Navigating the Wild Places

IF you ask me what comes to mind when I think of wilderness, I'll say it's the Green River Canyon in southwestern Wyoming. I'll tell you about camping there for a night - the beauty and the isolation. If you've ever been camping, you'll probably nod in recognition. Then I'll tell you that it may sound odd, but I found wilderness again just two days later on a park bench off Broadway in the heart of New York City. At that, you might ask me to explain. * * *

The Green River Canyon stretches through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area for 40 miles, north to south. The murky, mineral-rich river skirts towering canyon walls layered with vivid color.

Searching for a remote place to camp, I turned off the park's paved road and onto a dirt road marked only by a worn wooden sign painted with white letters. It read: "4x4 only." Shifting my truck into gear, I bounced and rattled down the dry, rutted path over hills and down to the river flood plain 10 miles off.

The tracks disappeared at a bend in the river where circles of fire stones and skeletons of trout marked the remnants of a campsite. I wondered how old it was. Weeks? Years? Centuries? I imagined a circle of Ute Indians at the site, scaling fish with hand-hewn tools and reciting old legends by the crackling fire. I hammered in my tent stakes around a level patch near the river's shore.

Clouds rolled in from the west, and a cool wind swept over the canyon walls, snuffing out the flame of my tiny butane stove. As I forced down the last lukewarm mouthfuls of bean soup, flashes from the west grabbed my attention. Low-flying thunderheads had appeared in a matter of minutes. I dashed to the truck, rolled up the windows, and unpacked the rainfly for the tent.

Half an hour later the sun had disappeared, and the time between the lightning and its accompanying thunder had shortened, by my count, to three seconds. I sat on the damp vinyl floor of my tent and peered out through a hole in the seams. Unwelcome thoughts circled in my mind like the gnats and mosquitoes around my lantern. I realized that rain would render the road impassable and cause the river to rise. I wondered if the metal tips of my tent poles might offer a beacon to restless thunderbolts. And nob ody on Earth knew where I was or even what state I was in. I was a good day's walk to a telephone.

I thought of folding up the tent and fleeing, but I stayed put. Perhaps it was cowardice, perhaps recklessness, or maybe I just remembered how excited I'd been to discover the road and the flood plain. I also probably figured that spending the night in my tent beat sleeping in the crowded cabin of my truck. In any event, I hoped for the best.

Throughout the night, as soon as I managed a promising series of yawns or a full minute with closed eyelids, lightning illuminated the sky and reminded me of the tiny size and thin, permeable fabric of my tent. Later, I awoke startled by noises in the brush. Just the patter of tiny mice, just rustling grass, I assured myself.

Shortly after dawn, my tent warmed up beyond my level of comfort. I crawled out, cursed the pitiable amount of sleep I'd been allotted, and caught sight of the canyon wall. The storm had passed without shedding a single raindrop. The red-pink morning sun lit up the sandstone and glinted off the water through a drifting veil of mist.

I laid my towel on the bank and waded into the water, shivering. As I soaped away the night's sweaty panic, a trout jumped high out of the water near my left knee. I caught a glimpse of its scales, shimmering and rainbow-colored in the sunlight. As the ripples trailed away and the silence returned, I realized that I'd persevered. I bathed in the Green River, miles from anybody, encircled by stillness, color, serenity, and supernal light. * * *

Two days later, I flew from Denver to attend a wedding in New York City. At the airport, I called my friend Claudia, with whom I was planning to stay. She told me she had to work late, but she would meet me at the corner of Fifth and Broadway at 9 p.m.

"9 p.m.? What do I do until then?"

"You're in New York," she said. "Soak up the atmosphere or something."

While I'd visited New York before, I'd never faced it without an experienced guide. I studied the menu in the airport cafe for entrees that might quell my hunger but found none. I considered passing the time there, watching planes lift off and sipping a $4 Coke. Then I thought of the bustling city, the heat, and the mad, swirling Friday-evening traffic. I imagined wandering around, absorbing the scenery, pondering the people, and watching my back. I hailed a cab.

My new leather shoes chafed my toes as I headed down Fifth Avenue along Central Park. My tie seemed to squeeze at my neck, and I felt my arms sweating against the long sleeves of my button-down. On a bench, a bearded man in a dark black overcoat sat perched at the edge, following my every move with an appraising leer.

"First time in the city, right?"

I shook my head defiantly. "Actually, no."

The man continued to stare. I stuffed my hands in my front pockets and turned them out. "I don't have any change," I said.

The man smiled and burst into laughter. "Just a little piece of advice," he said. "When you're in New York, things go a lot better if you try to look like you know what you're doing."

The man stood up and sauntered away down the street. Suddenly, I thought of my wallet. I checked my pocket and felt for the familiar square lump. It was still there. "Don't be paranoid," I muttered to myself.

At the next corner, I stood waiting to cross with my toes dangling over the edge of the curb. A bright yellow school bus made a right-hand turn, and soon the black lettering on its side flashed by my face, no more than three inches from the tip of my nose. I stepped back to a safer distance and caught my breath.

Down the block, shopkeepers pulled graffiti-laden metal curtains over their store windows and shot suspicious glances at me as I hustled by. I tried to keep my gaze pointed straight ahead, but still I noticed shadowy alleys, stray dogs, and overflowing piles of garbage. On every block I searched for emergency phones, escape routes, open windows to yell up to. As a group of jacketed teenagers approached, I crossed to the other side. I kept my eyes shifting, scanning, searching. Passing taxis grew hard to resist.

On the next block, I noticed a hot-dog vendor folding up the red and yellow umbrella above his cart. "Okay," I whispered. "He can't charge me more than $5 for a hot dog. But should I ask him how much, or just hand him the five like I already know? What if he tries to rip me off?" I glanced around the cart nervously for a price list but found none.

"You still open?" I asked.

"You bet," he replied.

"How much for a hot dog?" I braced myself for a struggle, for an unpleasant session of haggling in exchange for my dinner.

"How much you got?" he asked. I froze.

"Boy, are you jumpy!" The vendor chuckled. "Take it easy, pal. Hot dogs are $1."

On a bench on Broadway near Fifth, I sat down to eat my hot dog and reflect on my first solo flight in the Big Apple. As the sun set, the street lights and apartment windows lit up. Taxicabs burst from curbs and roared off, laying tracks of red taillight. Theater marquees flashed garishly against the rows of slate-gray buildings, and the moonlight cast the sky in an impossibly deep blue, a shade given only to big cities on the water. The breeze rustled the leaves and bushes behind me in Central Park.

I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the richness of the sound, the soothing hum of the metropolis. In my mind's eye, the skyscrapers turned to canyon walls, the avenue to a slow-flowing river. Honking horns became the screech of birds settling for the night, and the scraping and shuffling of pedestrians changed to the galloping clatter of elk.

As I chewed on that hot dog, I felt the same sense of melancholic regret that I felt standing with my toes buried in the silty bed of the Green River. Facing fear and finding peace is a gift as fleeting as it is fine. I opened my eyes to the city at night, and I knew that once again, I'd conquered the wilderness. * * *

I think wilderness is any place that tests our ability to navigate. I'm not talking about reading maps and compasses, keeping up with tour guides, or making sense of data from weather satellites. I'm talking about moving through the world using nothing but our inherent tools: logic, memory, emotion, and the senses.

In two vastly different places, in the space of a few days, I learned that the challenge of the wilderness has less to do with geography, and more to do with wrestling the grizzly bears in our own minds, whenever they may growl.

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