Voices in the Wilderness: Man versus nature

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By Kelly Butts-Spirito

Eugenio Montale once wrote, “The most dangerous aspect of present-day life is the dissolution of the feeling of individual responsibility. Mass solitude has done away with any difference between the internal and the external, between the intellectual and the physical.”

Last April, almost exactly on this day one year ago, I spent 84 hours straight, alone in the wild, with no human contact, no words spoken or sight of man.

The wilderness was nothing new to me at that time, as my three and a half day solo came to be at the end of my trip into the wild. I had been on a wilderness backpacking trip for the previous fifteen days, up the Two Medicine River and into the mountains of Montana.

It had been a long soul stretching trip, filled with quite a few cathartic moments and physical triumphs. Our group consisted of four drug-addicted teenagers and two adults striving to guide us toward sobriety and a chance at manhood. The four of us never planned on living past twenty-five.

My experience in the woods all stemmed from my drug addiction. The moments leading up to my being in Montana were filled with confusion, dependence and self-loathing, which in turn caused the three months I spent in Marion and the 18 days in the wild to have an added effect of spiritual freedom and internal peace.

I was sent to the wilderness of Montana after being expelled from a prestigious boarding school in Beverly Massachusetts for drug use; all future aspirations seemed to be shattered as I stepped off the plane headed for a wilderness.

However, upon leaving the woods and returning to civilization, it seemed quite the opposite had transpired. For the first time in my 17-year-old life, I felt clear minded and serene.

The wild had grounded me, enabling a new way of viewing the world and clearing my mind of the desire to use substances, replacing it with the sole purpose of positively impacting all those around myself in all facets. The mountain sky pierced my eyes and opened my mind to desire adventure.

The snowy hills glistened with sunlight almost as if the universe was sending me signs that brighter days were to come. The ice cold rivers shocked my body like electricity awakening me to the beauty Montana had to offer, and the stars healed me with their magnitude.

It was the night before I went out on my 84-hour solo, and one of the adults on our trip named Glen pulled out a piece of paper he had prepared. Glen was known as quite the wilderness man at the treatment center back in Marion, and had journeyed into the mountains of Montana with over fifty different trips of confused, scared and angry young men such as ourselves.

Glen had a certain reverence even from us for his stories of tracking bears and evacuating frost bitten teenagers was something we all admired, yet his kindness was what struck me most. He always met others with respect and care, no matter how they treated him. Glen unrumpled the piece of paper as we sat around the camp illuminated by the near-full moon and began to read, “She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

He said in a wistful voice. “I wish I could have made some serious changes at your age gentlemen. It took me a tour in the military and a near-death wake-up to figure out that I had to start living differently without drugs.”

I had never known Glen had a drug problem, none of us had, but it gave me some clarity on why does these trips over and over again; he had a certain understanding of what we were going through, where we were and where we could be.

“The wilderness is a magical place. It can heal you. There will never be another time in your life where you will be this supported and vulnerable in such a rigorous yet beautiful environment. Let it change you.” He said, and then one-by-one he handed out our instructions and we began walking, alone, into the darkness of the woods.

I arrived at my campsite in the middle of the night after wandering down a foot-trampled road I was instructed to follow. I set up my tarp and settled into my sleeping bag.

Within those three days I read through the Alcoholics Anonymous book and began writing. I spent hours down by the river near my sight washing my face, cleansing my mind. I cried more than I had in years, prayed and just sat for hours staring at the wildlife around me, listening to the noises the wilderness provided.

There were no sirens, no cars, no yelling or screeching of tires on pavement, just the sound of the animals in their habitat and the river. I remember laying up at night and pondering my whole existence. Why had I spent so much time searching to be accepted by others? Why was I so insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin? Why did I treat others the way I did, and how is it that a place like this even exists?

I thought the world was a cold, concrete jungle and everyone was out to get me, but I realized true happiness is found in the quiet moments of serenity. The feeling I found in the woods was the purest form of love -- self-love.

Being in such an incredible environment, stripped of all my first-world distractions, let me look honestly at myself and my life for the first time since I can remember, and that feeling can be shared with another human being or alone.

I have come to the understanding through my experience that love is the most pure thing we as humans have to hold onto, and I believe expressing that to others is the biggest blessing I could ever have, because making someone else feel as the wilderness had made me feel was something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Kelly Butts-Spirito was the 2018 winner of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Scholarship Essay Competition for Thompson Falls High School. This annual contest offers a cash prize for the best essay written by a graduating senior on the theme “A most memorable wilderness experience.” To learn more about the competition, write to sandy@scotchmanpeaks.org.

Voices in the Wilderness is a monthly column written by your neighbors and friends in and visitors to the vicinity of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. Voices features memorable personal experiences in wild places. If you have an adventure tale based in untamed country (it doesn’t have to be local), write to sandy@scotchmanpeaks.org for guidelines, or just send it along.

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