“The days that followed were full of wonderment. The spell that was upon us continued, and all we saw was colored by its mood.” – Sigurd Olson, The Explorers

Most people, myself included, read a quote from Olson, Snyder, Leopold, Muir, or some other famous champion of the wild and are motivated to go forth and receive inspiration. We expect jaw-dropping enlightenment. Purple mountain majesties and all that.

I guess it’s not quite that simple.

Halfway through our recent trip to the Boundary Waters I became frustrated because I hadn’t achieved this preconceived sense of awe. I had been looking at water, rock, forest, and sky, and I had been expecting to see more than water, rock, forest, and sky.

I’d been expecting — demanding — to see something supernatural.

It’d almost be funny if it wasn’ t so sad.

I had been waiting to be knocked out by the grandeur of the place. Because I was waiting for it, rather than adding to it, seeking it out, celebrating it, I had no reason to hope to be awed by anything. And therefore, I wasn’t feeling awe, which only motivated me to keep waiting, to keep trying to take a longer view, to see a wider vista. And so on.

On Day 7, I wrote in my journal

…[Katie] told me maybe I should not try to be impressed by the vistas, the large scale beauty, but that I needed to get microscopic, admire the rippling of the waves, the little rocks, the flowering plum tree by the toilet. That’s my usual approach, so usual that I feel like I’ve neglected it on this trip, assumed that it and the power it holds were second nature…

We were already on our way out when I wrote this. I was kind of pissed at myself. I’d been overwhelmed by something, but it wasn’t the vistas, it was the minutiae. There were so many trees and birds and rocks and clouds that my eyes had glazed over, you might say. It’s not that I didn’t experience any moments of clarity, times when I was wowed by some small beauty. The chaotic laughter of the loons in the spring, the purple mirror of the waves at sunset, many things had resonated deeply in me. But there had been no epiphanies.

It was very frustrating to see so much that was real and not to be able to connect with it. Feeling this frustration, acknowledging it, understanding it, was a step in the process toward something else, but it wasn’t a step I wanted to deal with. I wanted to move on quickly, because what came next was surely some sort of beautiful. Hence, it wasn’t until toward the end of the trip when I felt like I rubbed my eyes and the world wasn’t quite as blurry.

When it did come, that clarity was almost as painful as the confusion I had been feeling. As we paddled out on the last morning, we saw several loons. A couple of them appeared very close to our canoe and watched us for a moment before diving back under the water. It seemed as if they were asking me, “Why are you leaving now?”

I left the wilderness with much unaccomplished, I came home incomplete. We’ve been back a week and the questions and the answers have been working on me in mysterious, sometimes painful, ways since we walked in the door. My head has felt cluttered, my stomach empty, my shoulders idle. Maybe the only significant answer I’ve found is that all these things down here felt as unneccesary when we were in the wilderness as the wilderness used to feel when we were down here. I’m beginning to grasp something new about the true importance of the wild. And I’m afraid it’s way too far away.

8 thoughts on “Expectations

  1. Erich

    You put words to something that I have experienced lately, too. I have been thinking about this post for a few minutes and all I can really say is, right on.

    Your friend’s advice about focusing on the little things – dwelling on the subtle positives – was a great prescription for bliss.

  2. the dharma bum Post author

    My friend is indeed a wise friend. So wise I even decided to marry her. :)

    But really, I had gotten so turned around by that point in the trip that her ability to break it down and keep it simple, remind me of some things I knew but could not remember, was a lifesaver.

  3. Scooter

    I hate to interrupt your beautiful pictures and expectations with something that’s bound to piss you off (based on a previous post of yours), but I thought I should…had you seen this article over at the City Page blotter?

    Feed: City Pages Blotter
    Title: Pawlenty ethics run into tree

    When Governor Tim Pawlenty borrowed a $7000 ATV free of charge and then didn’t have to pay a dime after he caused $2500 worth of damage to it early last month, he may have violated the state’s gift ban. That’s the substance of a written complaint to the state’s Campaign Finance Board by Senator John Marty, who notes that Pawlenty made the local ATV association the only eligible recipient of a $350,000 grant in his current budget proposal at the Capitol.

  4. ursus (aka:Becky or B)

    Sounds like it is time to go fishing. Your worry, and your worry about your worry is part of the being human in the wilderness -pay it no mind, except to understand it is part of the reason you will always be welcome there:)

  5. lene

    This piece is such an honest expression of your turmoil. I think I’ve been there–or at least close by. I’m often reminded that my disappointment or my lack of experience is because I arrive with expectation. Arriving without expectation is one of my greatest challenges.

    Have you seen the book, The Cincinnati Arch by John Tallmadge? I began reading it recently, and while it doesn’t have the idyllic setting of the Maine woods or the coast of Cape Cod, it’s beautifully written and has moments that you might find familiar. John Tallmadge is an advocate for wild places. When he lost his job, and then found one in Cincinnati, it felt like the end of the world to him because “the wild” was so far away. The book has a collection of essays about finding the wild in places he didn’t expect to see.

  6. the dharma bum Post author

    lene and erich, you guys both said in one way or another that this piece described something you’ve felt, or at least close to it. more than anything, that makes me happy. why? because in confessional writing, which can sometimes be painfully honest, i think one has the path to real connection with readers.

    i’ve been trying to work this famous emerson quote into another piece i’m working on, but i don’t think it wants to get there. so i’ll say it here:

    “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

    i think in that passage, emerson says almost the same thing that i’ve now quoted kerouac saying twice.

    b — thanks for your sentiment. i did get out fishing, which was far better for the spirit than i thought it would be, though painful in its own way. if i didn’t examine the many pieces of the path toward understanding, i don’t know what i’d write about!

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