My Public Lands Contest 

My Public Lands Contest Submission

Back to Contest Home Page

 State of Mind

<< | < | > | >>
screen-area Image Title:
Image Size:

I have been there once with my wife, once with my brother, eight times with my daughter and countless times in my mind. While each trip made in body is worthy of an essay in and of itself, it is of the many mind trips that I wish to write. It is true that the little mind trips would not be possible had the other the trips never existed. And most true of all: Neither kind of trip would have happened at all if we didn’t have public lands.

The trips to which I’m referring were to the Otter Creek Wilderness Area, part of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, USA. (39°01’58”N, 79°39’13”W). Otter Creek began its life as public land in 1917 when it was acquired by the United States Government and managed as part of the National Forest for its second-growth timber. In 1975, the 20,000 acres of wild lands was designated as a Wilderness Area, a place where, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the earth and its community of life are essentially undisturbed. Wilderness Areas “retain a primeval character, without permanent improvements, and generally appear to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature.”

My wife and our dog, Sparky, joined me on my first trip to Otter Creek in 1978. Our little white dog was soon as black as the peat she was running through. The cream chipped beef (SOS for those veterans out there) also turned black as the morning rain shower bounced bits of forest floor into the pan with each little rain drop. These were not the highlights of the trip, nor was the look on my wife’s face during the morning wash-up in the creek, when she developed a new understanding of cold. The highlight was me being able to serve my wife “the best meal in her life.” This was her first backpacking adventure ever and the first trail we traveled was one that ascended more than 1,100 feet in the course of about 2 miles. Sometimes we were on all fours, negotiating a rock pile loosely called a trail. Her initiation backpack was my USMC haversack, knapsack and a sleeping bag. Somewhere before the top of the summit and definitely before lunch time, she was hungry. I skillfully spun my P-38 around a can of baked beans and handed her the can and a spoon. To this day, after 35 years of marriage, she still remembers that meal as the best thing she has ever eaten. This could only happen at a place like Otter Creek.

The physical trips are not always rosy, but of course that is part of it. During one of the many trips with my daughter, OTWA provided a little more water than we had bargained for. To say that it rained is an understatement. It poured, it thundered and the sky flashed, all night. Our cheap little tent did not breathe so it rained inside the tent, too. The next day, we walked all day in pouring rain, at one time meeting up with a group of people who had witnessed a nearby rock getting struck with lightning. Their eyes were still as big around as my compass. Our USGS map was soon paper-mache, no matter how we tried to hunch over it while reading it. When we got to a place where we had to ford the creek, we just plunged on through without taking our shoes off first. You can only get so wet and we were already there. But you know one of my greatest surges of pleasure came on day two. After fixing breakfast, as I always do, and just before breaking camp, I had a brilliant idea. Our shoes, socks and just about everything else was already soaked: Damp was the new dry. So I prepared a generous supply of boiling water and dumped some of it into each of our boots before we put them on for the day. Putting those warm shoes on was short lived bliss but it will be remembered forever. To this day my daughter considers this a stroke of genius.  

These are just memories to be rehashed whenever we encounter creamed chipped beef, cold water or little white dogs. What is more significant is the ability that these memories give me to escape, whenever I want, back to the deep woods of Otter Creek. I just close my eyes, put my mind on hold and slip away.

Mind trips are essential for my sanity. Little excursions that require only the gray matter of the brain. Fire a few synapses, light up some neurons, call up the long-term memory and you are off. No muscles, no motion, no money.

I think that the importance of visiting wilderness areas has to do the “the basics”: food, water and shelter. The closer you can get to having just those, the less “noise” there is to clutter up the experience. There are no camping facilities at OTWA, no showers, no toilets, no campfire rings. No cars, no phones, smart or otherwise, no electricity, no TV — you get the point. Just loosely maintained trails, the food and shelter that you hauled in and the water of the creek. Only vast areas of public land can offer this sort of destination.

I encourage everyone to get out and experience the outdoors at whatever level you feel comfortable. Feel the indescribable feeling and build your cache of memories without all the clutter of your everyday humdrum.

Then, whenever you want, you will be able to close your eyes, put your mind on hold and slip away.

I’ll be there with you. You just won’t know it

Submitted by: Timothy P