Wednesday, September 21, 2011

(Not) Outward Bound (Yet)

This week my reading list has featured several classics in the theme of yearning for the outdoors:  first Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and now Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, the guy featured in the recent movie 127 Hours.

Into the Wild is about a twenty-four year old idealist in the way of Tolstoy and Thoreau who went into Alaska in 1992 in order to live his greatest dream an in living off the land, "become lost in the wild."  This culminated a 2-year odyssey of hitchhiking and migrant working, undertaken abruptly after a stellar academic career at Emory without a word to his family about his whereabouts.  Four months after entering the wilderness, moose hunters found his remains.

This happens with some frequency in Alaska, as this country produces no shortage of those dissatisfied with modern life and yearning for simplicity, while actual knowledge in living off the land or the luck to survive the learning curve in order to succeed at doing so is pretty rare.   This story is noteworthy because the young man (my age!) did survive reasonably well for four months by hunting small game and gathering roots and berries, and ended up dead only because of two very small mistakes. He also left behind photographs, letters, and journals, giving us a glimpse into his trials and tribulations as well as the soul-searching that led him to seek the adventure that only by misfortune proved fateful.

I saw the documentary about Aron Ralston many years before the movie came out, featuring actual footage Ralston took with his video camera during the days he was stuck in the canyon, arm pinned immovably to the wall by a fallen boulder.  (In case you haven't seen the movie or don't know the story, he stayed in that cave until he ran out of water and knew there was no hope of rescue, then decided to and succeeded in sawing his arm off with his pocket knife, applying a tourniquet and hiking 5 miles back to the safety of civilization.)

The theme here is of course the call of the wild, the simple life, the rawness of adventure and hardship in the face of nature's uncaring rules and consequences.  You choose your level of risk but danger is an accepted part of the attraction, the experience isn't real if it isn't real.

I'm skipping through some of Ralston's many interludes into descriptions of his many other adventures climbing peaks about 14,000 feet in Colorado--but both books are very interesting to me, perhaps because I know just enough about the call of the wild and the harsh reality of nature without having had nor sought anything near the intensity of experience of either men.

And I don't want to go try to live off of the land in Alaska, and I sure as heck don't ever want to have to choose to cut my arm off in order to survive--but I do like to wonder if I were in such impossible situations, how would I respond?  I test myself with lead climbing and open water swimming and I barely even come close to real limits on my physical and mental ability because I still don't want to. I'm uncomfortable enough with those experiences even as comparatively mild as they are.

Maybe it's not the best theme for me to be pursuing when I'm on the cusp of turning a temporary job into a permanent affair, one full of awesome opportunity, playing to my skills, located in a place I want to stay located--but done mostly from a desk in front of a computer, far, from the quiet of the woods and the majesty of the mountains, and limits these soul-filling opportunities to weekends.

It was hard to pull myself away from my sojourn in Shenandoah to come here and start on this path.  Professional development and career opportunities and all the security that entails may in fact have nothing on the kind of less secure jobs and less secure lifestyle that allows one a richness of experience outdoors.  I wonder, when I look back on my life, will I be satisfied with the experiences I've had?

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