Since we left Canada seven months ago, the wilderness has haunted my subconscious mind. Lately, though, I’ve been devoting more conscious thought to wild places. This is largely for two reasons. The first is that we, along with our friend David, are about to embark on a week-long kayaking trip in northern Thailand, and we have only a rough idea of what we will encounter on the Mae Ping river. The second is that the most recent episode of The Bachelor visited Banff and Jasper, two Canadian national parks which have been significant in my life.* I watch the show each week with a lovely group of friends, and they kindly let me ramble on about how blue Lake Louise really is. The episode was as vapid as ever, but even as I snickered at some of the one-liners,** seeing the wilderness of my Canadian home gave me chest pangs that went beyond homesickness. I miss the mountains, but even more than that, I miss spending time in untamed places.
Part of the reason that I love spending time in wild places is because wilderness is premised on uncertainty. No matter how good the maps, how abundant the water sources, or how agreeable the weather, there is always the knowledge that something unpredictable – whether good or bad – could happen. I remember a backpacking trip that I went on several years ago in Jasper. It had been a long day, and we were hoping to hike quickly down the valley to our camp site. We were making good time until one of our group-members spotted a mother grizzly and her two cubs meandering up the same valley into which we were hiking. We waited for several hours until we could attempt to pass them, and we watched their movements closely as we carefully skirted the edge of the valley. I was struck both by how close we’d come to unwittingly bumping into the bears, and by their beauty.
I know that hiking in the mountains and encounters with bears are not appealing to everyone. However, I think there is something in the human spirit that needs encounters with uncertainty, and wilderness is perhaps the most tangible expression of uncertainty available to us. We need reminders that we are not completely in control. Daily life, particularly in cities, can lull us into a sense of complacency, of believing that life is all about the choices that we make, and that we have the power to make any choices we wish. A lightning storm on a high peak, a river’s rapids, flooded trails, and roaming bears are all reminders that outcomes are not certain, and that control is often simply an illusion.
The wilderness brings me out of myself and my often petty day-to-day concerns. It forces me into a place of largeness and yet smallness, of contemplating things eternal while experiencing the joyful simplicity of being a physical creature in a physical world. Wilderness leads me to encounter the Creator in new ways. The resounding silence of a snow-covered starlit meadow, the shrill whistle of marmots, and the heavenly scent of alpine forests all bear the stamp of an artist. The wilderness refreshes my belief and draws me out of myself.
I believe that God is at work in humans, and that He values humans and relationships above everything else. I don’t think that encountering God in the wilderness can take the place of encountering God in your fellow human beings. However, I believe that the wilderness offers us silence and stillness, gifts that are often unavailable in our modern world. The wilderness asks me to listen – perhaps this is its greatest gift.
Sacred uncertainty is what I hope to experience on this kayaking trip. I know that it won’t be as cold and wild as the Canadian Rockies, and I’ll be surprised if we encounter any bears. But I trust that Northern Thailand has its own version of wilderness to offer, and that I will encounter the Creator on this journey.
*Maybe I’ll cover my Bachelor obsession in another post – it’s not really the tone I’m going for today
** Contestant Desiree, as she stood on Tunnel Mountain overlooking Banff town site exclaimed “I just love Banff national forest!”