Ruth Loomer is the General Manager of THE LAB, EVP and Chief of Staff of MedBridge, and Pastor of Community Development for Pueblo Free Methodist Church. She also recently started a community advocacy group called the Westside Healthcare Advocacy Team (WHAT) in response to growing needs among Westside students and families. We asked Ruth to write about her epic wilderness adventure, and we’re glad we did. Because in my opinion, it’s the finest piece that we’ve published. -MGT
As soon as I pass through the metal gate, I hear it abruptly clang shut behind me. It’s day 10 of my 16-day solo trip through Glacier, Banff and Jasper. In order to decrease the rate of wildlife-vehicle collisions, fencing and wildlife overpasses were installed on both sides of the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park. What a strange concept to “fence in” the wild! But since I care about keeping wild animals alive, I’m glad for the metal steps up to and down from the heavy metal gate.
Before entering that gate, there is a robust warning: I’m supposed to watch out for a wolf pack that’s recently attacked campers in search of food, and there are some grizzly sightings thrown in for good measure. The notice ends with an admonition to hike in groups and make lots of noise.
The warnings and the clanging gate serve to underscore the fact that I am truly alone in “the wild” on this trip, with only wolves and bears nearby and no one on the trail to talk to – except God. Normally I am a praying person, but life has been so full recently that I’ve made very little time for prayer.
The months leading up to this trip were filled with seemingly endless chemotherapy appointments and hospital stays supporting my Mom through her battle with cancer. The numbness of losing her after a two-year war has wreaked havoc on my family, work life, faith community, and my own well-being.
I have needed every solitary step I’ve logged over these past ten days, even though I’ve never done an extended “solo trip.” I grew up backpacking with family and have hiked with friends in nearly 25 different national parks over the last twenty years. But, I’ve never been alone for this long.
Despite initial concerns, my “sojourn into the wilderness” has been epic so far. I’ve enjoyed a thunderstorm at Lake McDonald, backpacked to the Granite Park Chalet in Glacier National Park, done some trail-running up to Grinnell Glacier, picked and eaten huckleberries along my route, told a black bear about 50 feet away from me that we’d both be fine and that he could “just keep walking,” feverishly consumed Montana trout and huckleberry margaritas (solo bear sightings make you thirsty!), watched the snow come down as I crossed the border into Canada, spent three frigid nights in my “high tech” (read here: expensive) sleeping bag/tent with frozen toes regardless of having at least three layers of clothes on, hiked the Wiwaxy Gap Trail with a gain of 1625 feet in .93 miles of switchbacks and scree, gone for a very frigid swim in avalanche-fed Lake McArthur, had the most amazing carrot cake at Le Relais Day Use Shelter, and slathered huckleberry jam on my biscuit in prep for Redearth Creek Trail.
Back to the clanging metal gate: the only sound I hear after it slams shut is silence. An eerie silence. But this is soon broken by the steady clank clank of my bear bell. I thought I would hate backpacking with a bear bell. I’m the kind of person who gets annoyed by the sound of a mug vibrating in my car cup holder.
But on this solo trip, I’ve actually grown attached to that clanking bell on my pack. It means I don’t have yell, “Hey Bear!” every two minutes. And its rhythmic pattern keeps me company in its own way.
I’ve discovered on this trip that the only way you experience courage is in the face of fear. Courage doesn’t exist without fear. That’s at least what I keep telling myself as I put one foot in front of the other on my journey into the “fenceless wild.” Courage and fear. Life and death. Sorrow and joy.
“In the midst of sorrow is consolation, in the midst of darkness is light, in the midst of despair is hope… The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it”. –From “Can You Drink The Cup?” by Henri Nouwen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_Nouwen).
I breathe. I pray. The clanging gate is soon forgotten. I shout “Hey Bear!” and sincerely hope that the grizzly I was just warned about by a mountain biker has meandered far from the trail. Thankfully, the contracting tree line finally gives way to climbing crags and open vistas. The sun shines on my face and I see mountaintops. Quickly the miles melt away and the Trans-Canadian Highway feels like an alternate universe.
By the time I arrive at the most amazing backcountry lodge I’ve ever stayed in – Shadow Lake Lodge – I’m euphoric. I spend nearly an hour perched on my cabin’s deck watching clouds. When is the last time I’ve sat down to watch clouds? This is big sky country and it lives up to its acclaim. The bell rings and an organic, three-course meal, paired with the perfect Cabernet, is served. I take a hot solar panel heated shower and climb into my luxurious bed – a far cry from the freezing toes and freeze-dried food of yesterday.
I spend the next couple of days in the splendor of creation – soaking in this exquisite taste of beauty. The numbness of loss lifts as I spend time alone in solitude and silence.
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.” – “John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir” (1938).
A great breakfast of baked French toast, bacon and coffee are the perfect way to fuel up for my hike out. I get my pack loaded, say goodbye to the good people I’ve met, and hit the trail. I have no fear this time. I enjoy the hail and whistle along with the steady company of my clanking bell.
I stop to take a picture of the segment of trail that was so fearsome on my way in.
I’m celebrating the courage I’ve gained. I even run and skip at points now. As I enter the last mile of the day, I hurry up, like a horse knowing it is nearing the stable. Yes, it’s a bit wet from the rain and hail, but my adrenaline carries me. I take a step off the bridge and hear a crack. Not the crack of wood… the crack of my ankle.
After decades of twisting ankles while playing soccer, I can tell instantly based on the sound, swelling, and pain, that “I have really done it this time.” There is no one around, just me. No hiking poles and no working cell phone. Great. (And yes, this is exactly what my Dad warned me about… well, this and those bears!)
This last 3/4 of a mile feels like an eternity. Just one step. Then another. The relief I feel at seeing that fence and my old friend, the clanging metal gate, is palpable.
I know the ER is at least 45 minutes away, so I put my injured right foot (driving foot) over the car console and drive for help. Upon hobbling into the Banff Hospital ER, I have déjà vu. The last time I was in an ER was with my Mom, on Father’s Day. Who doesn’t want to spend Father’s Day with your Dad in an ER when the physician on duty tells you, “Your Mom is really sick and she may not make it out of here alive. Have you all had a chance to say goodbye?” No, of course we hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. Who comes to the ER ready to say farewell? I’m thankful she made it out of there alive and got to die at home, surrounded by her loving family.
Memories come flooding in and so do the tears. Somehow I’m able to spit out my name, date of birth, and reason for being in the ER. After X-rays, a “distular fibular fracture” diagnosis, a blue cast and crutch lessons, I totter out of the ER. I still have 3.5 hours to go to get to Jasper and I am determined to make it there by 10pm. The doctor gives me some Advil, warns me about driving with my left foot, and sends me home with some Oxycodone for my nighttime snack. I place the cast up on the dashboard and drive.
I fervently pray as I pass countless “Caribou, Bear and Moose Crossing” signs on the Icefields Parkway. I would pray a lot less if there were fences and metal gates along this Canadian highway!
My final days are much quieter. In case you didn’t know, it’s extremely difficult to crutch up/down stairs, asphalt trails, and across footbridges. I am given time to reflect on my trip’s lessons.
There is a wildness to life. There is a harsh, unforgiving and dangerous world that we think we can fence in so we never have to experience pain, fear and loss. The paradox is, it is in the heart of that wildness that we get to experience immense beauty, love, courage and joy. Here’s to more life spent choosing to enter that wildness, regardless of the fences.