“Let me out here,” I say as the car approaches the gate. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
The gate is new. Crisply black and crowned by a row of short spires, it is a shout into the silence of the mountain. “Mystic Valley,” the gate proclaims in gold, Gothic letters across its length. “Private Property–No Trespassing,” it barks on a notice stuck to its middle. The signs nailed to the posts on either side are much friendlier, announcing the names of the Mystic Valley cabin owners on small, plain slabs of wood. My family’s sign is noticeably missing–but given our cabin’s seclusion at the far end of the road, and our shared desire for privacy even in an already private place, this absence is fitting.
It’s the end of June, and my family has taken a week-long trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to stay in the tucked-away cabin my father shares with his siblings and their families. With so many schedules to accommodate, these vacations are few and far between. Even now, we’re missing five of our eleven family members, so there’s a sense of vacancy when we traipse through town during the day or sit down for supper at night. Mostly, though, we’re cherishing this time spent together, holding it and each other close to our hearts. We know we’re experiencing something sweet.
I slip out of the car and stride toward the gate’s keypad, its technology another disruption to the serenity of the scene. But then I enter the code–so easily guessable it’s clear the community doesn’t actually worry about trespassers–and I watch the gate creak open at the speed of syrup, and I remember once more that this is a simple place, and its guests simple people. It’s a comforting thought.
And then the car is gone, whisking my siblings and my belongings and all semblance of human life along with it. I am alone. I hook my thumbs into the empty pockets of my shorts and take several crunching steps down the deserted dirt road. The gate is behind me. The path is ahead. As I walk, I tip my head toward the sloping of the mountain on my left, listen to the shushing of the stream on my right. Dust stirs beneath me, wind wraps around me, the scent of pine stains the air . . . and I am alone.
There’s something that happens when we separate ourselves. When we detract from society and all its distractions and dwell instead in the natural world, where the sky is vast and the trees are still and the wind presses a finger to our lips. Where there’s space for our thoughts to stand up and stretch, for our minds to wander awhile. Where we’re fully and finally alone.
Over the years, I have gained a reputation for forgetting–or just neglecting–to respond to calls, texts, emails, and the like. Part of it’s introversion, part of it’s irresponsibility, but mostly it’s simply an indignation–right or not–that I shouldn’t have to bow before this constant barrage of communication, that I shouldn’t have to let myself get dragged around by this leash of pests who nip and tug incessantly at my heel. I’m above all that, I say. I’m better.
But I’m not. Whatever I tell myself or others about my disdain for technology, I’m a slave to it like the rest–following my phone with a dutiful closeness, checking my computer regularly to see if it needs me. This is especially true whenever I post something new to social media. The prospect of accruing comments and likes–the currency of my generation–keeps me on guard for the flash of a notification, for that bright flicker of approval that tells me I’m pretty or funny or clever or cool. It’s a fire I lean toward almost magnetically, stretching my arm to feel its warmth.
In one way or another, I think we’re all drawn in by this flame. Sometimes it seems like everywhere I go–parties, restaurants, coffee shops, even church–people are interrupting their own conversations with the sudden need to take a photo or tweet or show off something they saw online.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe that technology should be banned from our fellowship with one another. In fact, I think it’s fantastic that social media has allowed us to record and even reframe our experiences, because it’s so important for us to reflect on the course of our lives and the people that fill them. But I believe we should do all this with both honor and honesty–with the understanding that our worth is found elsewhere. That there’s a difference between documenting the events of our lives, and validating our lives based on that documentation.
We were not created to stare at screens.
I ponder all this on my walk back to the cabin. It’s a foreign world here: pulse of wildlife in the brush, curve of road to follow the creek, complete lack of both cell service and Internet access for miles all around. And yet everything feels so familiar–like returning home. Maybe it’s bold of me, but I think this–fresh air, open space–is closer to what God had in mind when he created a residence for humanity.
I like the idea of world as womb–a safe place in which to grow, to blossom into the people we were intended to be: marvelers, worshippers, lovers of light and life. We ought to trust that in giving us the four main elements of the world–water, earth, fire, and wind–God has supplied us with all the nutrients we need.
Last night, as we were driving back to the cabin, amid a darkness so dense the air itself seemed solid, my siblings and I spotted a mountain lion. Three, actually–a mother and two cubs. It was a miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime event, as mountain lions are notoriously evasive. But there they were, right on the road, caught in our highlighter-yellow headlights, crossing as leisurely as a couple of ducks. They showed little concern for our car. And then, as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone, scampering down the mountainside, leaving us breathless and still at the shock of what we’d seen.
The mountain lion is a regal animal, ferocious, fierce, and lithe. I feel beyond lucky to have witnessed one in the flesh. But I know that never would have happened if we hadn’t met the lions on their turf, if we hadn’t abandoned the neon gleam of civilization for the shadowy thick of the forest. If we hadn’t ventured out of the city and into the wild.
Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
I love this quote by Henry David Thoreau–the way it exudes his passion, his pure astonishment at the beauty of the outdoors. I read it first in Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s fatal expedition into the Alaskan wilderness. Though I finished the book awhile ago, it continues to simultaneously haunt and inspire me. McCandless was reckless, certainly; he took few precautions against the danger of his journey–purposefully–and his philosophies on life were often idealistic at best. But there was something genuine, I think, in his quest for truth. Like his hero Thoreau, McCandless believed in a world wiped clean of the taint of materialism, a world where nature, not man, was king.
While I don’t agree with such a complete denouncement of society, I do resonate with the desire to step out, step away, and experience periods of solitude and seclusion. Because when we spend time in silence, we hear more. See more. Know more. Love more.
Twenty minutes into my walk, I realize I’ve stopped reaching toward my pocket for a phone that’s not there. I’ve stopped hoping for texts, stopped itching to snap pictures, even stopped wondering what time it is. I don’t need to know. Because right now, the air is quiet and warm. The sun is slipping through the cracks between trees like the brookwater I have bent to cup in my hands. And when I rise, wiping my wet fingers on a towel of grass, the creek is waiting to guide me, to pull me along the path, to shepherd me to the place I truly belong.