I was sitting in my cabin off senator highway at around sunset, thinking through my options, which I felt were two: the first, the more reasonable option, was to cook some rice and vegetables, drink some milk and water, and relax, write down a few tips for packing light. I was going to give a lesson on packing light for a backpacking trip early the next morning, a skill I had never given a conscious thought to. The second, the unreasonable option, was to pour some cereal, brew a pot of coffee, and head down for a Friday night on the town, where there would be music and dancing. After using all the reason and logic I possessed, I chose the latter.
I drove down to The Raven and sat outside, listening to a solo guitarist play the blues. Like Audria, friend and classmate, I also enjoy playing the observer role at times. I thought about how there’s so much music written out of a feeling of great sadness that gives its listeners such joy. I thought about what separates joy and sadness and whether they are separate at all. Sadness is often seen as a heavy, burdensome feeling, like a 50 pound pack, while joy is thought of as a light feeling, like a 10 pound pack. Where joy is burdens are not. Sitting there, I couldn’t help feeling that deep, heavy sadness and light joy are closer than they often appear.
A man I assumed to be homeless stood next to his bike beside me outside The Raven. Perhaps all he owned was on the back of that bike. He was carrying his burden, riding his way through. I could see that what he felt was much more than the sadness in his eyes. I could perceive that the discernible sadness included a less obvious joy that just needed an outlet. It was the suppression of the joy that led to the expression of the sadness. Maybe what kills us in the end, I thought, is not being without any joy in our hearts but keeping the joy down for too long within until it get too deep to express.
Part of going to the wilderness is to feel, not solely joy, not solely melancholy, but the full range of human emotion. Feel deeply, authentically. To feel and be human again. Carrying a heavy pack may numb us of what we could feel, may lead us into dwelling so much on our physical burdens that we do not feel that full spectrum. Packing light does not mean that we will not be free of all our burdens, but maybe it will help us to express that heavy burden as well as the light joy.
The guitarist in The Raven started playing a song originally written by Bob Dylan, Girl From the North Country. The first verse of the song goes:
When you travel to the north country fair
When the wind hits heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one lives there
For she once was a true friend of mine
This yearning for something, someone, once here, now gone away.
Once a part of your life, still a part of your life, but you not a part of her life. Though out of reach, out of touch, she is still kept in mind.
And maybe that yearning for the woman who left is a yearning for more than the woman. Maybe that woman is a symbol of all that is lost or almost lost, more than a lost love, but a lost opportunity, possibility, a lost home. Maybe the yearning for the woman from up north is also the yearning for the wilderness, that vast wilderness up north in the Gates of the Arctic, the wilderness where we can find direction, not towards north or south or east or west, but in a way that transcends the human practical definition of direction. Here we walk not east towards Mecca or west towards California or north to the Last Frontier or south to some Eldorado. Here we walk not towards some Utopia, where we can build the perfect form of civilization, but in a present reality that we will not allow to become a past glory, where we can stop for a second in the stillness and say: here, I feel something that I do not feel in any technological paradise, in any urban dream. Here is no dream, no unreal paradise. Here is the real, what has been here before us and what must remain after us. Here we can find a meaning to all our endless wanderings and yearnings. Though we may have searched for a long time in the wrong places and found only disillusionment, here is the right place, which validates the yearning and redeems it. And maybe that’s why the desire to preserve it is so strong.
The wilderness, what used to be our home. Once here, now almost gone.