What makes you feel alive and happy? Until two weeks ago, I thought the answer – for me – was pretty simple: being out in nature. Surprisingly, I didn’t necessarily consider “wildness” a huge plus; it seemed to me that open space and beauty were the key ingredients. In fact, I’d assumed that because I’m not brave about hanging out with predators like bears and mountain lions that I probably feel happier in environments that are beautiful and open, but where the risk of running into a scary animal when I’m far from a safe retreat is pretty low. The few times that I ran into a bear while I was far from the trailhead resulted in either the bear running away, or me getting away as fast as I could.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing I like more than watching wildlife, but it’s not something that I’ve done a lot of when I’m actually in the wild. I spend a lot of time hiking and backpacking, but during those trips I’m usually hoping that I won’t see a grizzly bear or a mountain lion. Intellectually I knew that truly wild spaces are important, but I didn’t really – in my gut – understand the value of those places.
So what changed two weeks ago?
We decided to hike to Lewis and Clark Pass, a short, easy day hike on the edge of Scapegoat Wilderness in the Helena National Forest. It’s not country that anyone would consider truly wild, since there are plenty of roads in the area. But it’s a pretty hike, and on the Sunday we hiked it there was only one other pickup at the trailhead. We started off and met the pickup owners hiking down. They mentioned in an offhand way that there was a grizzly sow and cub up near the pass. That got my attention. I grilled them about where exactly they were, and was assured that they were not near the trail, but that you could see them from the pass. That sounded OK, although I wasn’t quite as thrilled about this news as my husband was. I agreed to hike to the pass, but I insisted that if we couldn’t see where the bears were when we got there we were turning around. So far, no epiphany for me – I was pretty much pre-occupied with being nervous.
At a big open saddle below the pass we stopped and glassed the hillside where we thought the bears should be. And there they were: a grizzly sow and her cub of the year, between a quarter and half a mile away from us, digging roots along the Continental Divide trail. I was spellbound. They were far enough away that I was able to focus on how amazing it was to be able to sit and watch them instead of simply being fearful. For the first time I truly understood what a privilege it is to be able to visit a wild place; a place that provides a space for animals as wild as grizzly bears to live. That just knowing that these places are there adds value to our lives, even if we don’t go there often. This was an epiphany; and silly as it sounds, I realized that I hadn’t really understood why wild spaces are so important until that moment.
I suppose I should be embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to see this, but…there it is. I think that Walkin’ Jim Stoltz would be proud of me for finally coming to a true understanding of what he was talking about when he said, “The wild places will fill you up. Let them.”