Thoughts on the wilderness through the lens of a helicopter bubble, as published in Say Yes to Adventure Magazine, Dec. 2016:
I’ve been flying in helicopters a lot recently. It’s made me realize a couple of things. To begin with, we never know what our futures hold. If five years ago someone asked me what I was going to be doing when I was 41, I might have said a lot of things, but I would not have suggested that my line of work was going to make flying over remote and spectacular scenery in a helicopter such a common occurrence that it felt ordinary and blase.
More importantly, perhaps, it has given me regular cause to think about the juxtaposition between nature/wilderness as it is experienced via media–coffee table books, go-pro clips, social media feeds and the like–and nature/wilderness as it is experienced in reality.
These experiences are separated by light years, nothing less. Wilderness/nature–stunningly rugged and remote coastlines; soaring, corniced mountain ridges; pristine lakes of impossible blue, forests of lush and vibrant fifty-shades-of-green–these things used to take my breath away. They invoked such a spectacular impression of striving, of wonder, of adventure, that I’d yearn for them. I’d look at the glossy pictures and watch the high-def videos and covet the settings and actions that were being displayed–the smooth inky water of a rugged and wave strewn coast at sunset, the majestic vista of snow covered peaks poking through a blanket of clouds, white on white.
I’d yearn for the illusion. The fantasy.
It’s much the same when travelling by helicopter. Through the clear glass of the bubble it all appears very much as it does in those crisp pages and on the HD monitor. And the first time I flew over those soaring ridges and lush vibrant forests I was filled with those same senses of longing. But then…well…then I was promptly put there. And it was cold. And wet. And the smooth undulating landscape formed by the tops of those crisp trees hid another landscape of head high ferns and tangled roots that made travel ridiculously challenging. As I exited the more or less climate controlled cabin of the chopper, my other senses had equal say, and the input they received did less to stir my soul to song and more to make it cry out in a desperate plea, “please don’t leave me here alone!”
There is nothing glossy about real wilderness. And in my experience the sense of potential that a talented photographer (especially an airborne one) can elicit via his lens is rarely, if ever, felt within its midst. Humility, sure. Fear, check. Isolation, smallness, a sense of the profound scale of our world. Of impossible effort.
Experiences shared in wilderness, in the middle of harsh, indifferent, landscapes far from influences of man’s shaping hand, are, however glue. Wilderness is a catalyst for relationships, one of several such crucibles (war is another I imagine) that can contribute to unbreakable bonds being formed with near instantaneous speed. My early experiences in real wilderness were all with company, and in retrospect maybe I kept venturing back for these companionship rewards.
But these days I make my trips alone, and alone, no such rewards are offered.
So why do I go? Why do I keep getting into that chopper, knowing that at the end of its glorious flight–the very thing that tourists pay top dollar for over and over again–a lonely and grim trial awaits? I’m not sure. I guess part of it is the money, but then there are plenty of other ways to earn a living. So there must be something else. Maybe it is the desire to feel the reality, rather than the illusion. To keep it fresh in my mind, or fresh enough, so that I can navigate this in-your-face modern world where the media consumption of everyone else’s wilderness/nature experiences is so pervasive that it is easy to feel that my life is somehow less spectacular than that of my peers. It can be easy to forget, as we wade through the magazine cover worthy photos of our ‘friends’’ last epic wilderness adventure, that there were bugs out there too. And wet tents to pack up. And shivering, sore muscles, maybe some real fear, and probably at least a few moments where they would have traded it all in for a nice cup of coffee at their favorite cafe.
But really I think it is because, illusion or not, that siren song of wilderness persists for me. As deceptive and one-dimensional as their captured images may be, those soaring ridges and rugged coastlines, those plunging rivers and tangled forests still call to me. There are these 10-second snatches that pop up unannounced a handful of times during an otherwise punishing day, rare and fleeting moments, infinitesimal fractions of the whole, where the light years of difference disappear and the illusion merges with the reality. Perhaps it is in these precious instances, where through a genuine reckoning with such a magnificent and formidable environment, the rapture of unlimited potential mixes with the gritty truth of fear,isolation, and profound humility, and a moment is formed that is just, well, worth it.
It’s time to go. My helicopter is waiting.