[Prologue: So this is the story I wanted to tell tonight at Story Story Night. I left a few crucial things out in the live telling, but that’s the nature of the beast. But, from what I’ve learned, the journey is the destination, anyway. So spin it however you want.
I have abbreviated names to somewhat to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent.]
This is a story about wildness, and wilderness, and about what really happens when you sow your wild oats, and are later forced to reap that sometimes bitter fruit.
For me, the wild sowing really started when, at 20, I fell in the love for the first time with my first lover, perhaps the worst possible person to pair with my virginal, idealistic young soul. Let me explain. My upbringing was very sort of Dr. James Dobson Focus on the Family Christian. When time came for sex ed, it was abstinence-only all the way, baby.
We used to have these sex ed books for young Christian teens. They were chose your own adventure. Remember those? You come to a fork in the road. To pick option A you flip to page 20, or to go down path B you skip to page 25. And then see where you end up.
In these sex ed books, any option that involved doing it, no matter how or where or with whom, ended horribly—in pregnancy, abortion, isolation, depression, sometimes suicide. Consequently I had an unhealthy and terrified fascination with sex, and the bohemians who practiced it with abandon.
Bohemians like D. He had long hair and a beard. He was tan with tattoos that, you know, signified everything. He was political, passionate, a wanderer. He was fantastic in bed. He opened up a whole new world to me.
However, his wild oat strewn past was already catching up with him. Then only 25, he had 2 kids by 2 separate women that he rarely saw. He was still technically married to yet another woman then in a mental institution. He had a track record of holding a job or a relationship for about 6 months, then leaving it one day without notice to say, join the Buffalo Field Campaign, or live in and thus save a tree in the Redwoods. He carried a lot of baggage, but had nothing left to lose.
We dated for two years. Off and on. Off with heart-breaking suddenness when he would decide to explore another woman for a while. Then on again when he was done. I do believe deep down he loved me, but it was so, so bad.
So this was the state of misery I was in when I met B. in college. B. was bohemian too, in a more I-wear-only-high-end-outdoor-gear sort of way, but he had long hair and a beard and an anti-authoritarian streak for sure, so. Check. We were just friends, but he had that wild thing about him that I wanted for myself.
So when B. proposed a backpacking trip through the west, the entire west, a 9-month odyssey that would theoretically take us from the deserts of the south starting in the winter to the Yukon by the summer, I was like, “Definitely.”
So we quit college. We got jobs. We saved up. And one day in February, without notice to my soul-numbing phone answering job at DirecTV, and putting an increasingly toxic and codependent relationship with D. on pause, B. and I left on this journey to walk the earth.
So there I was. My entire world in a haphazardly packed pack. Somewhat of a backpacking novice, I ordered all my gear online a few weeks before leaving for dramatically reduced sale prices from the Sierra Trading Post. There were many manufacturers’ defects, like long underwear with the crotch in the back, or unrealistically narrow Italian boots, but they were all I had.
And we were on the road. We had embarked on this trip with all breeds of wild fantasies in our head. We were hopped up on Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and Edward Abbey books with his environmental freedom fighter monkey-wrenching ways. We wanted to live on the land. We wanted to become one with the earth, and disconnect with society, and abandon all rules. We wanted to discover our true nature.
Starting in the deserts of California and continuing into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, B. and I backpacked nearly every designated and/or deserted piece of public land we could access.
There’s so much I want to tell you about what the desert does to you. But I don’t have time. I will say that the desert is a surreal beauty, like the hallucinations of a cruel and playful god. The desert gives you a sense of futility and eternity at the same time.
But literally, what the desert was doing to me was not pretty. The Italian shoes were torture to my feet. After only a few weeks my toenails had become these gnarled purple ridges. It actually took two years before they grew back straight again. And my were so chapped and dry from the tight leather that when I took the boots off my turned white and smelled like death that no cream would penetrate. The constant friction of my thighs rubbing together, because even after walking all day every day, I have always had thighs that rubbed together, turned them chapped and purple and unbearably painful.
The plant life was on constant attack, and several times I had fallen and caught myself with a hand or a back or a leg in cacti, the obvious needles are easy if painful enough to get out but the tiny hairs feel like microscopic paperclips that never stop cutting, and stay embedded for months.
And then there was the cruelest entity of all, B. himself. I have a difficult time explaining the subtle and exacting viciousness of B., and what it was like to be alone, utterly alone, in the desert with him for three long months. Except that was reaping the aftershocks of his own wild oats. When, as a teen, I think 15, his parents caught him smoking pot and hanging with the wrong crowd, they sent him to a summer wilderness excursion for troubled youth. Then, on the recommendations of counselors, they left him there. For three years, without any say, he shuffled through these tough love through adventure kind of places, that blend sadism with outdoor survival.
Which is kind of what we were doing here. Bitter and smart, B. excelled at mockery. He made fun of me constantly. For liking U2. For combing my hair, while he left his untouched in greasy dreadlocks. For getting lost, all the time, sometimes overnight. Because with daddy long-legs and insane map reading skills, B. would outpace me within a mile. To solve this problem, he took to hiking behind me with a constant barrage of insults.
Our back to the earth philosophy was not faring much better. We did have some conversations on the nature of man and wilderness and whatever but mostly we shared anti-societal and self-aggrandizing rants. And mostly we just talked about our bowel movements. Because that, in the end, is what two people with nothing else to go on talk about. The size, shape, consistency, color, content. Everything.
I don’t know why I stayed so long in the desert with a sadist. Obviously, I was a kind of masochist. But I know why I ended it. One day, at a ranger station outside the Blue Range in Arizona, I called D.. He had been sending me love letters, touching and hopeful little notes that would give me something to hold on to. But that day I called, he told me he was moving in with a dancer he had just met. Bastard did it again. And standing there, covered in earth, I was finally done. For good. With D. With B.. With the desert. All of it.
I finally realized that if I was going to be lost anyway, I would rather be on my own.
So I came back to Idaho, and immediately found a job working as a front desk ranger for the Sawtooth Forest in Stanley. So there I was on the other side of the desk, all official, a government employee, wearing a badge and green suit. Following regulations for the first time. Living in a mouse-infested double wide trailer with an actual bed in the shadows that felt like paradise to me.
And it was in the mountains and the lakes of the Sawtooths that I learned to hike alone. And read a map. And find my own way out. And pack my bag with what I really need.
And even after all this time, I still don’t regret all the wild oat sowing, though the reaping was excruciating. Because it’s through the wilderness, and the wilderness years, that you find out what you’re really made of.