Have you ever seen the film Into the Wild? It’s based on the true story of a young man, Christopher McCandless, who leaves everything behind to venture out into the world on his own. Another is the story Wild, where Cheryl Strayed ventures onto the Pacific Crest trail alone.
Why do some people seek the isolation of the wilderness? Why give all that up? What were they searching for?
Their stories show they gain something from it. The unknown is essential to some of us, including me. The tug of just ‘getting away from it all.’ Away from rules and limitations, away from the noise and chatter of civilisation.
Some people choose to live in remote areas or sail around the world solo. The wilderness has a long history of religious or spiritual discovery.
So what were McCandless and Strayed running away from or trying to find? Below, I give some of my thoughts on why the wild appeals to so many of us.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods; / There is a rapture on the lonely shore; / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep sea, and music in its roar; / I love not man the less, but Nature more… /Lord Byron
One obvious answer is aesthetic beauty. Take a look at a city, then take a look at nature. There is no question that nature is more beautiful in many ways. Man-made objects are built more for their function, not their looks. They can be cheap and ugly, little more than an eyesore.
Yet I doubt many people would say a waterfall, a forest glade, or a mountain range was ugly. All this underlines the importance we feel about the natural world. The beauty of nature gives us that feeling of awe. For a moment, we stop to ponder nature and the cosmos. We can feel connected to the world by seeing a sunset or stars. Feel the wind, rain, and the warmth of sunshine on our faces.
‘Christopher McCandless: Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager …. and now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage….. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.’Into the Wild, John Krakauer.
Getting away from it all feels like getting away from rules. Society is made up of them. They envelop us and influence our thoughts and behaviours in ways we don’t notice.
These values, morals and social conventions can seem like a cage around us, preventing the fullest and authentic expression of ourselves. So, we feel like a fraud because our lives don’t reflect what we passionately believe to be true. It’s also those feelings of alienation we have when the values of our culture don’t match our own.
It’s no wonder that the wilderness can seem like an escape. The rules of living in nature are different. No longer is it about right and wrong, but what works and what doesn’t to keep yourself alive. Nature has a way of forcing us to focus on our existence, stripping away all the trivial worries that plague our minds back in the world of civilised society.
The desire to escape into the wild is to leave behind the nonsense humanity offers as guidance.
‘Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.’Christopher McCandless
The city, the urban sprawl, buildings, roads, all of it is an expression of our control over nature. It’s stifling and soul-destroying in many ways.
The wilderness is the opposite; it’s untamed and dangerous. It shows you how small you are and how little control you have over things. Facing the wild can be seen as a right of passage. It is a way of testing ourselves to see if we are worthy to take our place among humanity and that of men.
Being tested is what’s important.
That’s the problem with today’s society; it’s far too focused on learning through knowledge instead of hard-won experience. We need to know through the struggle. It helps us understand better. The memories are more intense, the lessons unforgettable.
All of us should experience a time when we are in some danger, whether it’s travelling, starting a new venture like a business, or creating art. Only when things are in doubt can you discover the skills and the confidence to deal with that doubt. To learn how to face uncertainty.
Furthermore, you can only appreciate what’s important when you are lost. The roof over your head, the friends and family you have.
The truth is far more convincing when we must work and suffer for it. We need to get out of our comfort zone and face the unknown.
‘Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time’John Lubbock, The Use Of Life
Another reason why we seek the wilderness is our need to recharge. We can revive our energy levels and regain our power by getting away from pressing concerns.
The constant distraction that the world offers can be persistently stressful. The demanding noises from our phones, cars, people, work, and emails require our attention and decisions.
Seeking the outdoors is a well-known way of creating a calmer routine where you can relax and gather resources for when you return to society and your life. A holiday is something we should all do regularly. It doesn’t have to be in the wilderness, but nature has been found to relax us far better than the built environment.
‘I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion’Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”
Away from the teeming masses and interruptions of civilisation, the wilderness can be a source of immense inspiration.
Work can get done with fewer distractions, and progress is more easily made. Many people have used or found a getaway as the catalyst to create, to get work done, or to change direction in life.
Henry David Thoreau is an obvious example. He decided to live in a hut he made on some land owned by his friend Ralf Waldo Emerson. There, as he put it, he ‘devoured himself’. He was producing what is considered one of the greatest works of American literature, ‘Walden’.
Being surrounded by life tends to foster new life and new ideas.
‘To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.’Christopher McCandless
The wild can help us find what matters. Distance from our everyday lives gives us the perspective and the tranquillity to seek the truth of our existence. We can get so caught up in the distractions and illusions that lead us astray that we fail to see the truth staring us in the face.
It can also teach us gratitude. The simple things like cooked food, chocolate, a roof over your head. Or the critical stuff, health, food, clothes, and a home. We don’t even think of them when we have them. Yet we miss them so much when we do. Or friends and family. The moments we have with them. That’s what matters.
Often, people seek the wilderness to sort their lives out. That’s the story of Cheryl portrayed in the book and film ‘Wild’.
In this story, she’s dealing with the loss of her mother and the mess that is her life. We often struggle to put aside the mistakes of the past and to forgive ourselves.
The wilderness can help us get sorted out and provide us with the answers we seek.
As for me and these stories, I envy MaCandless and Strayed. I wish I had that level of courage. To give it all up and walk away. To find and rely on nothing but your head, heart and hands. To face the storm alone, to prove that I have what it takes. To find my truth.
Yet despite this, I agree with the critics of MaCandless. He was a fool, far too reckless and idealistic. His head was filled with romantic and erroneous ideas about nature and the wild, ironically from the same society he was escaping.
As he learned at the very end, it’s people that matter. ‘Happiness only real when shared.’ It’s a pity he had to die to understand that.
The real lesson here is it’s not the wild that matters but the search for truth. It’s the long, painful path we tread that defines us. It’s the search that matters. Whether in the wild or somewhere closer to home, it doesn’t matter. Just as long as we try.
Nevertheless, the world’s wild places can teach something about living, so we should occasionally go Into the Wild.
Stories like this have helped solidify my ideas. A mistrust of society and authority as a guide to living the good life. A desire to travel more. It’s also helped create in me a passion for adventure to live my life to its fullest extent.
What about you? Have you long desired to get away, to contemplate and find your truths?
Tell me your story in the comments below.
Image Credit: byheaven / 123RF Stock Photo