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Evan and crew hike in the Pecos Wilderness.

Evening meeting with Hermit’s Peak and Porvenir Canyon in the distance.

Evan and Laine Smith take in the sunset on Spring Mountain.

Students from United World College on Day Twelve of their wilderness leadership trip.
Story photos credit: —Sofia Espinosa

Wandering, looking

—Evan Belknap

A few weeks ago, I led a group of nine eighteen-year-olds into the Pecos Wilderness for a two-week-long, no-resupply backpacking trip. I drove to United World College in Las Vegas, New Mexico, from Basalt, Colorado, and jumped right into packing, planning, organizing, meeting my kids, and answering questions. I went from river bum to wilderness guru in the span of ten hours. I had already been apart from my people, my life, my girlfriend, for over a week—off river training in Colorado—and 14 more days off alone in the woods (with nine students and one co-instructor) felt like a heavy burden on my soul. I snuck off to make one last phone call to say goodbye, again, and then I put on a smile and loaded my kids into a bus, and drove up towards Hermit’s Peak, into the mountains.

Day One was good. Our packs, filled with 14 days of food and gear, averaged around seventy pounds, and even my hips bruised and my back ached after four miles of stream-crossings and upward meanderings. Some of these kids were much smaller than me and certainly not accustomed to ferrying large loads for a living. They grimaced and groaned and occasionally fell over, but I was immediately impressed by their determination and good attitudes. We had begun, and we were in it together, and I hardly had any time to think about the eternity of two weeks and how much I longed for my heart.

We made camp in a small meadow at the confluence of two rivers. Wildflowers grew everywhere, columbines, dandelions, blue bells. The sky was dark and churning and, soon after, snow began to fall, heavy and wet on the tents. Thunder boomed from up high. With everyone exhausted and resting before dinner, I reclined under my orange tarp and plucked on a ukulele in time to the drips.

Another two days took us deeper and higher into the mountains. We layed over in a massive meadow and swam, stretched out, and dried in the sun whenever it peeked from the clouds. My co-instructor, Laine, and I taught lessons on expedition behavior, leadership styles, types of leadership, conflict resolution in the woods, etc., and then I wrapped it up with a wildflower class, teaching these kids all kinds of dirty things about the reproduction of plants and the mind-blowing language that plants and animals use to communicate with one another. We saw Rocky Mountain Iris, Scarlet Gilia, penstemon, and I gathered nettles, yarrow, and Ponderosa needles to make tea.

About six days in, Laine and I began to comment on how easy our group was; they were kind to one another even when they had small conflicts, they had great attitudes even when things were hard, and they were genuinely eager to learn from their experience. Even more impressive was how open and honest they were, allowing the magic of this place to saturate them every day. Given these students and this setting, we hardly had to do anything as leaders; we created a safe space and allowed nature to do the rest. We’d sit around and talk about everything under the sun to pass the time.

About ten days in, I started going on walks by myself in the evenings, right before the sun set, after everyone had bedded down for the night. I’d walk aimlessly, letting my feet take me where they pleased, my eyes wander, and I tried to have no thoughts at all. I’d found that when I thought, I’d think to end of the trip, and an uneasiness would come over me. But thoughtless, the glow of the setting sun made every color fuzz and blaze, the greens vibrated and embraced me, and I didn’t have to be anywhere else.

On the evening of Day Twelve, I started my walk, heading up towards East Baldy Lake through the marsh of a meadowed valley. My shoes and feet grew wet, then cold, and then they didn’t matter anymore, and I splashed through the deepest part of the marsh, mud up to my knees. Water gushed out of the hillside and down into a maze of Pocket Gopher tunnels, sprouting out here and there like a flooded putt-putt course. I relaxed my focus on the world and walked through the spongy earth and just looked. Tiny white flowers with yellow centers exploded from the green. I walked for a long time without a thought, and then I stopped. The Truchas Peaks towered in front of me, my feet throbbed with cold, and there, so alone, I experienced such a wave of euphoria that I started to laugh. I laughed like a crazy person.

Life was so good in that moment—that I got to be in such a place at such a time. I wished that everyone could experience those mountains like I did that day and fall in love. If more people got outside to explore, and if they let themselves be open and vulnerable, there would be more people fighting to protect our wild places. People would remember that wilderness provides a kind of nourishment than mankind cannot live without.

I found my way back to camp by dark. I dried my feet, and crawled into my sleeping bag to warm back up. I drifted off easily.

The trip eventually ended, and I could hardly remember the beginning. We’d been out there as a little family for a long time, it seemed. All my kids were flying home for the summer the next day, getting on planes and flying to Luxemburg, California, Italy, Iowa, Texas, New Jersey, Syria, England, North Carolina, and Peru. It was time to get back to it, back on the track of our hectic lives. I didn’t envy them having to be in an airport after our hike, surrounded by thousands of people all trying frantically to be somewhere else.

Saying goodbye, I knew the students would hold onto those memories of times in the woods, just like I knew that that evening in the marsh would come back to me throughout my life, accompanied by the sound and smell of trickling water.

 
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