Muir Dispatch #2
This article was written by Jacob Bretz, a senior philosophy major who is currently studying in Norway. Chances are he's either hiking or climbing something.
[This is the second installment of our "Muir Dispatches" written by Jacob Bretz, who is currently studying abroad in Norway. These articles are reflective in nature (pun intended) and hope to stir within the reader a greater appreciation for the natural world all around us. Happy reading!]
I was fourteen and somehow got roped into this trip. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways I was dying to go backpacking. I hadn’t seen my cousins since Christmas, my Uncle Dave seemed like a nice enough guy (even after a brutal, late-night car ride), and the mystery hovering over the Isle Royale struck some nerve I didn’t know I had. But four days in the wilderness—forest, wolves, and mud—wasn’t anything I was accustomed to. I had never gone that long without washing; I’d never shat in the woods.
My father, central Pennsylvania-born, was more into Pink Floyd than Hank Williams. He didn’t play football or race stock cars like his neighbors in Port Royal. His penchant for subverting the norms of small town America extended to the outdoors as well. Hunting didn’t interest him much, with the cold and the wet and the walking and the killing. He’d rather watch Star Trek than explore much on Earth. And I think my mother has hiked more in the past two years than the rest of her life combined. Sure, she went to summer camp somewhere in southern Wisconsin growing up. But having been there myself I know she probably strung together bracelets covered with Bible citations than walked through the woods. Singing camp songs and sleeping on a shitty mattress doesn’t exactly make you Davey Crockett.
See, my family isn’t all too “outdoorsy” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It must have been some surprise when I decided to work in Yellowstone almost three years ago, when I chose to take a backpacking trip in Texas rather than go party in Chicago for New Year’s Eve, or when I first admitted my dreams of a dirtbag existence. Yet family is the exact reason I have such an obsession with wilderness. I owe my love of nature and adventure to my Uncle Steve. Hell, he asked me to go on the trip.
Reaching Copper Harbor—the northernmost settlement on Michigan’s upper peninsula—the reality of the trip set in. Lake Superior spread out before me like the Atlantic, shimmering blue and silver, drenched in majesty. We crammed into a tiny motel room that night, passed the time with anxious conversation, and tried to ignore the storm raging between us and the island. Tomorrow we would take the seven-hour ferry ride to Royale and catch a ride back four days later. I was anxious, excited, and inexperienced—so much so that I almost forgot my sweatshirt.
Getting to the island, leaving its only settlement—Rock Harbor—and taking off on the trail was the most freeing thing I had ever done. Even if that freedom was a bit muted after nine miles of scrambling over and under felled trees, the forty-pound backpack weighing down on my hundred-pound frame. We reached our first camp by dark on the far north side of the island. I remember looking across the water the next day fixated on the suggestive silhouette of mountains. My uncle gestured with his oatmeal covered spoon, “That’s Canada.” Visions of burly, bearded fur trappers fighting off cougars and sleeping in the snow flew through my mind.
Later that day, we trudged up over Greenstone Ridge. Reaching the summit of the escarpment I again looked across the water and saw the same Canadian peaks, the Two Sisters, in perfect light. In that moment I realized that adventure wasn’t across the vast lake or centuries of history. Real adventure was here: in the air around my face, in the rocks underneath my feet, and in the countless miles of trail crisscrossing the island.
Once the four days were done, I returned to the placid civilization of Wheaton, Illinois. Initially, I felt a massive divide between the cultivated lawns and personalities of the suburb. Driving down 294 I was filled with rage and disgust. I know it sounds insane, but that brief trip made me fucking hate billboards—a burning hatred I hold to this day. But soon, dreams of escaping into the back country like a contemporary St. John the Baptist retreated to the far corners of my mind. School started up a month or so later. I had a new list of things to worry over—homework, wrestling, college, girls, friends, and so on. I couldn’t take the time to dream about the wild anymore.
Until suddenly, I could.