Rediscovering the Therapeutic Sanctuary of the Wilderness

How a Wilderness Pilgrimage Helped One Man Reclaim Mindfulness and Connection

Dick Anderson

I was 56, happily married to the woman I'd met at my 50th birthday party, father to three wonderful grown children and---in our now-blended family---delighting in my wife Janet's equally wonderful grown daughter. Raised in Midwestern farm country, I was living a comfortable existence in Washington, D.C., long since adapted to the constant tumult and jerky rhythms of big city life.

Yet here I was, standing in my bedroom that evening more than a dozen years ago and announcing to Janet, "I've got to go to the wilderness. Alone. It's been something I've been carrying in the back of my mind most of my life, and if I don't do it now, while I'm still able, I'll never do it." Now, if this sounds like something very akin to a midlife crisis, then---looking back on it---I'd have to say, as cliché as that sounds, there's some truth to it.

But there was more to it than run-of-the-mill midlife angst. I felt that my busy life had nearly swallowed this transplanted Iowa boy whole. It was as if, in the words of the old Tennessee Ernie Ford ballad, I owed my soul "to the company store." Like so many of the people I knew, I'd slipped into some sort of Faustian bargain, in which the seductions and satisfactions of my regular routine had removed me from feeling I had any connection to the natural order of things. Sure, my life was full, but maybe too full---like a warehouse continually being restocked until it was bursting at the seams.

So a dozen years ago, I began making an annual two- to three-week pilgrimage into the wilderness, leaving my city life completely behind to strike out for the unknown, to reacquaint myself with the rivers, mountains, and lands that we share with fellow creatures, and---in this vast expanse of silence---to do something I don't normally do in my busy life: just stop and listen.

Discovering My Old/New Self

In August of 1998, I set out on my first extended-wilderness trip to Minnesota's Boundary Waters. Hauling two 50-pound packs and a 65-pound canoe---plus paddles and miscellaneous gear---over trails sometimes as long as half a mile---was a formidable undertaking for a glorified desk jockey. Although exhausted after my first portage, I felt pleased with my accomplishment. It was as if my younger self had given my older self the gift of persistence.

In the years to come, I journeyed farther and farther into the hinterlands, seeking even more isolation in the wilds of Quetico, the lakes of northern Quebec, and the isolated waters of British Columbia. During all this time, Janet never questioned my extended absences. Though she missed me and was concerned for my safety---especially since I traveled in areas where there was no mobile or landline service available---she nonetheless respected my wish for this kind of solitude.

One glorious September morning, canoeing on Lake Beverly, a 20-mile expanse of water in Alaska's Wood-Tikchik wilderness, as I listened to an enthusiastic loon serenading its mate, I decided on impulse to share this lively cacophony with Janet. As it turned out, she was driving in her new car equipped to broadcast mobile-phone conversations through the speaker system. She laughed delightedly while the sounds of loons calling back and forth to each other filled her car as she drove through the streets of Washington DC. Despite a separation of thousands of miles, we marveled at how the miracle of modern technology had created a long-distance moment of marital connection.

You Can Go Home Again

Coming back after a stay in the wilderness can be a difficult readjustment. When I woke up the next morning, everything felt like sandpaper against my psyche. Not everyone was shouting, but it sure seemed like it. As I sat eating breakfast in the glare of the dining-room lights with country music blaring from the radio, I was unprepared to be so suddenly reimmersed in the cacophony of contemporary life. Looking for relief, I strolled down to the lakeside, seeking quiet. No luck. The bustle of the day had already begun, and outfitters revved up their motors as a group of fishermen clamored into the boats, coolers in tow, laughing and champing at the bit to get going early and catch the big ones.

I'd never considered the inside of a jetliner to be a place of sanctuary, but as we droned our way back to Baltimore-Washington International, I was glad for the respite. Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes and tried to recapture the calm of the wilderness. Disembarking and walking the long corridor back to the terminal, I spotted Janet peering through the crowd of passengers to find me. I waved both hands, finding the smile on my face reflected in hers. As I popped out of the corridor, we hurried to each other's arms and shared a long embrace.

"I suppose you're tired and would like to go straight home," Janet said. "No," I replied, "Let's celebrate!" and we headed for one of our favorite restaurants, barely aware of the flow of rush-hour traffic that surrounded us. Once there, we clinked wine glasses. "Welcome home!" said Janet simply. "It's good to be back," I smiled---and I meant it.

New Horizons

As summer approaches, I'm beginning to pull out maps, gather information on the Internet, and turn my attention to where I'll go this year. By now, many of my friends know me as the "Alaska guy." (I've been there more than a half-dozen times thus far.) I'm almost afraid I'll disappoint them if I don't return there.

Somehow, farther and more remote doesn't interest me so much anymore. I know what I can do (and it's more than I ever dreamed when I started these trips), and I know what's beyond my capacity, and I've learned to respect both. But wherever I decide to go, near or far, one thing is sure: it'll be wild, it'll be remote, and it won't be at all like the city.

This blog is excerpted from “Seeking the Silence." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Mindfulness | Creativity | Aging

Tags: separation | technology | travel

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