One summer day in Cuchara, Colorado, hiking on a mountain, my family and I found we had diverged from the trail, not far, but the particular path wasn’t well marked. And some storm clouds had appeared farther up the slopes. Because our kids were quite young then and hard to corral up the mountain, we usually began our hikes in early morning and completed them by noon, to avoid too much grumpiness or mad hunger or sudden storms and lightning. On this day, the clouds had gathered earlier than expected. Should we keep going up, or begin our descent?
In a couple of minutes, we had relocated the trail, with the help of a few signposts, which I later learned are called “reassurance markers.” In “Trail Signing,” the National Forest Service remarks, “To keep travelers on course, use reassurance markers at all intersections and locations where the trail could be uncertain,” to “reassure travelers.” The text also explains the materials, sizes, heights, and locations for all kinds of trail signs. And because of the Forest Service’s work, we could hardly get lost in the wilderness today. This is how I and many others, I suspect, experience the wilderness in relative safety these days.
Wilderness, in symbolic terms, is often portrayed by forests and deserts. We have the thick, mysterious forest in The Scarlet Letter and the jungle in Heart of Darkness. In our sacred stories, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years before they entered the Promised Land. Later, Jesus spent forty days in the desert, wrestling with evil. In these texts, wilderness symbolizes a place where danger and chaos reside. In the wild, people and characters are cut loose, facing the unfamiliar without a reliable guide, unable to read the signs. On the flip side, wilderness can bring about transformation, where the unfamiliar produces new ideas and revelation. Humans can be nourished and discover new strengths, by leaving the familiar for a time and facing a strange, unpeopled landscape.
In my own life, I have come to see unexpected situations as a type of wilderness, because I must grapple with conflicting ideas and emotions before I know how to move forward. When faced with my aging mother’s dementia, I have felt bewildered over and over, as her condition has progressed—from having her in her home with caretakers, to eventually moving her into a facility where she receives round-the-clock care. Moreover, I knew nothing at first about how to navigate the system of medical and social services to help my mother. I was nearly unmoored by the situation until my sister-in-law, who is a medical social worker, stepped in to guide the family in obtaining the right services for my mother. One aspect of this wilderness is the length of time I have wandered in it—this is the sixteenth year of my mother’s demise. Another facet is the unfamiliar and distressing condition of having a relationship with a woman who no longer knows that she is my mother.
On our morning hike in Colorado that summer when a sudden storm surprised us, we made the decision to turn back. We did get caught in a rainstorm halfway down the trail, but we had reached a place where we could shelter safely. In that case, I felt some exhilaration in finding refuge and waiting out the storm. Yet in the wilderness before me now, in dealing with my mother’s condition, I confess that chaos and unfamiliarity still form the larger part of the landscape. That I roam here in companionship with my family, the health care team, supportive friends, and yes, even with my mother, is no small part of the experience. At times, there’s a definite direction we take; other times we rely on one another for reassurance.