Posts tagged ‘mountaineering’

June 11, 2015

Map, Map in my hand…who is the fairest in the land?

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map records more than the wild territory in Colorado. It maps adventure in a wild land not yet ruined by civilization. It maps memories of sudden hail storms, unbelievable swarms of mosquitoes, and the the air that smelled like God’s breath. It reminds me of hardiness, of pain, of joy, and self-discovery. This map of the Weminuche Wilderness is a physical representation of my experience in nature, mountaineering alongside a group of strangers. There were no trails. There was only this map.

According to Casey Blanton, travel “is the interplay between observer and observed, between a traveler’s own philosophical biases and preconceptions and the tests those ideas and prejudices endure as a result of the journey” (pg. 5).

While this may often be applied to foreign cultures, I would venture to say that nature, in its vast depth of detail, is a culture of its own, and the people who venture into it, are observers of it. We view the land before us differently, and thus experience it differently, all due to our perspectives, our histories, our understanding of nature and humanity’s role in it. Some may see the wild through eyes of ownership. Some may see nature as something sacred to protect. Some may view the land as historically relevant or scientifically valuable.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

When I first ventured out as a team leader on this particular trip, it was going to be my longest one yet. It was a part of a stewardship and leadership course for wilderness, and I was excited to learn about nature, and myself. Looking back at journals from that time, I can chart how my perspective of social norms and the environment was challenged by this experience. Like Blanton said, with engagements in new territory (and even old), our ideas’ and prejudices’ endurance are tested by our experiences.

So, let me clear: my ideas about myself, my teammates and Nature were challenged…and changed.

When I lived in the open spaces of Wyoming and Colorado for a month, with everything I needed on my back, I made my best efforts to not exploit nature for my own use. Leave No Trace, we preached. Bury your feces in a deep hole, mixing with dirt before covering. Carry out any trash you have. Don’t swim in water sources without washing off bug spray chemicals with your bandanna and water in a cooking pot. And no matter how miserable you are under your tarp, definitely no bright cheerful fires.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Nature, however, didn’t really care about us. Heat waves, hail storms, snow and torrential downpours were sudden and careless to the weary travelers below them.

“Lightening!” the team leader would shout, and we all jumped on our rubber sleeping mats, previously tied to our backpacks. I can’t imagine how silly we looked to the sky, laughing in a thunderous rumble at us cowering on the side of a rugged slope on little yellow mats.

To others, this map doesn’t look like much. It’s ragged and there’s a scant red line, trailing the curves of the shaded greens representing incline of a mountain. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. To me, this map is not just an actual navigational chart and a map of memories; it is a map of myself.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

It charted my challenges, the physical and the emotional, because the map defined my journey, and that journey shaped who I am. This map also represents the place where my perspective of nature met Nature, and lost. It’s the place where my concept of teamwork and humor and social norms met my teammate’s cultural value, and lost.

Pratt, a very clever person who writes quite well, crafted this term “contact zone” to describe a “social spaces where cultures interact and wrestle with each other. Oftentimes, this term represents eras and areas of colonialism, exploitation and dominance of one culture over another.

I was different than the most of my team. I was sarcastic, they were sweet. They were mostly religiously conservative, sensitive individuals, and I was open-minded and a bit harsh around the edges. I would fit better in a group of military men who would joke around and punch each other’s shoulders, not so well with a group that cried when their hands were ice cold in the snowy mornings in July. Instead of morphing to their ways of kumbaiyah, I rejected their social norms while assimilating parts of the projected identity. I was the one known for off-the-wall defecation jokes and blunt responses, opinionated and lacking in compassion. The person they saw was not the person I thought I was, but I chose parts of their projected identity anyway.

My basic identity didn’t fit with the norm, and the dominant culture of the team defined who I was. To them, I was different, crude, harsh. To me, they were sensitive, narrow-minded and judgmental. I didn’t fit into their definition of what a ideal team member should be.

So, I accepted their definition in some ways, in a movement of transculturism, as Pratt would call it.

Why nicely ask my tarp mate to move his stinky boots from where my head is for the third time when I can directly tell him to move them? Why not make that rough joke about thunder chili on the trail when they expect it from me anyway?

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

I learned how grumpy a person can be when they haven’t had a lot of sleep or cleanliness. I learned how ugly you are inside when you are weak, when that point of exhaustion and pain shows you who are you. Compassion is hard to give when you are experiencing just as much pain as the other person, and they can’t do it. In this, I found a part of me I didn’t really care for, that didn’t match my prior narrative of self.

I went into the trip romanticizing not only people and self, but also Nature as an epic landscape of beauty and grandeur. While this is true, the wilderness isn’t mine to define and shape. It’s too big for that. I left realizing how little I actually knew about survival, and how I previously lacked a respect for Nature (I mean, hordes upon hordes of mosquitoes. Those suck. Literally). Nature is unfathomably beautiful. It moved me in the delicate strength of the bright pink Indian Paintbrush flower, thriving against all odds in the crook of a boulder. It humbled me in the face of its terrifying weather and craggy mountainsides, with slippery rocks and vertical slopes that led to skinned knees and sore backs. I thought my concept of nature was accurate until in engaged with it for an extended period, and I realized my preconceived notions of romance and freedom were accurate to a point, but did not endure the tests of the wild.

Before the trip, I treated nature like I had “the privilege of inspecting, of examining, of looking at” it which naturally excludes and elevates the viewer from the “reality constituted as the object of observation” as David Spurr says. Afterwards, I realized it was foolish and arrogant to see the earth as something I can own, observe and enjoy without a little bit of two-way engagement. Nature is not an object to observe. It is a beautiful, wild beast of a thing, and I can’t separate myself from it and thrive, only survive.

I changed in that month. My perspectives and ideas of who I was shifted (final: was not as cool and nice as I thought I was, but was tougher than I knew). The journey tested my preconceptions, and they did not endure. While my identity on that trip was defined by the dominant culture of my teammates, the experience changed how I viewed myself (more honestly), not how I behaved (more stubbornly). I saw myself through my teammates’ eyes, and I saw myself through Nature’s. I was humbled by this, although not particularly pleased that I didn’t meet the inflated ideal I held of myself before the journey.

With physical maps, I navigated and discovered Nature, people and self on that journey. I am not sure if I came out the other end a better person, but I certainly understand more about me as person. I also learned to love the goods and bads of Mother Nature…the goods were so incredibly moving, and the bads challenged me as a person. In the end, my understanding of myself, others and Nature shifted to a broader perspective than before I had gone.

When I returned from my trip, my boyfriend half-jokingly threatened to break up with me if I didn’t stop eating things off the ground (“yeah, it’s fine. Five minute rule.”) and forgetting to shave my legs (“what is this hygiene you speak of….?”). It’s true…Cultural expectations  were not met for a while, but I eventually put away my bandana and stopped being shocked by the sight of myself in mirrors.

So, here’s some food for thought (since we love eating here): What sort of person are you under duress, and how do you map yourself in the face of challenges?

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