One thing you should know about our office, and by extension 90% of our staff (myself included), is that we have an unhealthy obsession with bad puns. An infatuation with invariably shitty jokes. Basically, we’re a bunch of dorks.
Another thing you should know about our office, and by extension 90% of our staff (myself included), is that we firmly believe in the divine power of the wilderness. Nothing compares to the awe of a backcountry sunrise and a round of speedy quick Jetboil oatmeal before hitting the trail.
So, six months ago, in an attempt to permanently ink the memories of a kickass backcountry experience—here’s looking at you, Utah Spring Break Trip 2015—on my skin, it came as a surprise to no one that such a significant memory manifested in the shadows of an undeniably bad pun.
We’ll start at the beginning: March 2015. Its morning three in the Canyonlands backcountry and despite the biting breeze and the stiffness of my boots when I shove my feet in and lace up past my ankles, I’m buzzing on being up before the sun. Stoked to start the day under the same stars that sang me to sleep. The desert energy is raw and contagious, despite the 4:30 wake up, and the whole group can feel it, exchanging jokes in the pre-dawn stillness.
By the time we hit the trail, seeking the rising sun, conversation has lulled and I’m focused on the puffs of dust that rise with each step in the glow of my headlight. The excitement of an early wake up has faded, and I’m introspective now, trying to make it to our breakfast spot without my grumbling stomach eating itself, or my thoughts devouring my mind.
One thing you can’t escape in the backcountry is vulnerability, regardless of how indestructible you pretend to be the rest of the time. One night’s dusting of burnt sand, some moon-soaked yoga, and you’re an open book—the cracks you’ve sealed shut sliding apart in the desert heat. Your heart stuck in your throat as words you weren’t planning to share come pouring out of your mouth.
So here I am, lost in the rhythm of my steps, waiting in vain for Tristen, our lovely leader, to announce our arrival at the group sunrise spot: a smooth slab of burnt rock overlooking Elephant Hill. (Truthfully, it feels a little bit like we’re on the hill rather than overlooking it as the rock behind us looms, elephantine in the darkness.) And eventually, half an hour to sunrise, he does so; letting us drop packs as the desert opens, flat before us.
Another thing you can’t escape in the backcountry is silence. Or, more accurately, lack of human noise. Waiting for the sunrise, soaked in stillness, it is impossible to feel anything more than small. With my shifting feet and wandering eyes, I feel like an intruder, a blur of human emotion in the placid desert world, trying my goddamn best to match my breathing to the breath of the desert and to be static. To appreciate the stillness before I allow it to rip me apart. To find peace like the rest of the expedition has—Phil perched on a rock with his eyes closed, the resident yogis Jacob and Sophia stuck in practiced stillness, Kenny with his eyes in the sky, and Tristen with his knees tucked to his chest awaiting the sun.
I feel inadequate; like I don’t deserve to be here if I can’t be still long enough to truly hear the silence and feel it fill my chest. (Even six months later it’s hard to write that, to admit bluntly that I do not feel like enough.) I just want to combust, to burn out in the film of sun that is peaking over the horizon.
And maybe it’s that blaze of light and the subsequent awakening of the desert that pulls me out of my head. Maybe it’s the low hum of the Jetboil as everyone around me once again comes to life in the peach-washed morning light. Maybe it’s the smiling tackle-hug that Sophia throws at me when early morning tears bubble out of my eyes, when the emotions that have kept me restless in the dark find their way to the light, when the words of others are too kind to swallow, and the gratitude burns my throat on the way down.
Regardless, the release is cathartic enough to stick with me beyond the seven-mile hike out that afternoon. Beyond the trails of quesadilla grease across dirty fingers that mark our first meal out of the backcountry. It sticks with me as April rolls around and Spring Break becomes just a dust washed memory in the distance.
It becomes so engrained in my mind, this personal catharsis, that I’m not sure I could pinpoint when exactly my first tattoo is no longer a sign of rebellion but more a homage to the backcountry. A cairn—or balanced tower of rocks—precariously perched on the side of my bum. No longer a testament just to my individuality, but to my personal awakening as well, to the divine power of the wilderness and its ability to help me find myself.
Or, as the tattoo shop assistant so eloquently put it: my own personal reminder of rock bottom, and the wonderful, devastating backcountry journey that got me there and back.
–Tailor Dolgin ’18
Tailor is a sophomore English Lit. Major who works in Outdoor Pursuits. She was a participant on the 2015 Utah Backpacking Spring Break Trip and is gunning to be a leader this coming Spring Break as the trip sets out once again.
Outdoor Pursuits is currently gearing up for Spring Break 2016. Be sure to check out our website for updates.