Spring Break in the Wallowa Mountains

Photo by Dorian Alexanderson

Photo by Dorian Alexanderson

As I made my way down the mountainside, some insightful notions became increasingly clear. The unstable footing and precarious slopes were irrelevant side thoughts in comparison to my feelings of leaving the mountains this day. It seemed a cruel joke that now, after just realizing the epic importance of such adventure, I would need to abandon it for the exact context in which I compared it to. For the previous six months I had existed, more or less, in the realm of the scholarly system, caught up in a city, surrounded by walls. Short weekends and an especially busy winter break had been the only escapes that I could even manage to ponder the fabled, “greater things in life.” On this day, more than ever, I felt that leaving the mountains was wrong, that my time spent here in exploration and adventure was not justifiable for another term of class lectures and studying for exams. For the past five days we climbed steep slopes of deep snow, wrestled packs over one third our weight, and endured non-pleasurable nights near zero degrees fahrenheit. For the past five days everything seemed to make sense; simple pleasures were the greatest of pleasures and discomforts were mere neutral facts to support the existence of pleasures.

It was spring break, the shorter of only two brief lulls in the hectic college year. Two friends and I were on a trip to the Wallowa Mountains in the far north-east of Oregon. Though it was spring break, conditions were nothing but wintry. Frigid temperatures mixed with heaps of fresh snow ensured we couldn't take usual day to day comforts for granted. No stranger to mountaineering, I had been climbing for a few years prior with numerous trips to this particularly divine area. A surprising number of Oregonians don't know of the Wallowa Mountains. An offshoot of the rockies, the mountain range hosts over two dozen 9000 foot peaks and the highest median elevation of anywhere in Oregon. Numerous high alpine, turquoise colored lakes are hidden throughout the valleys, shielded from view by towering granite crags. Situated in a remote corner of the state and surrounded by desert, the area fails to get the attention deserved by such wondrous beauty. In the heart of the range during summer, one can easily go days without seeing other people, and during winter and early spring, you are virtually guaranteed to have the tall peaks to yourself. At the base of the mountains is the picturesque town of Joseph, a small, quiet town with areas reminiscent of the Alps. Amenities using words like alpine, matterhorn, and chalet coupled with the neighboring expanse of jagged peaks and steep, wandering valleys make you think of famous European mountain towns like Zermatt in Switzerland, or Chamonix, France.

Here, to the Wallowa Mountains, we come year after year to take part in that seemingly ever-less popular act of adventure. It is not random chance that such uncertainties and thrills provide for a fulfilling life experience. There are numerous factors that have made this current “pastime” such an important priority throughout history. Exploration and inquiry are so well established in human legacy that to dismiss them is recipe for for dissatisfaction. The inherent necessity for adventure that has defined so much of our history is no longer part of the life in the western world. In fact, some people have taken it to the complete opposite extreme, avoiding everything that could possibly be harmful. In leaving adventure behind, a void is created, complicating the simple existence that natural selection has moulded. There is a cumulative effect I have noticed where, as I spend more time in the wilderness, returning to civilization becomes increasingly difficult. Many modern Americans are victim, rather unknowingly, of a busy schedule and incentives that rob them of outwardly opportunity and personal discovery. Evidence shows there are many people who get caught up in the stressors of society and have trouble sustaining on the simple pleasures. A large number of people across many demographics experience unhappiness towards life because of nature-detached, man made institutions like workplaces and school. Perhaps the disenchantment with nature's simplicity is to blame, perhaps the disruption of man's co-evolution with the earth has caused such intra-personal confusion.

Photo by Dorian Alexanderson

Photo by Dorian Alexanderson

Henry David Thoreau once said, “as you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.” I identify with this as a primary reason to seek adventure in remote places. Society has built institutions and policy upon a factual soil. The simple existence that marks most life has been altered in our case into a myriad of contradictory relationships, incomprehensible cultural expectations, and trivial pastimes. To thrive in less than civil conditions, one naturally transforms his personal ideals to follow suit. This results in simplification, not only in thought, but also in action. A vegetarian will be hard pressed to ponder the morality of eating meat when hunger persists and fresh game is available. No longer will things like food, water, and warm shelter be taken for granted. There will be no time nor logic in contemplating politics when after a hard day's effort, you can finally rest. All sensory stimulation will be appreciated for what its worth, a step towards logical prosperity. The nature of the modern man's schedule does not facilitate such appreciation of life's simple aspects. Simple needs continually met since birth has left the only outlet to be in the form of excess. This is the legacy of modern man, and Americans especially. There is nothing logical about personal aircraft and thousand dollar bottles of liquor. They are symptoms of a pandemic illness called consumerism, a condition that has swept much of the globe, seemingly, because it could.

Adventure, by necessity, has defined the lives of many more humans than this newfound phenomenon of consumerism. Simply sustaining themselves, cultures around the world have perpetually taken the risk and reward cycle far beyond what we normally do today. Waring states, plagues, seasonal migrations; toils for food, resources, and other means of survival have all meant for hazardous conditions surely effective in putting life in perspective. This major trend in human history is in sharp contrast to current middle and upper class America. Beneficiaries of the country's behemoth financial market, they are indoctrinated with ideals of the business cycle and obese retirement accounts. The 1990's saw, by far, the largest economic expansion in our history. These unsustainable growth rates defined by easy money simultaneously set people up for the let down of the current recession. As market bubbles begin to pop, crime rates rapidly increase in a surprisingly predictable fashion. This is evidence of the risk and reward cycle taking weight again. Out of a seeming necessity, people go to great lengths to hold on to what they consider reasonable or normal levels of consumption. The reality of today is that, even when the economy is at its worst, prosperity for many is still extravagantly high. In America at least, you can still roam the streets and see homeless people with rather large, satisfied bellies. Even though the financial markets are suffering possibly the worst case since the 30's, people still manage to spend heaps of money on unnecessary things like dog groomers and down comforters. This means there is still a need for adventure. As modern living conditions eliminate the absolute need for meaningful risk and reward, one must take it upon themselves to seek out activities or places that make them fully appreciate even the simplest things in life. I know of more than a few homeless people who choose to be so simply because of these reasons. It provides for them a life context with just enough uncertainty that they can wake every day with renewed enthusiasm. Personally, I prefer the mountains. Roaming high ridge lines for days on end and sleeping in the open under a cloak of stars is how I manage sense in the world. Here I can connect completely with the wisdom best put forth by Thoreau, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”