The story of place, the relationship a person cultivates with a particular area over an extended period of time is alchemical; both place and soul are transformed and nourished. My roots are firm in the Cabinet Mountains, traversing the Precambrian metasedimentary talus slopes and extending deep into the bedrock in a symbiotic, dendritic web. It is in these mountains that I first discovered who I am and I continue to unravel in the wild landscape, even as geologic folds are warped by the elements of wind, water, and fire.
My first forays into the wilderness were destitute of any spiritual inclinations. Instead, my motivations were purely egoic and an experimental field for testing physical capabilities. Speed, elevation, distance, and duration contextualized my pursuits. I definitely exulted at the wilde expanses before me, the enduring legacy of the mountains, the sheer vertical nature of the headwall, and the grandeur of something so much greater than myself. However, my capacity to pause and revel in my surroundings was tempered by the compulsion to be somewhere else and do something else. So, with youthful vigor and haste I careened down the trail, the next adventure at the forefront of my mind. I was bereft of any sense of how these mountains were shaping me, let alone of how I could shape these mountains. Success was gauged by the number of activities and adventures I could tally in the shortest frame of time.
Wilderness is so much more than a playground for physical prowess and egoic cliff hanging; it is also a cauldron for deep spiritual awakening. A land ethic and deep ecology were concepts I encountered in college, and they began to permeate my mental ponderings slowly and rhythmically, as snow begins to melt during an April day. The more I reflected on my wilderness wanderings, the more my relationship evolved. There was a honing; a resonant knowing that the inherent worth of wilderness had nothing to with my experiential exploits yet simultaneously it had everything to do with a burgeoning spiritual unfolding, though it is only now that I can see that.
Wilderness has an amazing capacity to be mutable. It can provide any experience that is desired by those who venture into her embrace, and the experience is directly dependent on your intentions.
I have oft ventured into the hinterlands of rock and ice, devils club and alder brambles, scree slopes, moss-laden waterfalls, and craggy nameless ridges sans trails simply desiring to disappear from the mundane travails of life or thirsting for the unknown experience of wild adventure to test my physical limits. Every experience has been transformative, a catalyst for growth and connecting with the primal energy of existence. Yet, how often has my awareness been absent of intention other than self-serving; how often have I gone seeking to take from wilderness rather than to give, and how often has my lack of specific consciousness created a profoundly different experience. It is only recently that I have made specific intentions to my wilderness experience, explicitly to give back to wilderness in the form of ceremony.
I am going to share a tale of a wilderness sojourn that embodies an entirely different vibration, a paradigm shift from which there is no going back.
On an early September day, the sun still holds the summer heat; I shoulder my overnight pack and surrender to the all-familiar trail. With giddy, childlike enthusiasm, I all but skip my way to the mountain lake; meandering past rock trolls, hearing magical incantations from cascading water, and merging into the forested hillsides. My sojourn is interspersed with another Cabinet Mountains endangered species, bipedal wilderness revelers. It’s uncommon for me to meet others on the trail more oft I manage to be solo. Each encounter was punctuated with short trail chit-chat and invariably the predictable comical comment arose, “You’re going by yourself?” To which I could only reply with, “Of course!” After several of these comments, I paused to reflect on this, nothing unusual for me. Besides, this trip already had a different feel, a most subtle sensation, an intuitive knowing that I was being cradled by the Earth.
Beyond the popular destination and the desirable campsites, the trail begins to dissolve into the huckleberry thicket and the dismantling scree of the rock citadel walls. At first the path is discernable by small cairns and occasional broken branches, but soon the only way is that of the mountain goat. An all-appendage scramble, a full-body thrashing in alder without a visual outlet, and the only thought is, “I have done this before.” Onward and upward.
Soon the way opens to glacially polished rock, smooth walking for a short while. I opt to save the real bushwhack for the morning in the shadow of the mountain. There is no need, nor desire to rush this trip. Every moment is being savored, written in my DNA, imprinted in my mind. This odyssey is to honor the mountains, the Altomosyokes, wisdom keepers of the highest mountaintops.
Evening. I snuggled into my sleeping bag, ensconced in the bosom of the fault scarp with one billion-year-old sentinels watching. Words are inadequate at conveying the feeling of being held by the Earth like a newborn babe. There is no concept of fear or separateness; only the ultimate experience of serenity and security. There in the raw perfection of being, a celestial baptism; dreamtime was gently sprinkled with glimmers of the Big Dipper transiting the horizon and the full moon silently dancing overhead
Morning. The shimmer of sunlight peered over the ridge, crested Ojibway, glanced off of Rock Peak, and lingered on the crags; the morning sky breathed a new perception into me. Within the shadow, I meditated and set my intention for the day. The simple mundane task of packing up my camp was imbued with the tantalizing taste of infinite possibility and uncertainty. Beyond sight the ridgeline waited, only bands of quartzite and scree-infused bear grass need be ascended.
The first ten minutes of the scramble were laborious as I struggled to remember the way. An ah-ha moment transpired and I remembered: “Ask for guidance,” so called on Pachamama to provide the safest, smoothest way forward. Timelessness ensued. I was cast headlong into the great wormhole of circular time.
The next time I stopped to catch my breath, the pause gave way to acknowledgement of how easy the bushwhack was, how the crook in the ridgeline mysteriously appeared from beyond the abyss of the mind. There was a feeling of floating, being carried by an energy other than the self. My sojourn was greeted by the stillness of Lower Libby Lake, giving opportunity for a brief respite for gratitude and to capture the moment with my camera.
Another half-hour trek elevated me to the moonscape basin of Upper Libby Lake. This stark landscape is homage to the raw elemental forces that conspire to create life. Rock, water, air, and fire unmask the soul. There is no hiding here, neither from the elements nor the self. Within this cauldron I set to crafting an altar of stone. Listening to the rock, I ascertained how they wanted to be rearranged. Several hours later a platform oriented East and West provided a promontory over the crystal-clear waters; a temple for reflection and journeying with the stars above.
My trek into the wilderness was with the express purpose to honor the mountains. This was consecrated in the creation of an Anyi Despacho bundle; an offering of prayers for the spirits of the mountains, the waters, the trees, the animals, the stars, the wind, the clouds, everything that encompasses life. This joyous ceremony is an attentive process of acknowledgement and visioning, for all the prayers represent the infinite possibility. An Anyi Despacho is also about coming into right relations with everything. When in Anyi, life flows smoothly.
Having completed my prayer bundle, I offered it to the Earth, to be consumed by fire. I felt the gratitude of the Earth, the mother’s embrace imbued with a smile of joy, like the joy of watching your child embrace the ancient medicine.
For several days, I resided in the wilderness, memorializing the energy of my new relationship with the Earth in my DNA; honing the rhythm of the life cycle, birth, death, and rebirth; a primordial recognition of the evanescent nature of life, yet energy never dies, it only transforms. With honest heart anchored intention, the wilderness is a great midwife to a reinvented life.