Enchanted by the Cranberry Wilderness

It was the kind of wilderness within which you might actually expect to see little gnomes and fairies wandering around. Breath-taking beauty, forests with a lush mossy carpet floor, ferns and rhododendrons galore, and a striking abundance orchids; we just may have stumbled upon a version of paradise in the Cranberry Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia.

Toadstool mossy cottageElizabeth in a natural mossy chairIt had been 4 months since my colleague Russell and I had taken our last backpacking trip together. During that space in time, we both had some outdoor adventures separately and moved through significant life-altering experiences along the way. As we began our trip out to West Virginia, I noticed the comforting feeling of easing into an unknown wilderness with a familiar companion.

Russell and I set our intentions as we approached the trailhead. He named his intention of being present and awake to more fully noticing the landscape surrounding him. I named an intention of dropping down into a more grounded and centered space as I moved through and related to this natural landscape, as I related to Russell on this journey, and as I related to my own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

Russell in the big forestElizabeth walking amongst the trees and rocksRussell taking a breakElizabeth taking a rest on the mossy rock As we shifted out of the overwhelming stimuli of our urbanized environment, I noticed my whole body quieting. I felt more spaciousness and allowance for simply what was in the moment. I noticed appreciating the richness of shared silence as much as the richness of meaningful conversation. I became more fully aware of the stars overhead (there was no rain on this particular trip, so we were truly able to sleep beneath the stars each night), the sounds of the birds, the lulling trickle of the creeks and streams nearby, and the cadence of my own breath.

Landscape view We experienced the physical exertion of carrying a pack, navigating some muddy trails, walking long distances in search of water, and moving up some steep inclines. We experienced deep relaxation provoked by the sensations of sunlight and the breeze against our skin, delicious food cooked over a camp stove while surrounded by a stunning environment, and by the knowing that both of us relied on one another in such fundamental ways on those trails, and that both of us would show up in support of one another as we navigated areas of smooth and challenging terrain.

Elizabeth and Russell looking up at the skyCairnDuring our car ride back to Ohio, we talked about our hope for future backpacking trips. As we reached the month of May 2018, we both agreed: of course we will return to the Monongahela National Forest. The plentiful orchids will be in bloom. The majestic Cranberry Wilderness will call us back.

 

The 6-, 36-, and 66-year-olds set out for a backpacking adventure…

This was an adventure. We were the explorers. Neither the 66 year old nor the 6 year old had ever backpacked before. I (the 36 year old) seemed a trusty guide. The time was now.

Andre with treking poles and mommyWe arrived in at Zaleski State Forest on a Saturday afternoon. It was a perfect September day. The grandson and grandfather were excited and uncertain…would they be able to do it? Would their packs be too heavy? Would the hills be too steep? Would the night be too dark? The animals too wild?

They bravely set off on the trail.

Andre and mommy backpacking

pappers and Andre backpacking

Surprised by our physical strength and eased by the cadence of the backcountry, we three backpackers trekked for a few miles before it was time to set up camp. Night descended and curiosity enveloped fleeting fears. The adventurers found that nightfall was brimming with its own special wonders.

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What memories! We cooked together. We laughed and rested together. We talked about the wonders of life and death together, as we looked up at the trees, just beginning to show signs of autumn foliage.

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And so was our little journey, woven by three generations of humans together on a simple, beautiful adventure.

Pappers and Andre backpacking Zaleski

Wilderness Practice at Red River Gorge

“Modern psychotherapy is almost universally practiced during a fifty-minute hour in an office, in a building, in a city or suburb. The pattern is all but automatic; opening a ‘practice’ means opening an ‘office’ that must usually be reached by driving a car along a congested freeway through a threatening city.  Ecopsychology poses a powerful challenge to such therapeutic business as usual. It reminds us that the original environment in which teachers and healers sought to save people’s souls was the natural environment, and the farther from ‘civilization,’ the better. Is it possible that certain unconscious assumptions about the world are built into the city? Do those assumptions prevent both therapist and client from finding the most effective kind of healing? Is urban culture itself concealing repressed contents that need to be reclaimed and returned to consciousness for analysis?

Wilderness therapy – or ‘practice,’ as Steven Harper prefers to call it, by way of making a vital distinction – is the boldest ecopsychological method so far developed for raising questions like these. It abandons the office, the city, the clock in favor of a setting that more closely corresponds to the natural habitat that has always been used by traditional cultures for healing the troubled soul. As Harper suggests, the authentic experience of wilderness undercuts all our suppositions about the ‘civilized’ and the ‘primitive’ in ways that can deliver a ‘reality shock.’ If we approach nature as he proposes, we may find ourselves asking where the ‘wilderness’ really is. Is it perhaps within us, still waiting to be explored?”*

In my career, I identify as a therapist who meets people from all walks of life for outpatient therapy in my indoor private practice nestled in Columbus, Ohio. And I identify as a practitioner who meets people from all walks of life for wilderness practice in natural wild landscape.

I reside in a city with a population a little shy of 1,000,000 people; my solace unfolds in the wilderness. As Russell and I invite others into the wilds, we learn how they too often experience a deepened sense of themselves in connection with soil and rock beneath their feet. They seem to experience belonging in new (ancient) ways.

Our backpacking trip to Red River Gorge in Kentucky was intended to be a facilitator retreat; we had much to discuss about determining our next steps moving forward with projects for our program NSWE (Natural Step Wilderness Experience).

When we moved into a natural area of Corbin Sandstone formed over an estimated 300 million years, however, our agenda shifted into the periphery.

How could we not be captivated?

We arrived. We were reminded that nature is our facilitator; we are mere student participants, naturally exploring moment to moment.

So, instead we experienced a deepened sense of ourselves in connection with the soil and rock beneath our feet. We experienced belonging to our earth in new (ancient) ways.

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WildflowerRock picCampsite & Russell making a fire

 

Fungus

Elizabeth walking on the rock

 

*Roszak, T. (2014). Foreward to the way of wilderness. Retrieved from http://www.stevenkharper.com/wayofwilderness.html.

 

Awakening the spirit

Recently, I completed a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) expedition leader training in the back country of North Cascades. While I was there, I certainly had the opportunity to sharpen my “outdoorsy” backpacking, knot tying, and risk management skills.

An unexpected gift unfolded for me out there, too: After about day 5 or so out in the wilds of Washington State, a clarity of mind came over me that I rarely experience in the “front country” (a term backpackers often use to refer to developed, non-wilderness areas). I returned to my Midwestern home with a renewed reservoir of energy to live my fleeting life on this planet in ways that truly prioritize what is most meaningful to me.

With deep reverence and gratitude for the wild rugged beauty of the North Cascades (and for the wild beauty all around us, if we only take a moment to look, smell, feel…), I offer a glimpse of my recent journey (photos taken by my talented fellow students & leaders):

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In my own journey, I am reminded of John Muir’s quote:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” 

Cheers to going home.  I welcome you here, too.