West By Idaho Finding life in the backcountry

“On some hunts you notch a tag—on others you notch your soul.”

into the wilderness

By the time you reach mature adulthood, it’s obvious this business called Life can be a rather busy, tiring endeavor. There’s always more to do, and always friend or foe alike standing by to add more to your plate. Life passes us by like a vapor, the list of perceived needs so often crowding out the people and experiences we most deeply value but seldom make time for.

Whether it’s driven by your boss, the Joneses, or the appeal of some position and notoriety in life to which you aspire, there’s a tendency to lead a cluttered, thinly spread kind of existence that promises big returns but in the end leaves us feeling empty. Always wanting more, we accomplish less of the things that really matter to us.

There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. the other is to desire less. G.k. chesterton

 

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Setting aside our own passion and purpose, we become consumed instead by the demands and expectations of others. The things that drive us—the endless thirst for material possessions, promotion to always higher stations, and the general feeling that we somehow need more than what we’ve got—become our slave masters, cruel and unrewarding.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that our culture views this type of lifestyle as the very definition of success. To be sleepless, frantic, scheduled to the brim with activities that bring you from the sounding of your alarm clock to the touchdown of your head on the pillow, if you can sleep at all, is celebrated as that to which we should all aspire. The accepted norm is a hurried, distracted, overwhelmed state of being that ends with massive amounts of caffeine and Prozac, widespread and inescapable depression, and the constant feeling of drowning in worry.

Instead of being cheered on by the socially acceptable mantra ‘more and more, faster and faster,’ perhaps we can rediscover the sacred pace of Jesus. Overload and hurry are not prerequisites for service but enemies of faith. Can we raise new signs such as ‘Stop believing that chronic exhaustion is normal, that a listless spirit is inevitable, that burnout is piety’? Richard Swenson

If there’s a theme I would say dominated my life in 2014, it would be this: Do more by doing less. 

do more by doing less

Quite unintentionally, this theme developed as a result of my own burnout and stress, as well as the input of a few key individuals in my life, including my wife. I found that most of my time was eaten up by the things I cared least about, while the things I really valued were left undone. It was physically and emotionally draining. I felt trapped and enslaved by many of the demands of my job, an endless number of emails piling up in my inbox (at one point I had well over 20,000 unread emails), and a chaotic travel schedule at work.

As springtime rolled in, my friend David asked me to go to Idaho with him to hunt bears in the backcountry. I immediately began listing reasons I couldn’t go, and despite his repeated inquiries I insisted it wasn’t possible. Sure, we’d talk from time to time about the joys we’d experienced in the wilderness as younger men, but it didn’t seem very realistic, given all the demands of life, to make it happen. And if I’m honest, it made me afraid. It was an unknown place, a deviation from my ordinary life.

Finally, my friend Gloria called me out on it.

“Why can’t you go? Listen, there are always obstacles between you and the things worth doing. You’re either going to overcome them and make it happen, or you’re going to make a choice to let the obstacles dictate your life. But in the end, it’s about the choice you make: either to do something or to admit that you’re not willing to overcome the obstacles.”

That conversation has been a turning point in my life. It made me realize that I had to say “no” to some things in order to say “yes” to the things that carried the most significance for me. I had to do some soul searching, decide what held the most meaning for me, and then have the bravery to act.

Interestingly, it’s had a cumulative effect on many other decisions in my life, too, because it freed me from the bondage of living under the false expectations of society or others. It gave me courage to turn down the corporate American dream of soul-sucking careerism at the end of a Dilbert cubicle and instead to build a life I’d actually enjoy, doing the things that bring me satisfaction and refreshment. Obviously there are s#!t sandwiches we each have to eat whatever we do, but those things become tolerable when the main course of our lives is properly set.

Thank God for friends who speak with timely insight into our lives. With only a month’s notice to plan a weeklong trip into the backcountry, in an area I was completely unfamiliar with and in which there wouldn’t be roads or electronic communication with the outside world, I decided to go. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

West by Idaho

The entire week before Idaho, David and I shared a room together at a media event, as if our seven-day bear hunt in a 2½-pound, two-man ultralight tent wasn’t going to be enough. We flew home from North Carolina to Illinois, stayed one night at our homes, then I left at 3 a.m. to pick David up and catch the first of several flights from Moline, Illinois, to Spokane, Washington. Obstacles? Yeah, there were obstacles.

We arrived that same day at the airport in Spokane, where a bush pilot picked us up and flew us the remaining hour into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. When the pilot told us during the runway taxi that the flight would be a bit choppy, I thought nothing of it. When we were rocking and rolling through the warm afternoon sky at 9,000 feet like a tiny boat on the high seas, I realized he wasn’t joking.

As our tiny plane descended into the steep canyons of the wilderness en route to a remote grass landing strip deep in the heart of the Selway, I felt my heart pound with emotion as I thought about everything it took to get to that moment, and how incredibly worth every trouble it was.

Finally our small plane corkscrewed its way down to the landing strip where we unloaded and watched as that last glimmer of mechanized civilization disappeared into the fading sunset.

Here’s the video from our landing:

Once we unloaded we were met by an unexpected guest, captain Harry Harden, an 80-something-year-old-gent who apparently mans the small wilderness cabin for a month each summer. Harry lives in Indiana and flies, solo, to Idaho each year in his 1950s-model Cessna to volunteer at the ranger station. A former airline captain, he’s spent many of his later years flying all over the western U.S. to remote locations. He is the epitome of the quiet yet bold adventurer who set his own course and never looked back.

As if sent like some angelic messenger to ease us into our journey, Harry gave us a tour of his lodgings, fed us cookies on the front porch at sunset, and helped us fill our water containers before we set out. David bought a copy of Harry’s book, “West by 180,” and, moved beyond words, Harry signed it for us. The quote at the beginning of the book would come to summarize our entire trip: “The journey is the destination.”

The journey is the destination

We eventually left Harry and worked our way down the Selway River toward the trailhead, which would serve as our final destination. Each day we’d pick a place near the raging river to camp, then trek up the dangerously steep mountainsides to spot for bears. The 1,000-plus-foot vertical climbs, sometimes with fully loaded packs, were absolutely brutal. With temperatures soaring into the 80s, we found relief only by soaking in the ice cold waters that fed the mighty Selway from snow-covered peaks above.

On one of those early-week uphill climbs I labored slowly behind David, who’d left base camp with little else besides a raincoat and his rifle. We finally sat down to glass for bears and have an afternoon snack. As I unloaded my supply, David began to laugh and chide.

“Oh my God, Connman, you hiked up here with over 4 liters of water and the stove? Why?”

Simple question, simple answer: afternoon coffee.

Yeah, at first David snickered when he’d seen my stove/French press combo and my bag of Starbucks Italian roast grounds, but it quickly became a staple of the trip. Morning, noon and night he’d ask, “You gonna get that water boiling? I could really go for some coffee right now.”

Grin and Bear It

The funny thing is, we didn’t get that bear. We had a few close calls, even had my thumb on the safety with a bear about to come into a clearing at 250 yards as David spotted for me. But it didn’t matter much. As David said afterwards, “On some hunts you notch a tag—on others you notch your soul.”

on some hunts you notch a tag—on others you notch your soul

After about 45 miles of cumulative hiking and six physically demanding days, we met David’s uncle and Dad near the trailhead. They picked us up and drove us the several hours back to the Spokane airport. Rowdy for adventure despite their age, Tom and Bill drove through the night to meet us, and Tom, an avid woodsman, brought his tools to clear trails.

“How many bears you kill?” Tom asked.

“None. We came close only once.”

“Well, that’s hunting. What an adventure!” he replied.

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David and his father.

 

The Idaho trip is one of those rare experiences in my life that continues to shape and refresh me through a thousand joyful remembrances. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was a much-needed shot of courage, administered by my friends David and Gloria, to go and do what means the most to me, no matter how much effort it required. It serves as my constant reminder not to put off the things you love most, no matter how hard they are to see through to completion.

And it inspired me to make other changes, too. Ultimately I changed jobs so that I could cultivate more of a life outside of work, live in the West I love, and give myself back to my writing. I found a job where I’d be less thinly spread and could focus on one brand rather than seven. It meant sacrifices, sure, but the things I gave up turned out to be an anchor more than a sail. I’m doing less these days, which allows me to do more.

I want to spend and be spent with my wife and boys in the wild, working alongside them. I want to be around my family more rather than sitting on runways or stuck in a cubicle for eight or 10 hours a day. I prayed and sought change over the many years in between, and God mercifully brought it. Seeking change has been painful, but life-giving and good.

Life is short. Your schedule will always be busy. But there are things worth doing. Go do them. Be courageous.

 

 

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4 comments

  • So many people live their whole life not knowing what is important to them. I am very glad you have figured that out and so early in your life!

    • Thanks Rhonda! I’ve found it’s a process of grace, God continually bringing each of us back to who he’s made us to be: What we love, what we’re each hardwired to do and be, and so on. We forget, but God brings us always back. As Paul said, we each have gifts and with those gifts come the responsibility to cultivate them for the good of others (1 Cor. 12). As we focus on using our specific gifts for the good of others, I think we’re then most satisfied, others are most loved, and God is most glorified.

    • Thanks Josh, great to hear from you! I’m loving #theHUNGER on Facebook, by the way. You guys are rockin’ it.

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