Nature’s Crucible and the Quest

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Hiker on Pacific Crest Trail south of Cutthroat Pass

Quests are in fashion. Tough Mudders. Ironmans. Mt. Everest. The Appalachian Trail. Running a marathon in every state. It seems more and more of us are using our travel and leisure time to test our limits–our physical and mental toughness–with outdoor quests. Perhaps the more comfortable our physical lives are, the more we crave that challenge.

This week I picked up the 2012 bestseller Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and found myself unable to put it down. In the memoir, she describes her 1,000+-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I have a backpacking trip in Yosemite’s high country coming up so was curious about her experience. But it turns out her personal journey was about much more than backpacking. She used nature as a crucible to test her in every way possible and ultimately to find and heal herself.

It made me think about why we turn to nature for this. Why, for example, are our everyday frustrations and tests—and travel is full of them—just irritating? But when we face down nature or our bodies, it feels pure and deep. The crucible tells us what we’re made of. I suppose everyday tests, like traffic jams and delayed flights, are too tame. We need the intensity of real pain to burn out whatever we’re looking for from the crucible. But it also feels less like a test when there’s someone, a real person, to blame the pain on, like that bad driver or the airline. Mother Nature, she’s a tough one to blame.

I’m not really looking for any kind of personal transformation in Yosemite, just a happy vacation with exercise, companionship and scenery. The quest that intrigues me more right now is the crucible of finding beauty and truth in the everyday irritations. I have a big work trip coming up, so I guess the hike through customs will be my crucible.

(Photo credit: Flickr/Miguel Vieira)

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