Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Spirit of the Lonely Places

You see I've been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain

               --America, "A Horse With No Name"

Dude McLean writes at Dirttime about being alone in the wilderness. He observes:
Many have a hard time being alone, even more so in a wilderness setting, where there is no escape from you—No chance to run into a human of any sort. Extend that from one day to just a weekend and many just cannot deal with it. We are, for the most part of our lives, always within earshot of noise, be it a radio, TV or the guy next door. Dealing with silence, just a breeze in the trees, or the wind in your ear is not enough. The thought of being by yourself, all night, in a remote camp is daunting to many, who in fact have the skills to pull it off with no problem. Whatever the bugaboos one has, they can be a killer to being alone any length of time much less in a wilderness setting with just you and a campfire for company.
... Many wont say they are scared and I believe for the most part it to be true—in some cases anyway. However, a silence can be profound and takes one on a cruise through the mind that they may not care for. The cliche’ of your own demons come to the fore. ...
As McLean notes, being alone allows a great deal of introspection, but it also allows you to become closer to nature and living, albeit briefly, in a "timeless" state where clock and calender have no meaning. There is time to stop and smell the roses.

As the quoted portion makes clear, however, it can be difficult to be alone. McLean recommends adapting yourself to it slowly through meditation or day-hikes where you are alone, before attempting an extended trip into the wilderness.

Meeting your own demons, or fear or panic, is a very real danger. American Indian tribes of the deep forests of what is now Canada and the North-East United States gave a name to this phenomena--the Wendigo or Windigo.
I AM THE SPIRIT OF WINDIGO. Human who insisted on venturing alone into the wilderness should fear the Spirit of the Lonely Places, As you travel in lonely places, I am always behind your back. As you tramp through bush or forest, hills or desert, with no other company but your thoughts, you become slowly aware that I am following you. No matter how quickly you may turn, I move faster. You see nothing except perhaps the slightest movement of shadow.

I sometime acts as a protector because a powerful medicine woman or man has intervened and caused me to swoop down down to attack evil-doers; legend states I drag and force evil-does to run until his feet catches fire. At that point, he is either taken up into the sky or keeps running until he dies; in either case, he is never seen or heard from again thanks to spirit doctor intervention."
 I have had my own encounter with this "spirit." Back when I was in college, I decided to take my daughter (who had just turned 3) for a short camping trip. My wife had given birth to a our oldest son several days earlier, and her mother was visiting to help out, so to give my wife and my daughter a break, we packed up for just a short overnight trip.

Although Southern Idaho, where I grew up, is mostly high mountain desert, it has its forests as well. But because the climate is dry, such forests are rarely very thick. Northern Idaho, however, can present a much different picture, and the camp ground my daughter and I went to was in some of the rainiest and thickest forest to be found in that part of the state. We had been to the area before to hike, but had never camped at this campground. I had camped and slept outside a lot growing up, but it had always been with other people and in more open conditions.

Because it was the middle of the week, the campground was empty, other than the caretaker's trailer at the far end and out of sight of our camp spot, and we never saw or heard from the caretakers. The trees were close enough that it presented an unbroken canopy except where the trees had been been cleared for the road and camp sites. Although the day had started out nice enough, by late afternoon it was overcast with a light drizzle--all-in-all, quiet gloomy as the afternoon turned to evening. What little wood we had for the fire was quickly consumed.

At the time, my wife and I owned an old Chevy S-10 Blazer. With the back seats folded down, there was just enough room to lay down. Although I had planned on sleeping in a tent, because of the rain, I opted to lay our sleeping bags out in the back of the vehicle. After my daughter went to bed, I tried to read for a while and finally gave up. I climbed into the back and laid down, hoping to get to sleep.

Because of the cloud cover and the thick canopy of trees, the night was pitch black. The only other time I'd been in such dark was in a cave. And it was absolutely still, other than an occasional distant crack from a tree branch dropping. My daughter was asleep and it was as quiet as I had ever experienced. It sounds silly, but in that setting, I started to feel a bit of fear and panic that I couldn't shake off. It felt like something malign and evil was watching us. Finally, careful not to wake my daughter, I got out, hastily packed everything, and started driving home. I made it perhaps 5 miles when I stopped and realized how stupid I was being. I turned around and drove back to the camp site. Nothing had changed, but I felt calmer. The "presence" I had felt was gone. I was able to get to sleep and slept the rest of the night without problem.

Now, I'm not suggesting that there was actually a spirit or other entity that I sensed. It was the quiet, isolation, darkness, unfamiliar surroundings, and imagination all working together. But it is something to think about if you are planning on spending time in the wilderness. And it is why I love to tell ghost stories when I am camping with others. In fact, it reminds me of an occasion that I made a friend so nervous, he spent the whole night clutching his pocket knife, afraid we were going to be victims of a serial killer. But that is a story for another time....

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