Something happened to me in my two years in South Africa, and subsequent past seven months in Phoenix, Arizona—I became accustomed to living in a city. For the first time in my adult life, I was losing a connection to wilderness.
Since I was 16 years of age and went on my first solo backpacking trip in the Superstition wilderness, there has been this place inside of me that remembers what it means to feel at peace, to truly be at home.
That place has for thirty years connected me to wilderness, the last remaining places on this crowded planet which have no power lines overhead, no pipelines underground, no human crafted water ways or walk ways or roads. Places where the otter and beaver, deer and elk, fox and coyote, wolf, bear and mountain lion yet maintain their domain. Places where the birds nest not on man-made structures but in their original, natural habitat.
I often wondered how those who are born and raised in a city, those who venture to national parks as temporary relief but long to return to the concrete do look to the open spaces and natural places that remain. In my time in Cape Town I longed for the time I enjoyed at Sutherland, home of the South African Astronomical Observatory. The land that surrounds the 6,000 foot observatory is open range, criss-crossed by roads and fences, yet vast, mostly untrodden, and incredibly quiet. It was as close to wilderness as I was able to enjoy during my time in South Africa, and a welcomed respite.
Slowly, I gained an appreciation for living in a country where friends were but a phone call away, arriving with a bottle of wine on a moment’s notice. In time, the conditions of the surf determined how I spent my mornings and I grew accustomed to the clockwork of the city, from the train schedule to the hours of the local restaurants and hangouts. There, I built some of the deepest friendships of my life.
Upon my return to Phoenix I longed for those connections, for those walks on the beach and intellectual discussions over home made bread and South African wine. While I grew up investigating the far reaches of the American Southwest, exploring mountain tops and canyons, river ways and caves, the wilderness had, for me, retreated to somewhere, out there, beyond my reach. I no longer believed the wild places existed, for the news, the media, nothing spoke to me of where I could go to be removed from the overwhelming human condition, to be alone with my own challenges and not those of the entire planet.
I was aware of this, and spoke of it to family and friends. I knew I needed to be reminded of what it was to be in a place outside of the human domain. Last week I returned to Buffalo Peak Ranch. For the summer and into the fall, this will be my home once again. It took no more than the hour drive from the nearest town, into the valley where the buffalo do roam, to remember what it means to be free.
No, this is not wilderness, but in a ten minutes drive or thirty minutes run I can be in wilderness again. It’s just over there, on the visible horizon. Once again I am reminded of what it means to be free of the sound of engines, sirens, alarms and talking, talking, talking. Once again, my body is flooded with the embrace of silence and solitude.
Every hour of every day is my own. I wake to the sun on my face. I swim in the cold pond following my workout. I go for long hikes with camera in hand between longer sessions of email and programming. I make time for making food. And sometimes, I just sit and do nothing.