Pema looked at me like I was insane. And I probably was.
We were two hours into a nasty bushwhack, having descended through thick trees strewn with deadfall, and I had just plunged waist-deep into a mud bog. Laughing and swearing in equal measure, I turned from the bog back uphill, into a new drainage, Pema dutifully-if-reluctantly following behind.
We had done this before, she and I. Seemingly endless rambles through the backcountry, following deer paths or making our own, over ridges and into the next valley for no other reason but to see where it went, what it looked like, what mysteries it might have in store. Despite her questioning gaze, I think Pema secretly enjoyed these missions as much as I did, her enthusiasm for a given adventure increasing exponentially with the first step off a trail and into the unknown realm of new sights, new scenes, new scents.
Over the years, Pema and I have discovered old mine shafts and towering cliffs hidden in the depths of the forest. We’ve scared up elk and bear, fox and bobcat, and been tracked a time or two by a mountain lion. We’ve drank heartily from bubbling springs, and sat under towering pines, listening to the music of their twisting and bending in a mid-winter gale. We’ve gotten lost more than once, and had to rely on our sense of direction (me) and sense of smell (her).
I’ve always been one for exploring, whether it be in far away places, or out the back door. While trails afford proven and efficient access to popular destinations, their predictability is troubling, almost unnerving, and certainly uninspiring. A trail is the interstate of foot travel, leading quickly, efficiently, undramatically from point A to point B, whereas the bushwhack…the bushwhack is exploration, a feeding of the soul, and specifically that part of the soul which craves — which needs — the unknown, which desires a touch of mystery in our otherwise predictable, modern lives. These adventures and misadventures — big and small, local or international — force upon us an acceptance of our own fragility, which in turn demands from us a degree of humility, and through that humility we spark creativity.
When we get off the trail and begin to explore, our senses are immediately heightened, our ancient sense of survival turning up the volume of our sight, smell, and hearing. We begin to notice all we’d otherwise pass by on a trail: The rustling of the chipmunk gathering food in the understory. The thick moss on the north side of the rocks, a nod to nature’s compass, free and open to all. Wetter ground here, indicating a spring above and the marvel of water’s course through a landscape. Bands of rock of different types and consistencies, changing subtly but dramatically from one valley to the next, a reminder of the imperceptible but unstoppable passage of geologic time. Droppings of mountain goats with a lion’s print to the side, the hunter and the hunted.
Bushwhacking, heading off the trail or down a new street or into a new neighborhood — in short, exploring — is a kind of creativity that feeds both mind and soul, allowing us — in the depths of despair or boredom or apathy or anger — to remember and reconnect with the infinite possibility of the universe, and of ourselves. When we start to explore, when we allow ourselves to venture — even slightly — into the light of the unknown, we set aflame the spark of curiosity, of wonder, at the world around us. And it is that spark of curiosity that is the antidote to despair, the key which unlocks the door of possibility in all our lives.
If you’re like me, the slow bleed of energy and inspiration brought on by pandemic isolation and political insanity has locked you into a doldrum of creativity, a cul-de-sac of meaning and purpose and conviction. We get worn down, tired, fatalistic and apathetic. Now more than ever, we all need a refresher, a physical and mental reminder that the world is a dynamic and hopeful and miraculous place, one of wonder and joy and boundless opportunity. A little exploration might be just the cure we need to shake off the angst and tap the wellspring of energy and optimism and action born of curiosity, wonder, and humility.
So, go out and explore. Turn left rather than right. Go south instead of north. Get lost, step off the trail and into the wild. Smell the trees and feel the wind on your face, let your feet and your mind wander the hidden path of possibility, and unlock the spirit and energy within.
I’m headed out. Are you?