I’ve been reading The Wisdom the Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature by Gerald May, as part of a feature on The High Callings Blogs being led by Laura Boggess . It’s a book about a lot of things, including May’s experiences in the wilderness, naturally, but it’s also a lot about healing.
We’re on the third chapter, “Night Fear.” May describes what it’s like to be camping by yourself in a remote part of a remote wilderness-like state park, and what you hear and think you hear at night (like bears, voices talking in an odd language, footsteps – all of the things that would drive me straight from a tent to the vehicle with locked doors). Only the bear was real, but the other things, well, you have to read the book to see how May comprehends and then understands them.
But what this chapter most brought to mind was something that happened to me, and it helped me understand and identify with what May was writing about. (Let me say here I am no fan of camping by myself in the wilderness. My idea of roughing it is having to stay at a Ramada.)
I was on the board of a bird sanctuary group in St. Louis. We’d meet at different places for our meetings, and one November we met at Lone Elk State Park in the far western suburbs. The park is adjacent to the Tyson Research Center, where the bird sanctuary is located. It’s beautiful terrain – tall hills, isolation from the metropolitan area, dense forests.
Our board meeting was in the ranger’s station at Lone Elk. You had to drive quite a distance into the park to reach it, and it was at the bottom of a little valley surrounded by hills on all sides. You parked in a small lot, and then walked a good half-block or so to the station. The meeting went on for some time, as board meetings tend to do, and I finally had to leave about 8 p.m.
Outside, it was pitch black. No light at all. I hadn’t walked 10 feet when I knew I was in the midst of something, something large and numerous and alive and not human. I froze. It was a moment of perfect fear, the kind May describes in his book when he discovers a bear outside his tent. It was terrifying, yes, but it was almost exquisitely terrifying.
I couldn’t move. I think I was afraid to because I couldn’t see anything. I could only sense that something was there, right in front of me.
At that moment, the ranger returned in his vehicle from seeing another board member through the park’s locked gate. And in the headlights I saw what was all around me.
Elk. Lots of elk. The park was called Lone Elk State Park, but someone lied. There must have been close to a hundred in the herd, and they were quietly resting all around the ranger’s station, which is what the herd generally did at night. And a fully grown elk is big.
The ranger had seen me frozen in the headlights, and laughingly made his way through the herd with a flashlight. He escorted me to the parking lot, and assured me this happened all the time, and no one had yet been attacked, trampled, eaten or accidentally squished. Of course, only the park staff was there after dark, too – this is not a park for camping.
It made a great story to tell – the best ones are always the ones where you are the butt of the joke/victim/city bumpkin. But that thrill of fear, that fear that lasted only for a few moments but seemed much longer, was followed by exactly what May described in his book.