As my family and friends will all attest, I’m a pretty uptight guy. A control freak for sure. Schedule- and task driven. A list maker extraordinaire. I like to know where I’m going to be, when, what equipment I’ll have, and what the objectives are, at all times. (I must be a royal pain to live with!)
Last summer, I learned the value of letting go, of forgetting about paragraph one, if only for a little while, and being completely blind, surrounded by darkness, in a foreign environment. I loved it.
I was camping at Mt. St. Helens with my two younger sons and my cousin, Sander. It was our first back-country back-packing trip together, in which we’d be exploring the National Park for two days, then totally off the grid for three. Kind of scary, but the challenge of taking control of my destiny, and to a certain extent, my kids’ – the element of survival, even while being at the mercy of the elements, held a strong appeal.
We started our trip on the south side of the volcano, at place called Ape Caves. Ape Caves is a 2km cave system that was formed by underground lava flows from MSH. I’ve been in some caves before – Pismo Beach, California, for example – but never experienced anything like being underground for 2km.
As instructed by Sander, who, as a bio major and former park ranger, was our self-appointed expedition leader, we brought headlamps. Sander had mentioned that once we were safely below ground and acclimated (it’s a constant 42 degrees down there), we’d turn off the headlamps and experience what’s it’s like to be in total darkness. WHAT? TOTAL DARKNESS?
To which I responded, “No way.” My excuses were many, varied and totally rational. Why risk injury on Day 1 of our trip? Why risk the wrath of my wife if someone gets hurt? How can I hope to navigate the rocky terrain without light? And so on; for me, it was out of the question. I was dead-set against it.
But then a funny thing happened. As you would expect, Sander turned off his headlamp. My two sons happily followed him. Now I was the odd-man-out, and my headlamp was unintentionally spoiling their exploration.
I had to try it – for the kids’ sake! I shut it off, and proceeded in the dark. We were talking to each other, marching like zombies: slowly and deliberately with arms outstretched, groping in total darkness.
Then it started. The part where I liked it. I actually liked it. I felt like I could really only experience this if I also shut my eyes, because my brain was trying to imagine it was seeing things, and distracting me with ghost images.
I shut my eyes. Now I could feel really feel the cold on my face. The attention required for each step to meet the ground safely – without tripping over rocks or falling into a gap. Would I go sideways and hit the wall? Would the cave curve left and I go straight? Who knew?
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did anyone get hurt? Just the opposite.
When we came out of the cave, I felt as if I had been reborn, and was seeing everything for the first time. Going outside my comfort zone made the journey farther and deeper than any other. We hiked back above ground and the other-worldliness didn’t fade. In fact, I laughed so hard with one of my sons that we actually fell down a few times.
As I’m writing this, my plane is passing next to Mount Rainier, and I’m dreaming of our next trip… into the unknown.