Sawtooth Wilderness, Idaho
The air is cool. Much cooler than the past few nights. And the roar of the river engulfs our camp. We are in Idaho. We finally made it. Camped in a surprise valley of majestic peaks. The Sawtooths. I’ve dreamed about these mountains. Drooling over maps. Guidebooks. Old backpacking and mountain biking magazines I’ve saved. The Sawtooths are in the heart of Idaho Wilderness. Of course wilderness if most of what Idaho is. Just take out a map. Idaho contains the largest area of designated wilderness in the lower 48 states. Public land, that is. Our land. My land. So you could say that I own more land in Idaho than in any other state. This comforting little fact is one of the reasons I’ve longed to come here for so long. And adjacent to the Sawtooth Wilderness lies the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness. And adjacent to that, the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness. Combined, these roadless areas are so large that they encompasses 3.8 million acres. A lifetime of exploration lies in these three wilderness areas alone. And Idaho has 12 wilderness areas. We plan to spend the next couple of weeks in the Sawtooths. The first few days will be spent mountain biking the trails and paddling the lakes around Ketchum and Stanley. Then we will head into the heart of the Sawtooth Wilderness for a week of backpacking, the only true way to intimately get to know this place. If we are lucky, this wilderness will show us some of her secrets hidden deep within the remote corners of her magnificent canyons, meadows and peaks.
Photo: Sunset over the Sawtooth Mountains.
A full moon is rising behind El Capitan, a ridiculously immense rock face dominating our immediate view. It looks like a giant shark tooth protruding from the Earth. We are backpacking the Sawtooth Wilderness and our tent sits directly below this monolith. Driving into this area yesterday, I was a bit concerned about the hike. Many of the trees below the trailhead were dead lodgepole pines, killed by the pine beetle. Many others were burned from forest fire. But only minutes into this hike, I knew that this would be a special place. The groundcover is green and lush against dark forest earth. Lining the trails are flowers of every imaginable color, glistening in the afternoon sun. And the trees up here are stunningly perfect. The sound of rushing water is a constant. Waterfalls cascade down the rock walls of the canyons and we are required to wade through many thigh deep creeks and rivers along the way. The water is cool and beautifully clear.
Photo: El Capitan. Sawtooth Wilderness.
In the morning, we are awakened to soft sunlight illuminating the tall peaks around us. Today will hike over several mountain passes, swim in alpine lakes, and perhaps indulge in an afternoon nap. This is the first backpacking trip of our journey and I’m reminded of how much I truly enjoy it. I love the simplicity. The slower pace. And truly living outside. But more than that, I’m reminded that these truly magical places remain hidden. Far away from roads. Tucked away deep within high mountains and desert wilderness. Far away from roadside pull-offs, paved trails, and roped-off viewpoints. Revealing themselves only to the ones who are willing to walk. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to those who walked here before me and made it their life’s mission to protect this place for generations to come. For this kind of unspoiled beauty remains rare. Sacred. The true church of Mother Nature. And when you are here, you can feel it. There’s just no mistaking it. If you truly want to find God, go to the Wilderness, the gateway to the soul.
How lucky are we that these sacred places are here for us. Free of charge. Grand cathedrals built by the hand of God. How comforting to know that no matter where life may take you. How bad it could possibly get. How low you could ever feel. How much society may seem to let you down. You can always come right back HERE. To YOUR Wilderness. To your sacred land. You can lose everything, but no one can take away your Wilderness. Always patiently awaiting your return. Always welcoming you with open arms. Like a true welcome home. I don’t claim to know what happens when you die, but I have to think that the feeling must be similar. But the beauty of it is, you don’t have to die to experience it. Just get in your car and take a trip. Or hop on a bus. Or hitch a ride to the Sawtooth Wilderness. And pick a trail. Any trail. Strap on a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tent, some food, and go find your God. Allah. Buddha. Jesus. All Knowingness. The One. The Self. Yourself. Go there. And you will be cleansed. Renewed. You will walk out with a new perspective on life. A fresh start. Ready for the next chapter. Born again into the world. Yes, Wilderness can do all of that!
So how do these “pockets” of Wilderness remain so incredibly beautiful throughout the centuries? Throughout the seasons. It’s as if a protective dome has been placed over them. Shielding them from fire. From the pine beetle. From the destructive hand of man, and progress. Just as beautiful in the winter as they are in the summer, spring, and fall. And as the rest of the world changes, these special areas have an element of timelessness. Extreme change is happening. But it’s happening slowly. Extremely slowly. Mountains of granite are pushed out of the Earth, and then worn back down again. Throughout eons of time. Entire oceans become rivers, and then dry up all together. But relative to our short lives, these changes are hardly worth mentioning. We will never see this kind of change. For us, up here in the high country, time seems to stand still. As if we’ve walked into a snapshot. And perhaps that’s why when we visit these places that time slows down for us as well. Our busy schedules seem to melt away. Our cellphones and laptops have no service and are rendered useless. Our breathing changes. Becomes full again. Our digestive systems become more regular. Our eyes sparkle. Our facial expressions relax. And our mind, constantly busy with incessant thought, falls to peace. And then we simply go take a walk. And begin to see, really see life around us. And the beauty of it all. And the love. The world around us, that has been so cold and stale, becomes warm and full of love. We start to realize that the world is not against us, but rather here to support us. Love us. And guide us along. But we’ve been so busy thinking. Thinking all the time. Too lost inside ourselves with our own thoughts to realize that what we seek, what we long for, is all around us. We just have to lose the baggage. Put down the gadgets. And take a walk. Open our eyes. And see the wonder and unspeakable beauty that is life. But don’t wait. It’s all happening right now. If you wait too long, you could miss it.
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