August 27, 2021
Day 1 – Joy
We gathered on a Wednesday in a warehouse somewhere in or near St. George, Utah, a fleet of Can-Am UTV’s waiting for us. It may seem odd that I don’t know with certainty where we started, but when you go on a trip with the Wilderness Collective, not knowing any details is part and parcel of the whole experience. “How much further to the campsite?” we’d ask. “The perfect distance,” they’d answer. “What time are we leaving this morning?” we’d say at breakfast, and they’d smile and say, “At the perfect time.” So where exactly was that warehouse? I dunno. The perfect location.
There were twelve of us embarking on this adventure, along with five Wilderness guides — one leader, one photographer, one videographer, one chef, and one mechanic. We paired off for the UTV’s and found helmets, goggles, and welcome kits (containing some toilet paper and wipes, a beverage receptacle, a beanie, a t-shirt, and a sticker, all except the toilet paper and wipes emblazoned with the words Wilderness Makes You Better) waiting for us. After getting a brief pep talk and a rundown about vehicle safety — and after placing our phones in a locked box inscribed with the fortifying words “YOU’LL BE OK” — we hopped in our vehicles and began the journey. Todd let me drive first, and we navigated through some surface streets and out into the desert. I’m pretty sure we began in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. Wherever we were, suffice it to say it was the perfect place. For the first hour or two, we drove down broad dirt tracks, kicking up dust in the late afternoon summer heat, and stopping once to hike briefly to a location where there were ancient dinosaur tracks imprinted in the rocks. That first afternoon, I felt with every fiber of my being that I had never had more fun in my whole life.
I had a brief maybe this isn’t fun after all moment when our guide led us up an area that seemed to be made of nothing but broken boulders, with a significant drop-off to our right. It didn’t help when one of the vehicles ahead of us began to slip slightly, but they made it through that tricky spot and so I blazed ahead too, because what else could I do? There was no going back at that point. When we reached the top of that boulder-y section, I felt more than a little proud, and more than a little ready for a break, so Todd drove for a while after that. That stretch of track was our first indicator that the next few days weren’t exactly going to be a piece of cake.
Our final stretch that day was on a pretty, paved mountain highway that took us well away from the desert we’d started in. Lower down, the breeze wasn’t sure whether it wanted to cool us or bake us, but as we gained altitude we went through a smattering of rain, and the temperature began to plummet.
We arrived at our first campsite, a silvery lake with a broad grassy bank, blue-green mountains on the far side, the forest behind us, and dark ominous clouds gathering above. We pitched our tents on that grassy bank, getting them up just before the storm hit. Then, somehow, with wind and rain and hail and lightning creating a sense of freezing chaos, and nothing but a dubious tarp to keep the elements at bay, our chef managed to (quickly/cheerfully/competently/with no audible swearing) prepare an unbelievably delicious meal, complete with appetizers and fancy garnishes. It was some kind of lightly-fried flatbread with a dipping sauce and meat and rice and I don’t even know. (What will we eat? The perfect food!)
Bundled up from head to toe, we all crowded into the chef’s space and stood huddled beneath that small, dubious tarp, and ate piping hot food with cold hands. They poured us shots of bourbon before dinner to warm our bellies, and served beer and wine with dessert (fig blondies, exceptional), and all the while we kept each other warm with the closeness of our presence and we laughed harder than I’ve experienced in a long while. We dove into our tents that night and prayed we’d somehow make it safe and dry through the storm.
Day 2 – Cold
Todd had packed air mattresses and down-filled mummy bags and bag liners and everything else we might need to ensure that we could stay cozy and warm in our tents, so we made it through the night without much incident. When we awoke the next morning, the rain had mostly stopped but it was colder than I would have thought possible for August. (What will the temperature be today? The perfect temperature!) The camp chairs were soaked through so we couldn’t sit, but we stood around the fire and talked and ate breakfast sandwiches (grilled sourdough + arugula + bacon + a fried egg, with grilled peaches on the side), and then we hit the road. Or rather, we hit the trails….the very, very muddy, washed-out trails.
Todd drove most of that day, and I sat and shivered. I knew we were in beautiful country, but I was not prepared for how cold it would be, and I could hardly enjoy the landscape, so focused was I on holding myself in a position that could retain the most warmth. Prior to the trip, Todd had asked if I’d like him to bring some Frogg Toggs for me. They were the ones belonging to our thirteen-year old son, and they were beige and baggy and ugly and I took one look at them and said no thank you, but he brought them anyway because he’s a smart fella and I’m so glad he did. I reached a point by mid-morning where I was so cold, and getting covered in so much mud, I decided to not care how ugly they were and I put ’em on over the pants I was already wearing.
By early afternoon things still hadn’t warmed up, so when we stopped at a gas station/UTV parts store (two of the UTV’s had already taken a beating), I went in and purchased a jacket. Pickings were slim and I bought the only one that was on clearance. We’re not cheap, mind you, I just didn’t feel like paying FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS for what might prove to be a one-time-use jacket. That clearance jacket happened to be an extra-large and I am not an extra-large person, but I was so cold I didn’t care, so I put on that extra-large jacket over my hilarious baggy plastic tan pants and I finally — finally — started to not feel so tremblingly cold. The cashier at the gas station said that he had lived in the area for 28 years and had never experienced a storm quite like that one the night before, and I can only assume the subsequent cold was a bit of a surprise to everyone as well, because a person would have to be out of their mind to live in a place where it routinely gets that cold in August.
Lunch that day was fancy salad at a pretty rest stop next to a little lake, and after that we went down a track with a “Road Closed” sign. (Of course we did.) It went through a section of forest that had burned recently, and I said it looked like a Halloween Forest because the trunks were deeply black and the needles of the pine trees were bright orange, and it was melancholy and yet somehow pretty in its own way. The road — you know, the one that was closed — was muddy and rocky and bumpy and treacherous in more places than one. What made it especially treacherous for us (or exciting, if you prefer) was that our chef was not in a UTV, he was driving a big, souped-up pick-up truck, and he was following us down this closed road.
In one spot we came to a curve that was so washed out, we had to take our vehicles way up onto the side of the road to avoid the crevice in a maneuver so tricky, our guide even got a bit stuck the first time through. He took a stab at it a second time in our vehicle, which was next, in order to demonstrate how it needed to be done. After that everyone, including the truck, managed to make it through. In a spot further on, there was a drop of a few feet from one level of the path to the next, and half of us got out of our vehicles to cheer the other half on (and/or to avoid unnecessary whiplash) and to cross our fingers while the truck ventured down.
In between those two obstacles, there was a downward portion of the path which had a large gash running through it, and that gash was so deep and so soft that the truck was certainly in danger of becoming totally stuck in it. After spending some time contemplating the path ahead, the solution that presented itself was to fill the big gash with felled tree trunks, rocks, and spare tires, and for the next little while the dudes grabbed the biggest logs and trunks they could carry, and the three of us girls (that’s right, there were a whopping three of us on this adventure) mostly watched but sometimes threw rocks in as well, and it was strangely funny and nobody really seemed stressed out about it, and the truck was finally able to lurch forward successfully to the other side of the rut, and when it did it nearly ran over our guide but he jumped out of the way just in time and nobody died that day.
We made our way out of the Halloween Forest and finally arrived at our camp that evening, a beautiful spot high up in the mountains in an aspen forest. While we pitched our tents the chef made tacos, and these were no Walking Tacos liked you’d make while camping with tasteless children, these were bona fide street tacos, with chicken or carnitas or beef, plus all kinds of salsas and sauces and cilantro and pickled onions and OH MY GOODNESS it was good. There was no rain that night, and the chairs had dried out, so we sat around the fire for a good long time, filling the night with the sounds of conversation and laughter and cigar smoke.
Day 3 – Calamity
The next morning we had pancakes with grilled peaches and dried raspberries, with a side of pork belly (our chef called it bacon steak) which had been glazed generously with some kind of syrup, and oh my goodness (again). When I think about what that chef was able to do with food in the most rustic of places, I’m embarrassed by the boring stuff I make at home in my big gorgeous well-equipped kitchen. Holy smokes.
Anyhow, with the storm behind us and a growing comfort with this wilderness lifestyle, that third day began as a promising one, but our guide warned us that day three could be tricky because our confidence had gone up but so had our tiredness. We nodded and went on our way, and things went smoothly at first but an hour or two in, one of the vehicles ahead of us rolled over after going straight through a large muddy puddle. The guys inside the vehicle were fine, and they were able to get the vehicle righted, but it was a good reminder to all of us of our guide’s warning.
Not too long after that was when calamity struck. The photographer and videographer zipped ahead of us on what seemed to be a wide, dry dirt track. They often went ahead so they could get footage of us coming towards them, so there was nothing unusual about that. What they didn’t know, and what they discovered in the worst possible way, was that a portion of the road had been washed out by the storm. Not just washed out, it was more like a sinkhole had opened up below it. Even though the hole went several feet in every direction, it was surprisingly hard to see, and they weren’t able to avoid it. They hit it, broke off a wheel, and the videographer broke his back.
It was awful, especially at first. None of us saw the accident happen, and we were told by our guide to stay back once he learned of it through their radio system. He went ahead to see what had happened, then came flying back to gather a few more of the guys to help. The rest of us waited where we were told, and kept getting secondhand accounts of what was going on. The first report was that the videographer couldn’t feel his legs, and immediately one of the guys in our group had us gather together to pray for him. By the time the helicopter arrived to take him to the hospital, they had ascertained that he did have feeling in his legs and feet, but his back was badly swollen. We prayed again, and then ate a sober lunch on the side of the road.
After that delay of several hours, we continued on our way, and we hadn’t been driving very long when our guide got a call from the hospital letting him know that the videographer’s L3 vertebra was broken, which sounds terrible but was actually great news, given the circumstances. No paralysis, and no surgery. There will be a difficult healing process for him, but he will heal, and should be totally fine in the end. That news lightened all of our spirits considerably.
We ended that strange day at the campsite our guide called his number one favorite. As per Wilderness usual, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where we were, but signage along the way seemed to indicate that we had spent most of our time in Dixie National Forest, and I think that final night we camped where the forest meets up with Bryce Canyon. What I do know is that we were at about 10,000 feet elevation, a height I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been at before. We pulled into the campsite, which appeared to be a normal, foresty area. Our guide, however, who was usually the epitome of chill, was practically giddy with excitement. He beckoned all of us to follow him, so we got off our vehicles and walked up to one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen.
There were huge outcroppings and spires of orange-y limestone and sandstone plummeting down and away from the cliff we stood on. Forests and foothills in every shade of green swept away hundreds and thousands of feet below us, and blue lakes and canyons ran off at impossible distances on the horizon. The sheer scope of it was dizzying, and it was so beautiful it made me want to cry.
With our tents pitched startlingly near that amazing view, we sat around the fire to enjoy our last dinner together in the wilderness. The steak that night was delightful, but the flimsy wooden forks and knives were not so much. Wooden flatware: great for the environment, terrible for literally everything else. Sitting around the fire with our delicious food and our terrible knives and forks, we went around the circle and shared our “roses, thorns, and giggles” from the trip. Is it hilarious to apply the word “giggles” to the experiences of a group of grown adults who’ve just gone through something extraordinarily rigorous and sometimes harrowing? Yes, yes it is. But did we giggle a lot? Sure did. We sure did.
Day 4 – Endings & Beginnings
Sleeping next to the cliff was an exhilarating experience (or a frightening one, depending who you ask), and we woke up rather sad the next morning, knowing it was our last. We had a lot of miles ahead of us, so we ate quickly, packed quickly, and then took some photos on the cliff’s edge quickly, and nobody fell off or anything. After that, we had several hours of mostly paved roads, making our way back to that undisclosed warehouse location. By the time we arrived we were thoroughly hot again, and it was almost hard to remember how cold we had been just a day or two before, or even that very morning.
We originally left the warehouse with seventeen people and we came back with fifteen, the photographer having gone to the hospital to be with the videographer. Our vehicles, which had been shiny black, were caked in many layers of thick, cement-like mud, several of them were broken in places, and two of them had been replaced halfway through the trip. None of us had had a shower in four days, our hair was greasy and our bodies were sweaty, and every inch of our clothing was covered in dirt. We were filthy and haggard and extremely happy.
This wilderness experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. In fact it was so unlike anything I’ve ever done before, I had to get into an entirely different headspace just to do it. I had to embrace risk, and danger. I had to embrace baking sun and freezing rain. I had to embrace going to the bathroom in the forest — and having a ridiculous number of conversations about going to the bathroom in the forest. I had to embrace discomfort and uncertainty. I had to push myself to do things I would never have dreamed of doing under ordinary circumstances. As a result of all that, I got to experience beauty and freedom and excitement and a raw, fundamental connection to nature and people that I had never experienced before.
The fact that I got to do all of that with Todd, that he and I now have this shared experience as part of our marital repertoire, is the icing on the cake. Fun fact: he and I had never gone tent camping during our marriage prior to this trip. We went from never tent camping to, like, Ultimate Tent Camping. I always call Todd “Mr. All-Or-Nothing,” and maybe he’s wearing off on me a bit, but in any case, we didn’t exactly ease into this camping-together thing. We plunged in feet first, and it was fabulous.
Two of our friends, Nate and Erin, went with us, and that was also fabulous. There was a camaraderie in their presence which helped me to love the whole trip more, and to appreciate the things that were so unique about it. At one point Erin observed that in normal, day-to-day life, her name is “Mom,” but out there in the wilderness, with a small group of adults, she was really and truly “Erin.” I keep thinking about that, about how much of my identity is tied up in being a mom, and how completely I was plucked out of that role and placed into a setting where I got to just be Elisa, and discover what I was capable of.
Wilderness Collective’s motto is Wilderness Makes You Better, and as we walked through the airport on our way home we decided that we definitely/probably had a glow of betterness radiating off of us that was visible to everyone else. (Cue TikTok “am I better than everyone” montage.) All that was really radiating off of us was tiredness and the leftover smells of campfire, rain, dirt, and body odor that had soaked into our luggage, but we were proud of that too. “Better” is a difficult word to quantify, and anyway I don’t actually want to walk around projecting an assumed aura of betterness (unless, of course, I take a reusable straw to the coffee shop), but I do hope that the mountains and lakes and trees and muddy roads and starry skies and wearing filthy clothes every day and laughing around the fire with delicious food in our dirty hands turn into memories that never quite leave me. I do hope that those memories impact my perspective on day-to-day life. And I hope we find ways to recreate echoes of those memories on our own.
Sometimes life can feel so ordinary, but sometimes we get glimpses of the extraordinary. The extraordinary may be obvious, like seeing sweeping vistas full of beauty and light and color, or driving at exhilarating speeds through Halloween Forests. Sometimes it shows up in more subtle ways, like in the juxtaposition of gourmet food against a rugged backdrop, or in the discovery of meaningful things shared in common with people you’ve only just met. Sometimes the extraordinary thing is just being jolted so far out of your comfort zone, it makes even ordinary life take on a new shade of possibility.
What does that possibility look like? I don’t know yet, but I think I’ll find out at the perfect time.