“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir
Over the next 12 weeks I am heading out to explore some of the last remaining wild places in our Western states. Every week I will travel to some new location to climb mountains, swim lakes, and trek through deserts and forests — all to witness the beauty and grandeur of nature that John Muir was talking about. While I’m there I’ll write, take photos and do a lot of listening.
When I was growing up, an influential high school teacher, Lowell Young, introduced me to the writings of Muir and other naturalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His and others’ influence led me to authors like James Allen, Diane Ackerman, Rachel Carson, Mary Austin and Kahlil Gibran and poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Each of these individuals brought new insight into why our human condition requires occasional reconnection with the natural world. What these thinkers and teachers showed me was how to honor and nurture my natural tendency toward nature, taking opportunities where I might get beyond the comfortable trappings of modern life.
As a child growing up in the Napa Valley I found myself drawn to the outdoors. Given a chance, I’d steal away from our home in St. Helena and scramble through the vineyards until I’d reach the steep slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains that rose upward into nearly irresistible forests of pine, manzanita and oak. Within their dim recesses, mossy streams slipped down the hills to glades filled with ferns and lichen-covered rocks.
Tramping up into the woods, my footsteps loud, branches and leaves cracked beneath my feet. Reaching a particularly inviting place that was soft with years of fallen leaves I might sit. If I waited, even for a few minutes, the area would slowly come back to life, birds and squirrels were the first to emerge from their hiding places. Eventually I might witness a deer timidly enter the scene and return to its business of foraging, or perhaps a salamander might stir in the moist, warm underbrush. If I sat even longer something inside of me seemed to stir, too, as if a hidden part required stillness and quiet before it could materialize.
Ever since those times I have deliberately carved space out of my life for these brief moments of quiet. Of course I’m not unique. Most everyone I know finds some solace within nature. But most of us find it hard to tear ourselves away from the comforts and conveniences of our daily habits. Me, too: The thought of hard ground, scarce food and water, and the cold are often enough to keep me from loading my backpack and heading out into the backcountry. But when I do muster the resolve I am almost always happy I did. Only on a few occasions have I taken on more than I could handle — like a time hiking in the Sierras when an early summer snowstorm left me lost and nearly frozen, or when I became separated from my scuba-diving companions during a dive to photograph hammerhead sharks. But eaMy travel rules for this series of outings include remaining within a 24-hour drive of my home in the Napa Valley; not listening, reading or otherwise engaging with news; not eating at fancy restaurants or drinking expensive wine; and only consuming what I can carry on my back.
My first stop is the desert of Utah, where I will head into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park. Next trip I head to Death Valley, and that will be followed by trips to the edges of the Grand Canyon and the salt flats of Nevada. Once the mountains thaw a bit from their deep snow packs, I will head into the mountains to see what I can see.
Beyond the weather, why go to the desert? I cannot say it better than Paul Shepard, from his book “Man in the Landscape: A historic view of the esthetics of nature.”
“The desert is the environment of revelation, genetically and physiologically alien, seriously austere, esthetically abstract. historically inimical … Its forms are bold and suggestive. The mind is beset by light and space, the kinesthetic novelty of aridity, high temperature and wind. The desert sky is encircling, majestic, terrible. In other habitats, the rim of sky above the horizontal is broken or obscured; here together with the overhead portion, it is infinitely vaster than that of rolling countryside and forest lands… In an unobstructed sky the clouds seem more massive, sometimes grandly reflecting the earth’s curvature on their concave undersides. The angularity of desert landforms imparts a monumental architecture to the clouds as well as to the land ….”
So I am off with the words of Shepard and other writers and thinkers on my mind — just like Walt Whitman: “Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, April 2017