“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
At the outset, I must acknowledge that I’m not a great hiker, definitely not a mountain or rock-climbing enthusiast, but I do find wilderness the only place where my internal batteries fully recharge. Therefore, a drive up a jutted dirt road not on the map, or along a twisted winding street that snakes through wooded areas rarely traveled, or hiking a quiet trail by the sea, provides that much needed release from the stress caused by our fast-paced, congested world.
Wilderness holds an exalted place in my heart and imagination. Thus, wild places and dense forests feature prominently in my stories and poetry. Any vacation that includes an excursion into mountains, under big trees, or into hushed wilderness where I can hear the scurry of small animals or spy an eagle in flight provides the perfect escape. If I encounter the thrashing sounds of some larger creature, one that raises the hairs on my arms and neck, well, I might consider that an added bonus (stated here with lifted eyebrows!)
I recall just such a jaunt into the wilderness north of Vancouver on a peaceful lazy September day still warm enough that only a light jacket was required. At that time of year, the weather can be unpredictable, and easily drop in a sudden plunge to the first frosts of winter. But we were lucky, no hint of rain or inclement weather threatened the horizon, and the sun shone bright above our heads.
Since we only intended to take a leisurely drive into the mountains north of the city, we didn’t wear typical hiking gear. We carried a road map, water and a few protein bars, but no backpacks or other wilderness accouterments. In typical spontaneous fashion, we stopped at a parking lot marked as the trail-head for trails offering varying degrees of difficulty.
Signposts indicated the lower part of one trail went from light to moderate difficulty with uneven surfaces and modest incline, transitioning to a more rugged difficult trail after a few miles. That sounded perfect, as we had no desire to go further than those first few miles. I’d be lucky to make it that far.
We passed no other hikers along the trail and heard no human voices in the distance. The forest seemed eerily quiet except for the racket of our feet kicking an occasional rock or stick, the sporadic tweeting and squawking of birds, and our voices, which were far too loud for the hushed surroundings. I always feel compelled to whisper when I’m in the forest unless the quiet seems exceptional, as it did that day. Then, I want to make noise. Some inner sense of self-preservation rises up and I think loud noise will deter any large prey. A ridiculous notion, really. If anything, the noise alerts all creatures to our presence, and a hungry beast might just decide lunch has arrived.
I readily identified Mountain Maple, Hemlock, Yellow Cedar, Lodgepole pine, and a variety of other towering conifers. These beauties reached heights of anywhere from 15m to over 85m (50 to over 285 feet!) Along the first half-mile of our climb, the sun laced golden streams of light through the trees and brush. But the further we climbed the thicker the trees and the denser the overhead canopy. It didn’t take long before this dense cover cloaked the brilliant blue sky and the afternoon sun dimmed to the shade of late twilight. After we’d traveled over a mile up the trail, we noticed a crisp drop in temperature and our climb grew precipitously steeper.
My husband and I froze mid-step when the birds suddenly quieted, and no scuttle disturbed the undergrowth. The hairs along my arms and neck had jumped to attention. We strained to hear something, anything besides the wind in the trees or occasional plop of a pine-cone dropping. Nothing.
Simultaneously, we bent to pick up a large stick, but my husband reached it first. I grabbed two palm-sized rocks. A sharp crack of breaking branches sounded further up the steep incline to our left. Then another and another until it sounded as though a very large creature thrashed about tearing down trees and shoving large boulders into each other.
This certainly was not a mountain lion, he would have stalked us stealthily through the brush, coming from behind, gauging which of us (most definitely me,) would make the easier, tastier catch. Deer are not so careless as to alert predators to their passing, unless it was an entire herd escaping some threat. Though I’d feel bad for the deer, at least they possessed four legs and were fleet of foot. I, on the other hand, am clumsy and slow.
I thought the hill entirely too steep for those sounds to be a moose, though I might have been wrong. Since no human voices accompanied the noise, we ruled them out too.
No, the loud thrashing noises came from a much larger, wild creature. If he wasn’t already killing something, he definitely sounded disgruntled and headed in our direction. That left the most likely candidate a bear. In those woods, it could have meant a black bear or a grisly, neither of which I had any desire to meet in close proximity. We certainly weren’t going to share our protein bars and engage in a pleasant chat about the weather.
The time for lots and lots of ruckus had arrived. We smacked our sticks and rocks against the trees, called out to make sure a person didn’t require our help (though what kind of help we might offer, I couldn’t imagine,) picked up bigger sticks, and scurried back to our car keeping a keen eye over our shoulders and on the hill above. We never caught a glimpse of that creature, which was fine with me because it could have been anything, even Bigfoot.
Exciting, enriching experiences like this will continue to show up in my writing, if for no other reason than I’m here to share the tale. I need to know that wilderness, though diminished by man’s intrusion, still thrives somewhere out there.
However, I’ll be honest; for all the recharging I crave and receive from wild places, I enjoy my excursions far better when observed from the safety of a sturdy cabin porch, a well-made boat on a placid lake, or a nice travel van. At the very least, I’ll take my wilderness experiences from a position close enough to retreat to one of those aforementioned enclosures, especially when bigger, meaner, hardier wildlife come to call. Even though I doubt I’ll allow characters in my stories the same luxury.
There are no four-legged wild creatures threatening my heroine in Finding My Highlander, but I set the story in wild, rugged terrain. And a twenty-first century woman landing in 1705 Scotland finds the two-legged creatures there are wild enough.
In my soon to be released, My San Francisco Highlander, we move forward to 1975-76. This story takes place in both the city and in a few wilderness areas of Northern California, where wildlife abounds, and some make an appearance.