Thirty years ago this summer was the last time I hiked the Rockies with a group. I took a leadership course at NOLS out of Lander, Wyoming. For one full month about 20 of us from all over the countrywere taught technical climbing, the natural history of the area, and survival and leadership skills. Our test came on the last 4 days when we were divided into 4 groups for the hike out to a pick-up point. With the exception of one meal, all of our food was taken from us. We were off trail. We had to cover over 40 miles carrying heavy packs, use our map skills to find the exit point, remain cohesive as a group, and take care of each other — all without eating packaged food.
In groups of hikers I always liked to sweep. The sweep is the last person in the group. No one may get behind him him or her. He is there to ensure that no one becomes lost or is left behind. I liked watching each individual disappear around a far bend or over a rise. When the last person was gone, I waited a good 15 minutes and then began a slow, steady walk. I liked being alone up high in the sharp, thousand-sun light. No sound but my breathing and the wind. The first person into a new land….or so I sometimes told myself.
On the last day, our day to leave, our team having made the 40+ miles without injury, hungry, knowing that yogurt and milk and cereal and pastry and coffee awaited us at the van, we rose early, tore down camp and assembled, everyone but me eager to be gone. In good cheer the team walked off and soon disappeared over a rise a mile away. On the other side of that rise waited the van and our instructors. On this side, after they dipped and were gone, I saw nothing except sky and sun and a glacial lake and rock and the meandering trail. It was so quiet.
I did not want to go. I wanted to live out of my pack and remain in the deep present time of walking. I knew the rhythms and routine of these actions and of this place. I felt at home here.
But even as I stood up and shouldered my pack and slowly followed all the others who had gone ahead, I wanted to slow time down and sense more deeply than ever the bright happiness I felt here come out and shelter me again as it had done so often before. Ten feet from the top of the ridge, ten feet from seeing the van and the breakfasting team, ten feet from the spell breaking forever, I stopped and sat down and turned my face up to the sky. I tried to blank my mind and just breathe ……. but it was time to go. I rose, turned and left that blessing behind.