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Wilderness as a State of Mind: My Partners in the Parks Experience

Dec 4, 2014
Benjamin Lennon - Partners in the Park 2014
Benjamin Lennon, 2nd-year Honors student in political science

In a normal setting, any talk that begins with “Now, let’s talk about how to be happy while you might in fact be miserable” is not the precursor to a fun outing. The phrase generally conjures a negative image of the activity to come and may contribute to you actually being more miserable in the coming moments then you might otherwise be.

This, however, was not a normal setting.

Our group was sitting around a roaring campfire as the darkness slowly descended upon us. Behind us a small creek gurgled at the base of a hill where there had recently been sightings of black bears, grizzly bears, and even moose, and where, the next morning, we would spy a black bear ourselves. A ways off slumbered Two Medicine Lake, the body that fed our little creek and that was the namesake for our campground, in the southern part of Glacier National Park.

Our group was comprised of twelve students from across the country, all the way from Florida to Washington. We were led by two professors and an intern on a six day trip taking us from one side of the park to the other, up a long and winding road and down the other side. We had spent the first two days surrounded by wilderness and tourists, and as we gathered that night we were discussing the next day’s plans, which apparently included the possibility of some real discomfort. It was time to break away from the tourists and begin to discover true wilderness.

This was a topic we had discussed a lot. I went in with a general sense of wilderness, but wondering about it. Is wilderness more than just wild areas? It was Josh, our intrepid intern, who answered my question, or, more accurately, didn’t. He argued that wilderness isn’t a matter of wildlife or wild flowers. Instead, in the tradition of New England transcendentalism, he believed that wilderness was a place you could go in which you would find yourself bewildered. By this definition, one could potentially find more wilderness on the streets of downtown New York than in the restaurants and gift stores of West Glacier’s entrance.


On the fifth day of our trip I found myself making an effort to be happy while quickly getting drenched from the thunderstorm that had rolled in right in time to cut our lunch short. As we found our way through a dense and soggy forest, casually picking fresh huckleberries straight from the bushes next to the trail, I started thinking about the parallels between this group of students and my thoughts about the trip overall. Everyone on this trip had been so friendly and welcoming, as if the only assumption they had coming into it was that we would be friends. They were open with their opinions when we had our evening chat, and they were always interested in what someone else had to say. It was a group of strangers, and yet our ability to work together out in the wilderness was an easy choice.

I kept thinking about that choice. So often we separate ourselves and our society from the beauty and wonder that is the natural world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve learned that just by growing up in Seattle. Wilderness, and the experience it provides, has to be part of our lives, in some way. On the last day one of the other students on the trip said something that stuck with me. She talked about how often she would get caught up in her life and get stressed out and stop enjoying the things she’s always enjoyed. She wanted to remind herself to “enjoy the experience, and just be.”


I was reminded of several such moments as I considered her comment. At one point on the trip as I stood by my tent and looked all around, it suddenly felt as if I was in a painting come to life. The sky was clearing and stars were peeking through the clouds, which were being illuminated by the moon. The moonlight reflected off the creek whose noisy flow was providing a relaxing ambient noise, as the smells of a fresh breeze mixed with a dying campfire. There would be no sleeping in my tent that night. I was inspired to be in the moment completely.


Three days later we were nearing the end of our journey, with our hike taking us over Firebrand Pass before we descended and returned to the vehicle and society. As we approached the pass I saw where it got its name, and we left behind a lush forest for a barren rocky slope. As the winds slowly picked up, we could see the mountains of Glacier creating their own storm system which slowly seemed to be heading our way. The top of the pass felt like being on a different planet, with the sky obscured by clouds and the winds whipping our bags around and our voices away. I braced myself against the coming storm as we crossed the pass. Then, suddenly, it was calm. The sun came through the clouds and the vegetation had returned. Looking back, we could see the storm, but it was held back by the rim of mountains we had just passed through. Yet again, all I could do was shake my head in amazed gratitude for what had been, right then and throughout the week, an incredible experience.

To me, a Partners in the Parks trip is good for any kind of student. The avid hiker, the urban walker, and the “don’t leave home without an umbrella” can all find a place on a Partners trip, because there is a range of experiences to be had. I went into Glacier thinking that I already knew a lot about hiking and national parks, expecting a fun week, and wanting to talk about issues like preservation and stewardship. I got all of that, but I also got an experience that I could have never imagined and one that I can’t forget. I went in looking for wilderness and I came away bewildered. And maybe that’s exactly what I needed.

Partners in the Parks is an outdoor experiential learning program that partners National Parks with host University Honors programs in the region to create week-long adventures in education.

Learn more about this unique experiential learning opportunity »