I was lying on my belly scrutinizing a sagebrush when thunder began to resonate above Pilot Peak. The tall grasses surrounding me swayed with the wind against a backdrop of grays and somber blues in the storm-brewing clouds. As the raindrops became more persistent, I got up to help my cooking group put the finishing touches on our macaroni casserole for the upcoming banquet.
My husband and I were among 12 others who were halfway into a month-long backpacking journey through two remote wilderness areas. Today happened to be our fifth wedding anniversary.
There may have been a time when I would have complained about celebrating by cooking pasta in a downpour. But as my wool socks became soaked and our cheesy concoction became more diluted with each rainy stir, I realized with amazement that I couldn't think of a single place I'd rather be.
Four small groups of fellow campers had made their kitchens on sloping tables of granite scattered amid the sage. Raindrops ricocheted off aluminum pot lids and pelted the shiny backs of raincoat-clad chefs placidly guarding their creations with spatulas in hand.
There was no attempt to scurry for shelter, and I believe this was only partly because there were no dry places to go. Gradually, we were learning to accept the rain, maybe even to enjoy it, as we watched the storm embrace us.
The thunder moved away and then back toward us in slow, rolling rumbles. As it faded and the sky was suddenly still, the rush of the nearby creek again filled the air. When light flashed on granite and grass, I waited for the crack and roar that would follow, and when it came we all jumped on cue. The brunt of the storm had reached us now, but the lightning was still not close enough to cause alarm.
Eventually, the sun broke through a slit in a cloud bank, and a golden sheet of rain spread across the landscape. The surrounding field absorbed both storm and light, and the flowers took center stage: purple asters, buckwheat, scarlet Indian paintbrush, lavender harebells drooping downward on their stems, and a dab or two of wild carrot.
HAD I ever really experienced a summer storm before? I wondered. Had I ever deliberately stood out in it, with fondness for the rain? I tried to promise myself that I would do this more often. But I knew that at home - with shelter nearby and urban demands so pressing - I'd find excuses not to get wet.
I felt mentally cleansed as clear patches of sky overshadowed the gray and we gathered around a boulder for our banquet.
Even without an excuse to celebrate, the everyday preparation and eating of meals took on festive proportions. We would applaud boiling water and cherish our hot mugs as we sipped tea. We would delight in selecting just the right seasonings for our couscous, biscuits, rice, or pancakes. I doubted we would ever be so audacious with our spicing at home. But something about the wilderness made us more courageous cooks and seemed to make our palates more tolerant of extra quantities of dill, chili powder, soy sauce, and cinnamon.
After my husband and I were presented with anniversary head wreaths laced with sunflower, aster, and yarrow, the feast began. There was fried bulgar with bits of trout from Crazy Creek and morels culled from the woods; polenta lasagna; our pasta dish; a tart topped with strawberries that tasted even more wild because we knew we were sharing them with an elusive grizzly bear (we had found fresh tracks in the berry patch); and a cake with an M&M ``5'' in the cocoa frosting. Our culinary inventions had weathered the storm well, as only the crust of the tart tasted slightly rain-kissed.
OUR feast also became a rite of passage, as we realized we would soon be leaving the company of pine, spruce, and fir for the high country above the timberline. I wanted to pause in the silence and listen for some last bit of wisdom carried on the breeze.
As we passed bowls around our dinner circle, we paid tribute to our growing at-homeness in the wild. Cooking during a storm, enduring a steep ascent up a trail-less pass, and crossing a snowy field with a heavy pack had become more than just ``proving'' ourselves. We were learning to adapt to an environment that we could not control.
At the trail head, we had come together as a hodgepodge group of hikers of different ages, interests, and styles with a common purpose: to travel as non-destructively as possible through a pristine environment and to become familiar with the area's natural history. Lodgepole pine was no longer a faceless species on our daily lists of flora and fauna. It was now a familiar character that hinted at the distinct ecological zones we were passing through.
Interaction with the great array of life around us gradually helped us respect the integrity of the land. Taking a soapless bath in a mountain stream, sleeping on a rock or alpine duff rather than the fragile grasses, and hanging our food away from bears and other critters allowed us to take care of basic needs while becoming less intrusive explorers.
My husband's and my first backpacking venture had been on our honeymoon. Although we hadn't planned for it, it made sense that we would find ourselves in the wild to mark our fifth year. Where might we be on our tenth? I wondered. My silent wish for that night was that - wherever we are - I would not be so settled that an extended sojourn in the mountains or the desert would no longer appeal to me. If ever I find myself comfortably ensconced in a citified routine, I want the secret voices of the wild to rouse me again: to call me out to rest in the rain; to stand among sun-splashed boulders and savor a mug of morning cocoa as if I had never tasted it before; to feel warmth returning to frost-nipped toes after a night under the stars; to sit still enough on a high ridge at dusk to invite mountain goats in close.