A couple nights ago I awoke with a pounding in my head. My throat was uncomfortably dry, I was damp with sweat and my face felt like it was being pressed into the sand. I had somehow managed to position myself deep inside my sleeping bag, and I couldn’t see anything. I wanted to get out. I twisted myself around, extending my arms as I searched for the zipper that could set me free. My fingers grasped the warm metal. As I unzipped it, I felt the cool night air seeping into me. I pulled myself out, emerging from the capsule that entombed me. Gazing upward, I almost felt reborn. Thousands of stars were scattered in the sky above me. There was no moon, but I could still see the silhouettes of the canyon cliff faces that surrounded me. I could make out the croaks of woodhouse toads amongst the trickling of the nearby spring. I let out a long sigh. The wind seemed to agree with me.

Since entering Dark Canyon, I’ve been struggling to cope with my emotions. A certain part of me has been feeling apart from me. My mind isn’t fully present. Traversing through the winding slopes of the Woodenshoe Trail, I’m burdened with distracting thoughts which feel as though they are eating at me, taking away from my experience. They cause me to zone out in moments where I should be more attentive. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, potentially burning out, maybe I’m not getting enough time alone with myself. I feel disconnected. I long for moments where I can stand amongst the towering pines, breathing in the cleansing air, graceful and content in my own being and embracing what surrounds me. Is that too much to ask?

“What are you hoping to gain from this experience in the desert?” I am taken back to a conversation from several months ago with a friend of mine. “I don’t know,” I responded. In his eyes I saw the look of disappointment, causing me to add a little. “Hopefully I’ll strengthen my connection with the Earth.”

I chose to participate in WRFI because I longed for a stronger connection with the Earth. Knowing that it would be a profound experience, I walked into the wild with an open mind. Little did I know that I was also heading into the uncharted wilderness of my mind. Here there is no limit to where my thoughts can fester. With each step that I take down the trails of the canyon, my feet colliding with the dry earth, I step further into the reaches of my often chaotic mind. There are times where I just want to embrace what my sight brings me, study the sounds that make their way into my ears or let sensations permeate through my skin, but oftentimes my conscience has been louder that the landscape surrounding me. It yanks me from the slickrock beneath my feet and returns me home for split-seconds. There are people I want to see. Conversations that I’ve been yearning to have. Relationships I want to rekindle. Am I homesick? No, not necessarily… All I can do is exhale, attempt to release these thoughts from my mind, and return to where I am. Dave’s voice echoes through my mind. “Don’t leave the canyon before you leave the canyon.” I’m sorry, Dave. 

Despite my inner conflicts, there are moments when I am blessed with clarity, moments where peace upwells from deep within me and relaxes my mind. A few days ago, I stumbled into camp after a soul-testing 12-mile trek in search for water. Our camp was positioned in between towering sandstone cliffs which loomed above us like mountains. It was nearly evening; the sunlight had shifted to a golden hue and was desperately trying to work its way through the partly cloudy sky. I lay, exhausted beneath a towering ponderosa pine. My shoulders were aching, and my hips felt numb. I closed my eyes for a minute in attempt to let my mind become at ease.   

A soft breeze caused my eyelids to flutter. A solitary birdsong brought me back to reality. I let my eyes open, and almost immediately felt overcome by beauty. Above me, the ponderosa branches accepted the embrace of the wind. Their needles were shimmering, dancing in the evening glow. Behind them, the clouds had opened and brought forth an array of golden beams of sunlight, magnificent in their entirety, dancing in and out of the clouded darkness like ripples on water. For a moment, all in me was still. I felt held by the ground, and embraced by the wind, appreciated by the sun. I felt present, unoccupied by anything else, except the gifts that the Earth was allowing me to witness. 

There must be reason behind my mental wandering. Maybe I need to recognize it as a gift that the wilderness is providing to me. Where else can I witness the most stripped down, truest side of myself? Navigating through this unfamiliar landscape gives me the space and time in which I can navigate through my own head, meditating, contemplating, and even worrying. I can connect to myself and recognize my thoughts in a place where nothing is holding me back. The Earth can provide comfort which reminds me who I am and where I’ve come from. Surely this is the reorientation that I have been seeking.

Once again, I’m walking through an unfamiliar landscape. The path that I follow rises along a slope, winding through a grove of beautiful, young aspens. For a moment I stop, and listen to the whistling of the wind fluttering through the golden green, shimmering leaves. It’s truly magnificent to behold. Suddenly, a thought pops into my head. “I wish you could be here to see this.” I am swept back, paralyzed by this idea. A robin flies from behind me, landing on the trail several feet before my eyes. It looks at me, cocks its head, curious to see me. The bird returns to the sky. Smiling, I return to my thought, changing my outlook. “I can’t wait to tell you about this.” In this moment, I am here. Present in a place of such beauty and tranquility. The Earth has reoriented me, and given me the opportunity to listen to the songs that it sings. What a gift.