The small high-wing Cessna banked slowly in a wide circle. Its balloon tires nearly touched snowy spires on either side of a wide chasm cut by a raging, braided river below. Under the plane, we could see a field of wild flowers and two swimming pool-sized mountain ponds of rainwater that we knew would provide initial sustenance on this altar of nature.
Over our headsets, Greg Schrand and I could hear our pilot telling his partner in the tiny fabric Super Cub trailing behind that the thermals seemed manageable, and that he was going to land on the small grassy field below. He made one more arc to watch the direction of the blowing flower stems and set the plane atop the high alpine meadow with the nose running out of room nearly where the ground dropped straight down 500 feet to jagged rock and whitewater river.
In minutes, our backpacks were on the ground, hands were shaken and the plane moved back on the edge of the grass to make the short run for lift to clear way for the Cub to drop off our friend, Larry Gray. We were about to begin a week on Wolverine Mountain in Eastern Alaska. As I stood there with my mouth gapping and my heart racing, I wondered if I were as close as I will ever be to God.
Oh, no! I think I might be a pantheist. But wait.
Then maybe I don't need to capitalize "God." Maybe it's "god." No, wait, I better keep my options open. It is God. I mean, I've been on those pantheist Web sites. They look a little creepy, even cultish.
Yet, it happens every time I go into the backcountry. It's not even a thinking thing. It's inside me. It melts across my body in seconds. It's spiritual, emotional, profound. And every time I go there, I know I'm meant to go there. The more sublime the place, the holier it appears.
I walk into the green tunnels of foliage on a North Carolina trail in summer and I'm just as assuredly sliding into an old wooden church pew of my youth. I've walked the Highline Trail in Montana and felt the sanctity of a cathedral. Stained glass is replaced by thundering waterfalls rolling off icy pinnacles. The solitude and pungent odors remind of incense and quiet in a church lit by a solo votive light on a Lent evening.
Each time a bush pilot drops my friends and me in Alaskan spots from which we know we can't walk, I feel like I just entered the Vatican or Mecca. Could nature be the face of God?
I began to get this feeling — that nature is a holy, healing place — when I was a kid grabbing old canvas camping equipment from our basement shelf and heading for the woods of Anderson Township with other kids who seemed to feel the same question. We might not have actually known how to articulate it, but some of us certainly felt it. To ever say it might have triggered the wrath of the nuns who schooled us and told us all truths were in that slim catechism in our desks.
But during college, Jesuits got my brain in their grasp. They're more flexible, more intellectual, less doctrinaire. They're the ones who told me about existentialism and phrenology and, well, pantheism. They certainly told me about the period of Romanticism, a reaction to the stiff Classical era that affected artists and their work.
The Romantic writers revered nature. Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, "The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains — Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?"
That part of my expanding education felt comfortable and familiar. It filled in where my emotions had some holes. I knew I was meant to periodically go away from gas-driven engines and phones to seek cleansing in a wilderness. To smell mountain air, to hear a wolf howl in the distance, maybe even see a brown bear the size of a small car one meadow over. I knew every time I did it, juice ran into some battery buried in my core.
Yet these pantheist people would like me to commit to their credo, to say I believe what they do, to sign up on their Web site, to buy their books, to form friendships with them. Then one day my friends will have to do a loving yet painful "intervention."
On this, my fourth trip to the back country of Alaska this summer, I plan to have a .44 magnum strapped on my hip, so that if a grizzly bear tears into my tent at 4 a.m. — maybe because I've entered it's natural habitat or because he mistakes me for dinner — I can shoot the damn thing until the gun is hot and empty.
I don't know if that's the pantheist way to behave. I don't know if it's in the credo that, when the choice is between the bear's ass and mine, I can squeeze off those rounds.
Maybe it's all meant to be simpler than the way I'm grinding on it. Maybe you can just believe what you want without picking it apart or matching it with what someone else believes. I love the places where few have been and few will be seen when I'm there. End of discussion. Enjoy it, Jene. If someone wants to assign you to hell for it, then their belief system blows.
Greg, Larry and I will travel farther north this time, above the Arctic Circle. Maybe we'll see the Porcupine Herd of caribou. Maybe we'll watch our first pack of wolves dance across a yonder knoll. Maybe we'll see God.
Then again, maybe that big earthquake Alaska awaits will ruin our trip and I'll come running home to some normal church with a donation ready for the basket.
PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.