For a few days last summer, my two sons and I lived simply and quietly at our family cabin in the mountains of Utah. And although the cabin is equipped with wireless internet, cable television, and central heating, we mostly avoided those luxuries. Instead we spent our time exploring the nearby sage meadows, and rolling plateaus that were covered in aspen trees, dense thickets of blue spruce, and scrub oak.
The days felt longer than they did at home. Slower, too. Afternoons crept by lazily while we lounged on makeshift benches made from fallen trees. We watched the clouds through the leafy trees float aimlessly across the blue sky. We turned rock outcroppings into castle towers, where we watched for excitement in the vast, wild, world that stretched away at our feet.
The experience prompted me to see the mountains through the eyes of my 9 and 7 year-old boys. Catching a tiger trout was newly thrilling. Watching young elk box one another, oblivious to our presence, was unforgettable. Hiking at 10,000 feet above sea level, flirting with treeline, was both exhilarating and exhausting. Nothing had ever tasted better than the beef jerky and Skittles that we ate during those hikes.
At night, after we’d spent the day looking and seeing, we indulged ourselves with movies, ice cream, and comfortable beds. During those few days we experienced the best of modernity, simultaneously with the best of wilderness.
We had a wonderful adventure.
George Mallory uttered the most famous words in mountaineering history 90 years ago. He was responding to a New York Times reporter who had asked him the simple, ultimate question, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”
“Because it’s there.”
For 90 years it has always been assumed that “it” referred to Everest. And that’s probably an accurate assumption. But I think there was a lot more to George Mallory’s “it”.
A mountain doesn’t attract us to its slopes and summits simply by existing. Instead, the allure comes from the variable outcomes that are possible when exploring those slopes and summits: adventure, discovery, danger, and glory. And though the world’s tallest peaks, and most difficult routes, have been explored, Mountains are mysteries, still.
It isn’t just mountaineers that are lured into the high country. Hikers, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, and dad’s with their sons, are attracted to the mountains too. The “it” that brings people from the valleys, and that inspires them to forego relative comfort, to spend a day, or days, exploring, seeing, and understanding wild spaces is unique for each person.
Why does a father drag his reluctant kids to the mountains for a few days of hiking and fishing? “Because it’s there… that my kids will learn to love quiet, big, open places.”
Why does a college student skip class for a few hours of trail running? “Because it’s there… that I can learn more about the world than I ever will in the classroom.”
Why do ski-mountaineers risk their lives to climb up, then ski back down, the Grand Teton? “Because it’s there… that I can see for hundreds of miles in every direction, and know that I am small compared to the majesty of the mountains.”
After successfully climbing Mont Blanc, Mallory wrote, “Have we vanquished an enemy?” He answered his own question: “None but ourselves.”
Often, the reasons to explore the outdoors aren’t fully realized until days have been spent in sandstone country, or above treeline. Insights and discoveries are revealed layer by layer, little by little. If Mallory is to be taken literally, then one of the most important discoveries we can make while in the wilderness, is how to overcome the enemy within ourselves.
That is, to learn how to vanquish our own self-imposed limitations and inhibitions. To learn how to do the things that we are afraid of doing, or have always wanted to do, “if only there were time and money to do them.”
Beyond fabric cubicles, on the other side of brick walls, above skyscrapers, and away from urban sprawls is an old world, an original world, the natural world. That world is an important aspect of modern society. Wilderness is opposition to concrete, glass, and fiber-optic cable. It’s contrast to automobiles, retina screens, and being always-connected.
Wild places are deliberate stillness. To experience those places, and to embrace the primitive and obvious harshness of them, is to understand and appreciate, more completely, the modern conveniences that make our lives so much better today than ever before.
In a few more years my sons will laugh at the technology that amazes us now. Places will seem closer together, cultures more blurred, and people, more connected and collaborative than ever. These are going to be good things, and we ought to be optimistic about the future. But let’s not forget the past, either. Spending time in wild places will remind each of us that the good life we enjoy was built from dirt, timber, granite, and bedrock.
Our last afternoon at the cabin we walked through a long valley, covered in tall sage brush, to a watering hole. We crept through the nearby aspen trees, and sat down. The boys were restless, but eventually sat quietly enough for us to catch glimpses of a few deer, elk, and smaller critters, who came to the water for an evening drink. We spent nearly two hours sitting in the trees. It was my favorite part of the entire trip.
“Dad,” my 9 year old asked as we watched the pond, “why are we sitting on this log for so long?”
“Because it’s there.”
Months later, as winter faded, and spring began to re-emerge, my son asked me another question. “Can we go back to the cabin again this summer, like we did last year?”