I got very lost in the backcountry once, and had the heart-stopping realization that I might never see all the friends and family that I love again.
The possibility of being killed by an avalanche, hypothermia, a broken femur or some early waking bear were so real at the time that I had to keep tuning it out—and keep moving—eventually stumbling up to a cabin where two country boys were running their chain saws at 1 a.m. After they asked, “Where the hell did you come from?” they offered me a beer and drove me home.
Of course, it’s one of my favorite stories to tell. Not just because I survived and because of what I learned about myself. But more, because of how the experience super-charged my appreciation for the terrifying beauty of nature, and how the very act of being immersed in the great outdoors also means that at any moment, some major shit could go down.
With that wisdom in mind, here’s a short list of some of those gorgeous, vibrant natural forces that could easily provide you with a premature arrival at the end of the trail, and that make it so exciting to get way off the grid for awhile.
Just for the record, there’s no ‘e’ in the spelling. Unless you’re counting the jolt of unfiltered ‘E-lectricity’ a single bolt of mountain flame could blast through your head. Pretty to watch from a picture window on the prairie, and exhilarating as a lightshow when you’re making love in a treeline shack, lightning becomes a predator when it finds you still standing on the summit of a 14er after noon. When a storm rolls in, and your hair and your heart and your future stand on end, you’ll do anything you can to dump vertical and find shelter, and then find yourself laughing in the best burst of sunlight ever when the storm is gone.
Twice I’ve had a bear come into my camp, and twice I haven’t moved. I just lay there frozen in my tent, waiting and wondering if I was about to become some kind of goose-down-wrapped egg roll. The snuffling and snorting of a backcountry bruin pulling full food recon on your set-up is something you won’t soon forget—especially if the only separation between you and its massive stinking self is a thin swatch of fabric inches from your head. But you’ll remember forever how it felt to so viscerally ponder that age-old question, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Why yes, it does. Right after it’s eaten you.
I’d rather not kill anything unless I’m going to eat it. But twice I’ve had to kill rattlesnakes, once at my in-law’s place above Salida when a big one got between my wife and the dogs. I split it in half with a rock, and the front half kept coming after me until my brother-in-law came down from the barn with a shovel and popped off its head. Thanks to that distinctive rattle, there’s no other creature in the world that gives you such formal warning that it may be about to kill you. That same sense of courtesy would demand that you just try not to step on one of these gentlemen—or ladies—while hiking the trail.
Noah knew. While a little alpine spritz on the high country meadow you’re daydreaming over can seem like pure Speilberg style movie-making magic, a true deluge pouring through the narrow canyon you’re camping in can end up in a story where they find your body two miles downstream wrapped around a tree and a tire. Set your camp high. Watch the weather. Know who—then what—you need to grab when it’s time to move. And never ever trust the judgement of some latest local watching the river rise who says, “Well it’s never been any higher than that before.”
At the center of almost any great scary campfire story is a person, and preferably one who is either homicidal, just escaped from the nearby looney bin, or back from the dead. Guess what? People are wild, too. And my personal experience regarding making friends and meeting neighbors is that it’s a process best fermented by a little bit of distance, and a solid lock on the door. When it comes to meeting your new next-site-over camp mates, you can still apply that standard while being hospitable and aloof as you go. Canoeing through the Atikokan once, we came upon three Canadian hillbillies with rifles drinking whiskey around a fire (cue the banjo music!). We paddled another 30 minutes in the dark to camp somewhere else. But my mother still gave my dad a near heart attack when she had a dream that for some reason made her sit up in the tent and loudly say, “They’re here.”
Of course nothing can hurt in such a wonderful way like falling in love with a fellow hiker when you’re out on the trail. There’s some sort of crazy magic in the woods and streams and open skies already that makes you feel so alive once you start shuffling up toward a summit. Add in a smiling, strong-legged, big-view-loving. attractive someone else and it can hit right to the core of your heart like a raging wildfire. Sprinkle in a few campfire sing-a-longs, maybe a little rum and some of Colorado’s finest, the smell of woodsmoke and the chilly rustle of a sleeping bag being unzipped, and damn if you don’t feel all butterflied inside, all Adam-and-Eved in a Rocky Mountain Eden, and you its original pioneer. That kind of feeling stays with you long after you wash all the sap out of your hair—and is the kind of thing that keeps you hiking and camping for years.
I do hope you stay safe out there. And have a lot of fun and try to keep wherever you go as pristine as possible. But I also thought it would be fun to talk about the beautiful things that can also be so scary. I wonder, what in nature is gorgeous and scary to you? Let us know when you read this Elwayville column on ElevationOutdoors.com.
–Peter Kray is EO’s editor-at-large and co-founder of The Gear Institute (gearinstitute.com).