Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

Back home

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JUNE 21, 2020

I grew up NOT with the earth beneath my feet but with pavement, concrete, and carpet. Carpet: Hah! Not a surface fit for human feet! Suburban London was home and it offered few surfaces that were wild or untrammeled. Not that I knew anything about wild surfaces… or cared. How could I care about spongy mountain tundra, glacier-scratched slab, or mulchy forest floor? You don’t care about what you don’t know…

Or do you? Can you tell something is missing even if you don’t know what it is? Can you sense ‘the incomplete’? Do you instinctively recognize it when first you see it?

I remember with blinding clarity my first sighting of ‘the wild’, of land not completely subjugated by humankind. It lit something inside. I was only ten, and it was but a fleeting snatch of wild glimpsed through the dirty window of a moving car. I didn’t touch it, smell it, hear it, or step onto it… I just saw it. But my imagination was fired, my spirit captured. I saw something beyond my experience that called in ways I couldn’t fathom or grasp. I saw something I couldn’t ever unsee, something I couldn’t possibly forget. It began a journey that would ultimately transform my life.

But I’ll explain more in future blogs.

For now I’m back… home… in the mountains… and celebrating it… back with my feet upon the wild earth, my earth, and yours too – never forget that. I say ‘back’ home but I don’t ever truly leave it any more, even when normal life pulls me away. As I learned long ago I carry the wild within even when I step onto human-made surfaces. The wild is not just a physical place, and connection with it doesn’t have to sever when physically leaving it.

Still, there’s a sense of release as I set off along the trail into Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness. There’s a lightening of the load, an unweighting of spirit, and it is so fills me to the brim with optimism I have to fight back the urge to rush. Instead, I do the opposite and slow my steps, and remind myself to be here, fully present… a state I learnt was important long ago on a longer walk… and as soon as I achieve it the extraordinary ordinariness of the wild comes flooding in: cool, soft air laden with living scents; birdsong echoing through the trees; a pine-needle-coated surface underfoot with its gentle hint of give; the song of rushing water. I walk along, entranced. How I love the sound of mountain brooks hurrying. Let the brooks hurry to remind me not to!

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And so I ease myself into the forest, and bathe in green. I’ve thought this often: you don’t visit a forest: you wear it. A forest: possibly my favorite item of clothing…

This forest doesn’t sit far from my Colorado home of two decades. Suburban London lies far in my past, although I still carry it inside, and it will always inform how I look at the world. Where I grew up made me who I am, and I remain eternally grateful for it. Would the wild have come to mean so much if it had always been a part of my life?

From my start at 9,400 feet I meander upwards to a lake at 11,400 feet, still taking my time, still trying not to rush. The miles aren’t many and there are treasures too easily missed. Yes, sometimes I DO rush in the mountains – I’ll admit it. I love to run, love to dance and leap over rocks and fly through nature unshackled. There’s an animal joy to it, an aliveness from motion, a different set of rewards and connections to experience. But not today. Today is for a slower immersion, a day to give insignificant details a chance to become significant. Like that tiny ant for example, dragging a dead beetle ten-times its size through an obstacle course of forest litter. I stop to watch. The beetle catches and snags on twigs and vegetation and the task looks impossible. But the ant doesn’t give in.

A little further I come across a massive slab of granite that, like the determined ant, also can’t be ignored. The slab was once part of an outcrop, but it now rests separate from it at the outcrop’s base, tilted at an angle against it, still in one piece. Frost must have pried it away over an unimaginable length of time. What’s impressive is the slab’s size: thirty feet high, forty feet wide, weighing goodness knows how much. And what’s even more impressive is how it’s still in one piece. I’ve seen rocks fall, crashing down mountains, and it doesn’t take much to shatter them. This slab broke away, slid down the face, and came to a rest, unbroken. It must have been quite a moment. Thunderous. I bet it made the squirrels sit up and take notice.

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I walk on. Thunder rumbles, and twice over the next three hours stinging bursts of grapple fall from the sky: streaks of white that are neither hail, sleet, nor snow but somehow all three. It’s mid summer, June 21st, but winter doesn’t feel so far away, especially when I reach the first old patch of snow at 10,000 feet. Decorated with pine needles it looks its age. The first few drifts are easily skirted, but soon larger drifts block the way, and instead of around I have to go over… or through, I should say. The snow embraces my legs up to my knees. But how wonderful it is to be able to stand knee-deep in winter on a hot June afternoon!

With winter halfway up my legs and dark granite peaks stabbing at gray clouds I count my blessings. They are many. The greatest by far is simply being here, alive. There are many things I don’t take for granted, and my little existence is one of them. My life is such a fleeting thing, a blink in an eternity, and to show gratitude I really try to live it. It’s why I’m here, seeking to have every sense touched.

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I make camp on a flattish patch of earth overlooking Mystic Island Lake. There’s no-one else around, only a curious marmot who would rummage through my food bags if given half a chance. But it won’t get it – I care too much for the marmot… and for my chocolate. After dinner I hang my food high in a tree and then drift leisurely about my kingdom, poking into the nooks and crannies. This is my favorite kind of environment, intimate and full of secrets, not revealed all at once but slowly with each twist and turn. I loiter beside a gushing stream, clamber up a rocky knoll, dip my toes in the lake. Barefoot, I savor the textures of the place, connecting with it through the soles of my feet. Scenically, it’s stunning, but I haven’t come here for mere scenery. What I’ve come for is to feel… to be stirred, touched, and awed, to be completed. I close my eyes and the magic sinks deep. Awe grows… and grows. I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again: a day without awe is a day wasted.

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The entire arena at sunset is a bit of a fantasy, a Hollywood-version of Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The colors are… over the top, overblown, dialed up to twelve. Except it’s real, and I’m in it. I mean, seriously… ‘normal’ life just doesn’t do this kind of thing. The mountains and lake glow like the setting sun, glow as though lit from within, and perched beside the lake I wallow in the intensity of it. And to think, another version of me – the individual who made one or two different choices – is still back there in London’s suburbs, vegging out before the TV, living an entirely different kind of life…

Hah! I mean: phew!

And I think to myself: just how did a suburban boy get to be so lucky?

Important Note; if you visit the location written about in this blog, or any other wild place, please consider that you have an absolute duty and responsibility to leave no sign you were ever there. This is CRITICAL. Travel gently, travel softly. Wild mountains may look rugged, and they are… but they are also easily damaged and diminished. Don’t just learn leave no trace principles… make them your guiding principles. The mountains will benefit, future visitors will benefit, and your own journey will be a thousand times better for it. Thank you.

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Mystic Island Lake, Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado.
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The curious marmot, planning a chocolate heist.
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Mystic Island. Well named. There was something about it.
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My favorite kind of landscape, intricate, full of nooks, crannies, and secrets.
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Evening light, shinning across a small, snow-rimmed pool. The hour of magic light approaches…
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Sunlight falling in just the right place at just the right time. Funny how often that happens when one finally slows down and stops to look.
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The shadows grow longer, the sounds of rushing water and the call of mountain birds echo from crag to crag.
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Ordinary life just never does this kind of thing.
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