teacher of humility and wild virtues.
No civilization and zoos for you.

Roam the shining mountains
your wild dominant domain.

Greatest of wild animals, mountain king
verged now on extinction and doom/
the white man’s blade,
touching the life.

What has come to the solitary woods,
The timeless green summer forests?
Domestication and loss.
Great Bear, keeper of the wilderness,
Civilization has passed you by.

Outlaw Grizzlies, sleeping in the den,
touched by starlight, wonder and wildness
fierce with pride of liberty and freedom,
jealous and proud enough to see these virtues threatened.

Out of the woods, the gray solitude.
An old bear, fierce and ruthless.
Old Priam, solitary, indomitable and alone
Master of the wild invincible spirit’s truth

Honor, pride, pity, justice, courage and love
Love, courage, justice, pity, pride and honor

The truth that is one
the truth that doesn’t change
the truth that covers all things
touching the heart.

With the poem composed, I relished this fourth day alone in the wildness. Four days and four nights I had embraced this wilderness and in my solitude the bear, the grizzly bear, had come to me. It was then my ears perked with a start, Did someone call my name? Opening the fly of my tent, I crawled out of my little habitat to discover Kent, Jim, and others from my group. They stood in the trail looking quizzically at me and I asked,

“Who are you?”

In response, they offered, “Wilderness Institute” as if it were a question and when to my chagrin I recognized my companions someone turned to inquire, “Why did you not leave any notes?”

In Memoriam of a beloved Mentor
Dexter Merritt Roberts (1931-2015)
Professor of English
University of Montana

Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA

Photo by byrdyak

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