This place makes sense to me. It’s the way the world is suppose to be. This is a village without locked doors, without restricted areas, without rules other than those that in and of their intent describe their purpose.
“Do you know where your children are?” is almost always met with a matter of fact, “No.” And it doesn’t matter. They are either testing personal boundaries with the deer on the village green, learning to weave or throw a clay pot, or exploring the creekside trail despite the daily movement of black bear. As humans once embraced a much larger family than biological children and direct relations, here it is the village that raises the child.
In the first days parents are heard yelling the usual, “I told you to get down!” or “Don’t go too far!” but by the third or fourth day, the parents realize their children are safe and let go or altogether cut the reigns. This gives the children more freedom to explore, to make their own decisions, to make mistakes and recover. Children grow at Holden Village in a way that our always-on, always connected world does not afford.
Of a village
Most everything you do is known. As in a small town, this can be both welcomed and unwanted. Your actions directly affect at least one other, if not the entire village. Failure to complete your assigned tasks means that someone you know (and will see at the next meal) will have to carry your load. Complete your tasks and you will have served all who serve you in turn. Even if praise is not directly given, it is not difficult to enjoy the results of your labor. A repaired handrail catches someone’s fall. A stone reset in a pathway no longer poses a potential fall. There is a sense of belonging, to the village and the community too. It isn’t difficult to find your place, for there is always more work to do.
At the top of Spider Gap, a high elevation saddle that leads from the Upper Lyman lake and Lyman glacier to a permanent snow field on the northwest to a glacier on the southeast. I enjoyed a rapid ascent from base to top, and a splendid view of the other side. While I was resting on an distant outcrop of rock, a couple in their early sixties had turned back from the descent and return to the saddle. When I came upon them they were resting, drinking, eating some snacks before the descent of Spider glacier to their campsite.
We had chatted briefly a half hour earlier. I reengaged, “Ah! I see you decided to head back.” Their daughter and son-in-law had continued down into the Upper Lyman basin.
“Yes, yes. This is only our second real backpacking trip, so we thought we’d better not push it too hard.”
“Wait. This is your second backpacking trip and you are climbing glaciers?”
They laughed, “Well. Our daughter got us out on 13 mile trip a few weeks ago as a warm-up. I guess it worked!”
I was impressed. Climbing snow is never easy. Foot over foot, punching foot holds with boot toes all the way up. It’s a relentless means to gain a higher elevation as there are no switch backs, no resting spots other than those you make by digging into the crust and stomping out a flat spot.
We chatted for a few minutes more before the subject of GPS tracking came up. Their daughter and son had on them a device that enabled remote tracking of their location, anywhere in the world. The father bragged that the unit he first bought for them enabled text messaging and continuous tracking, every point on the trail marked.
I quickly responded, “Are you ok with a relative stranger debating this subject?” They agreed, and I continued, “I would refuse to enter the wilderness with such a device. It destroys the entire reason to be out here.” The father laughed and said his son-in-law said the same thing. They compromised on a simpler device with a GPS marker but no text messaging, the unit they had on them now.
“It is my experience that it is not the children, but the parents who demand such things.”
“Yes, this is true. We just … we want to know they are ok.”
“Maybe they are … maybe they aren’t. But that’s the whole point. This is not an amusement park with safety built-in. This is the wilderness, intentionally wild and without constraints. I’d rather die out here than in a car wreck or a hospital bed. Wouldn’t you?”
“Now that our daughter has gotten us into these places, yes, I am beginning to agree. Once you are out here, you don’t want to carry anything that connects you to the rest of the world.”
We continued to discuss the matter. I proposed that in our modern world the mobile phone itself is a kind of digital leash. Giving a phone to a child or teenager takes away from their sense of responsibility. It takes away from their capacity to make their own decisions and reduces maturation.
I concluded, “My first true sense of confidence was gained by backpacking solo in the Superstition Wilderness at age 17 or 18. I had completed a two day trip with my father and simply was not ready to come back out. My mother and father departed the pickup spot and I hiked back in for another two days and one night. That was my first time sleeping alone on the trail. It set in motion a lifetime of solo ventures in the wilderness, and an increase in my confidence that even today requires upkeep.”
We parted company and I glissaded back down the face of the snow field to a mid-way landing, each step a meter and a half or more. It felt as though I was flying—nearly an hour in ascent covered in just a few minutes return. While resting on the landing, a crack resounded above me. In a flurry of sound, stone fragments, and the dust of rapidly falling debris, the snow field to my left was littered with freshly fallen material. This was a reminder that nothing is stable in the high mountain passes, not even the mountains themselves. Bit by bit, stone by stone, they too are affected by the relentless pull of gravity until worn smooth and low. I continued my descent, even more rapid than before, arriving to the bowl where large boulders marked my exit to the open waterfalls, flowers, and trail back to valley below.