Phoenix Rising — Rekindling the Will to Live
by Lin Rose / May 2019
My husband’s shouts woke me instantly. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” It was 1972 and our ancient 1950s Chrysler was spinning in full three-sixties on black ice. The car felt airborne. There wasn’t even time to raise my head from Jim’s lap before the sickening crash. All the window glass blew out on impact. My body was slammed beneath the dash board, folded up like an accordion. Shocked that I was unhurt, I climbed back onto the seat that ran as a single bench from door to door—a different arrangement from today’s bucket seats. Peering into the darkness of midnight, I saw we’d collided with a pile of other vehicles. Except for the groaning of a man who’d been thrown onto the highway from his pickup, there was utter silence on that west Texas highway. Jim died with my arms around him, his head limp on my shoulder. Spiky weeds coated with feathery hoar frost stood mutely, shocked witnesses lined up at attention along the highway’s dark shoulder. Everything was frozen—time, my emotions, the bleak whiteness of the icy surroundings glimmering in a few passing headlights.
I couldn’t get the image out of my mind or the frozen experience out of my body. A full year later, I still couldn’t make peace with the fact that he had died and I had lived. Except I wasn’t living. At age thirty, would I ever find my way back to life?
“Name, please,” the girl behind the registration counter said at Outward Bound’s Portland branch in Oregon. She smiled warmly. I dropped my backpack and let it lean against my knees while I filled out paperwork signing me up for a ten-day survival course in the wilderness. I was a little woozy after my three-hour drive from Seattle. Other participants were milling around or lounging in arm chairs, and others continued to arrive. We were all dressed in wool shirts and pants, sweaters, and parkas. There was an air of excitement in the air, underpinned by nervousness. They were probably afraid of dying in the woods. I was afraid of living—anywhere. I’d left Texas and moved to Seattle, but I was still numb, lost in my loneliness. Shy and withdrawn by nature, I had virtually become an armadillo after Jim’s death—an armored creature who curled into a self-protective ball at the drop of a hat. That’s why I had signed up for this survival course. Maybe it would re-connect me with myself. Maybe it would help me want to participate in life again.
Staffers doled out rain gear and supplies, and our tall packs stood on end clustered in the parking lot like alter-egos ready for an adventure. Before we knew it, we’d piled into a bus with our gear and were on our way to the Three Sisters Wilderness. People chatted among themselves. I slouched against a window, my eyes glued to the mountainous scenery passing by.
We spilled from the bus at our trailhead among tall evergreens, shouldered our packs and marched into the pine-scented afternoon of our first day. We were led by our guide, Dave, a weather-beaten guy in his late thirties, with stubble beginning to grow along his jaw. Four men and four women of varying ages strung out before me. I brought up the rear. Sweating with exertion, doggedly placing one foot in front of the other on the steep trail, I found myself relaxing into the present moment and the rhythm of my breathing. My mind settled, expanding into awareness of the beauty around me. Birds called and insects buzzed lazily in the enveloping forest. A few hours later, Dave brought us to a halt in an open area beneath broad fir branches.
“Here’s where we’ll camp tonight. Our first order of business is to make sure it’s safe,” he said. “Look up.” We dutifully followed his instructions by throwing our heads back, mouths agape, moving our eyes up the giant tree trunks around us. “Are there any widow-makers that might crash down on us?”
The silvery wood of dead and broken limbs was easy to spot. Splotched with dangly black moss, they looked lethal. Without prompting, we shifted our packs out from under the big fir tree.
“What about overhead foliage that the campfire might ignite?” We moved our stuff a little further from the tree to make sure the tips of its branches, and those of surrounding trees, would be away from hot sparks swirling upward.
Dave continued his checklist. “Is there a nice long limb to throw a line over so we can hang our food overnight? We don’t want the bears to get it.”
“Bears?” someone said. “You didn’t tell us there’d be bears.”
“Yup. These woods belong to them—we’re the intruders. They’ll stay away from the noise we’re making, but it’s still not smart to have food in your pockets. I hope you all know never to take food to bed with you. Keep it in your pack and string it up at night.”
We had all fallen silent—probably remembering the times we’d hiked with sugary power bars in a shirt pocket, or the times we had cooked dinner in a tent. I shifted my weight uneasily and zipped up my down sweater. It was late August and, despite midday temperatures in the seventies, in the weakening afternoon sun the forest was cooling quickly into the low forties.
Dave brought our attention back to the task at hand. “Okay, the second order of business is to find some fire starter and kindling.” He led us off the trail and into the woods in search of a broken stump left behind by a dead tree. We soon found the jagged base of a cedar with its fallen trunk beside it.
“Resin sinks into its base as a tree dies,” he said as he dug the tip of his Swiss Army knife into the wood and pried out pitch-infused splinters. “It makes a superb fire starter, even with damp wood. You should always carry some in your first aid kit, and whenever you make a camp look around for a stump like this.” We followed his example, each of us digging out a handful of pitchy wood to save. I put mine in my pocket, wondering whether some spiritual resin might have pooled in the bottom of my soul when my connection to life flickered and died. My inner voice said, And you’re a case of damp wood if ever there was one. Would these ten days of survival training provide an igniting spark to bring me back to life?
Working together, we put up a big tarp to sleep under—our sleeping bags wedged side by side on a ground cloth. Normally I would have hated such unbroken togetherness. Now, in this intermission from my grief and the isolation it created, I was grateful for it.
Dinner was ready by dusk, and the evening ended with muted conversation around the campfire. The routine was soothing, and I gradually began to emerge from my shell and join the talk.
“Ending and beginning days with sunset and sunrise is part of what I love most about backpacking and camping,” I said to no one in particular. “At home, with the lights on, I stay up much too late. Then I oversleep in the morning. Going to bed out here when it gets dark, and getting up when it gets light, feels more natural.”
“Yeah, the rhythms are really different from life back home,” someone replied.
Quietly, I savored the freedom I felt from the loneliness and cold contraction of grief that dogged my regular life. I poked a stick into the coals. “Being in nature feeds my spirit in a way that city living doesn’t. Out here I’m living in the present—with my attention on one thing at a time, like sitting here by the fire. It feels wonderful.”
Dave echoed my thought. “People speak of being afraid of the woods, but the places that scare me the most are busy cities and airports. I feel much safer and more competent in the wilderness. Mother Nature might seem harsh, but her laws are more reliable than human behavior. Even when she’s destructive, it’s not with malice. Mother Nature shows us what we’re made of, what really good qualities we have.”
Over the ensuing days, Dave taught us to be precise in everything we did so that nothing was wasted, broken, or lost. There was to be no fumbling. Each footstep on the rocky path must be carefully placed to conserve energy and to avoid damaging the trail. We were being taught to respect every aspect of nature, as well as ourselves and our team members. After the eighth day of survival lessons as we hiked further into the wilderness, Dave called us together around the campfire.
“Tomorrow I’ll be assigning each of you to a private spot in the woods where you’ll do your overnight solo and put into practice everything we’ve been learning.”
We grinned nervously at each other, eagerly anticipating the test, but feeling reluctant to leave the camaraderie of the little community we’d developed. I stuck out my cup for a refill of hot chocolate, knowing it would be my last for a while, and wanting the reassurance of its warmth.
Dave continued. “Your backpacks will stay here with me. You can only take what most of the general public considers sufficient for a day-hike—actually, a bit more than most people take: namely, the clothes you’re wearing, a Sierra cup, a Swiss Army knife, and two matches. Be glad you’re wearing boots. You’d be surprised how many folks strike out in sneakers and jeans—things that lead to hypothermia when they’re wet.”
In the morning, Dave headed up the trail, followed by the nine of us like so many baby ducks. I felt pretty strange without the usual loaded pack pulling on my shoulders and weighing me down. The sun began to warm our backs and bring out the resiny scent of evergreens. After twenty minutes or so of walking, Dave assigned one of the male members of the group to a ferny area set back in the woods.
“That’s your spot. Feel free to walk around, find a water source and some things to eat, but keep track of yourself so you don’t get lost. Remember to build a lean-to shelter before dark and a safe fire ring the way we’ve practiced. Step carefully. Don’t trample your campsite. Survival isn’t just about you—it’s also about respecting the forest and keeping it safe.”
He handed the guy a whistle to wear around his neck for emergency use in case he accidentally wandered away and found himself unable to retrace his steps. After goodbyes, we straggled off behind Dave, who repeated the same scenario for the rest of us.
Once I’d been dropped off at my particular spot and the others had disappeared down the trail, there was nothing but the stillness of the forest around me and the dappled sunshine sifting through the evergreen boughs. Clouds of tiny insects called no-seeums swirled in a sunbeam. The tops of giant fir trees sighed softly in response to intermittent breezes. The wings of a bird flitted softly. A squirrel scolded. I felt at peace, easily enjoying my own company. Though it was a bit odd to be there without camping gear, I felt confident, safe, and unafraid.
As mid-day approached, I began to feel pangs of hunger. A voice in my head said, I could sure use a couple of those power bars right now, bears or no bears. I gathered huckleberries in my Sierra cup and beat my way through the bushes to a stream for a drink of icy water. Neither one calmed the growling of my stomach.
Still, I continued to enjoy my solitude in the lush forest understory. I explored the camp’s general area while keeping track of the exact location of my designated spot. I was here to learn how to survive in the woods, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by getting lost.
A mossy log invited me to lean my back against it while I soaked up the warmth of a sunny ray angling through the canopy. Time passed easily in Mother Nature’s lap. My mind was quiet, serene, filled with peace and happiness.
As the light softened in late afternoon, the voice in my head said, Hmm, you’d better start making camp. Without a flashlight, you don’t want to get caught in the dark before you’ve prepared a fire and a shelter. As we’d been taught, I collected rocks from the stream and built a fire circle, then found a dead stump and dug out pitch-filled splinters and collected dry kindling under fallen logs. I gathered more huckleberries, but bypassed the unpalatable bitterness of ferny fiddleheads and other edibles we’d been introduced to.
I switch to being focused and deep in the present moment. My fire ignites on the first match. You’d better make sure that fire doesn’t go out, the voice reminds me. You’ve only got one match left.
I gather fir branches and mossy bedding for the prescribed lean-to shelter. After easily putting it together, I stand back to admire the coziness created by my handiwork. Smoke from the fire chases mosquitoes away. If I weren’t hungry, everything would be perfect.
As dusk turns to complete and chilly darkness, with stars peeking out through the crowns of the big trees overhead, the warmth and light of the fire become inordinately important—much more than when our group had sat around eating our suppers during prior evenings. I’m used to camping alone at night—but with a tent, with a pack full of gear, with a warm sleeping bag, and with a ground cloth. The actual experience of being alone in the dark in the woods without protective insulation on and under my body is many times more intense than I had anticipated. No amount of imagination could have predicted this or prepared me. I don’t want to imagine how much worse this would be if I were actually lost. But I am lost. I don’t know who I am and how to survive on my own. That’s why I’m here.
I wiggle into my lean-to and try to get comfortable on its bedding. This is the pits! It’s cold. It’s damp. The branches are lumpy. The lean-to is supposed to keep body heat from escaping into the night sky, but the campfire’s heat isn’t radiating into my shelter to warm it up—I had forgotten Dave’s instruction to build it lower than the lean-to to take advantage of the way heat rises and spreads. This lean-to is not cozy at all.
I’m shivering. My hands and feet are like ice. My palms are pitchy and dirty from my wood-gathering and fire-building activities, and my uncovered head is losing heat like a lidless cooking pot. This is not the way I want to spend the night.
I begin an internal conversation. What about moving the lean-to closer to the campfire? No, you fool. It might set the thing ablaze. Then I’m out of here and heading for the fire!
A layer of moss and fern fronds creates a little insulation between myself and the ground. But it’s hardly adequate as I curl up like a pill bug as close to the fire as I dare, using a bent arm as a pillow. I keep the fire going by periodically feeding it the lean-to’s branches. Time crawls. A night has never seemed so endless. I don’t have a watch, so I just have to wait by myself in the fire’s glow.
Despite my discomfort, I somehow drop off to sleep. I know I’ve been asleep because of the way I’m jolted awake—I’m freezing cold. I’m shivering again. Oh no! The fire’s gone out!
My eyes pop fully open and focus on the gray heap of ashes in front of me. I’m up on an elbow, then on my knees poking the ashes with a stick. Thank God, there are still coals. I don’t want to have to use my last match. I prop up small sticks and kindling like a teepee in the midst of the ashes, fanning the embers and blowing on them. A small flame licks into life. I pile on more sticks. The fire is beginning to catch, so I add branches from the lean-to.
Suddenly the fire is roaring. I have to back away. Oh my God, what if this starts a forest fire? Pulling out some of the burning branches is useless because they end up threatening to breach the integrity of the fire pit’s careful ring of rocks. I’m forgetting Dave’s training about being calm and precise, staying respectful of my materials and surroundings, and avoiding panic.
Finally, the fire settles down to a manageable level and I curl up beside it again. I gradually feed it more branches, not minding how the smoke swirls into my eyes when the nighttime breezes shift. Adrenaline drains away as I turn my freezing backside to the warmth of the fire and let my roasting front cool down. Rolling from front to back again and again, I feel like a chicken on a spit.
Repeatedly, I fall asleep even though I’m trying hard to stay awake. Each time, I wake with a jolt because I’m freezing. Each time, I’m certain the fire has gone out. Time and again, I over-stoke the embers and end up consumed with worry that I might start a forest fire. I remember what Dave said about hypothermia—how you go to sleep and don’t wake up again. I remember Jim’s last words before he lost consciousness and died: “I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” I had imagined that my own death could be a welcome escape from emotional pain and loneliness but, in this moment, what seems like an actual possibility of really dying doesn’t seem inviting at all. I don’t want to.
My inner voice has a new intensity. It brings a visceral realization. You’re responsible to preserve yourself and your environment. Your choices and your actions govern your world and your safety in it. You can’t afford to be panicky or careless—not here, not at home. You can’t afford to return to your habit of hanging back from life, of keeping your light under a bushel, of relying on others to direct you.
I have no idea how often I am jolted back to consciousness to repeat this panicky scenario. I only know my emotional numbness is gone and that there is a clear conviction that, indeed, I want to live. Life is precious. The world is beautiful. Please, God, just let me last until daybreak.
By the time the stars fade, the sky lightens, and the darkness gives way to daylight, relief is an understatement. I’m thoroughly dirty from rolling around in ash and dirt. But I don’t care. I’m alive, and all my senses are awake. After a night of adrenaline surges, I’m limp but proud of my endurance and my survival.
Alone and cold in the woods, I had felt more alive than ever before. If death could come as quickly and as unexpectedly as Jim’s had, why should I lead a small sheltered life walking in lock step with conventions and being fearful of not living up to other people’s expectations? Living the gift of life half-awake is surely disrespectful of Nature’s divine energy.
Adhering to the final step of Dave’s training, I dismantle the fire circle and douse it with repeated cups of water from the stream, making sure to dig down and remove every hot spot. I can hardly wait for Dave to come back and collect me, and for our group to reunite so we can share stories and compare our experiences. The inner voice says, You’re extinguishing the outer fire, but the inner one is just beginning to smolder. You liked being in your shell, but now you can’t wait for human company. You’re already thinking about wanting to live and what form that might take.
We hiked out of the Three Sisters Wilderness in blazing sunshine. I went home with my goal achieved—I wanted to live. And I wanted that life to be worthwhile.
Lin Rose is a new writer, living near Seattle. Retirement is offering her an opportunity to find new meaning and inspiration by sifting through a lifetime of personal lessons. They might even be useful and entertaining for others.