Julie and I just spent three days in the Sawtooth Mountains, and while the trip wasn't a Pilgrim's Progress, it had moments when we were tempted toward allegory.
We got lost in a swamp when I insisted on getting off the beaten path.
We almost climbed a peak, but it was a peak whose vertical spires were disintegrating into sand before our eyes. We decided that arriving at the summit would require more luck than skill, and getting back down would require pure luck. We stopped a few hundred feet from the top, ate our lunch and walked back down.
We dove headfirst into lakes that had last winter's snow lining their banks.
The mosquitoes drove us into the tent while it was still light. We woke at 4 a.m. to a sky bright with stars. It was cold. The bugs weren't moving. We stepped out onto the lakeside tundra, naked and shivering, and stared out into space. At 9,000 feet, the air is clear. The Milky Way presents as a glowing cloud on a scale somewhat larger and colder than the human.
We avoided trails, but still walked up on a group of 10 with their guide, who had just told them they were all alone in the wilderness. Three college kids on a bouldering expedition showed up as we pitched our tent the second evening, wondering if we'd seen the food they'd stashed near our campsite the week before. We hadn't.
On the last day, we got back on a trail and ran into 73 people. One was a young environmental studies major sitting in the lotus position on a huge foam pad next to the trail. He was reading The World Without Us, an assigned text about what Earth would look like if humans suddenly disappeared.
I've already mentioned Pilgrim's Progress. I could have mentioned Mount Analogue, A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing. It's an unfinished work, because the French Surrealist Rene Daumal died in the middle of writing it.Â But he did finish this passage:
"You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again. ... So what's the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully. There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up."
It's hard to write about a trip to the mountains and not let your writing slip toward the too-sincere expression of too-grand truths. Any moment of Julie's and my trip could have inspired a meditation on life's journey. That's not always a good thing when you're backpacking.
I was repeating Frost's "Road Less Traveled" as justification for taking a new route just before we get lost in the swamp.
It's not for nothing that most people who study literature retreat from the literal world to their study, their dissertation or their tenured professorship. A literary education is too dangerous if you start exploring its literal applications.
It's much safer to go the other way, from the literal to the literary. Metaphors are seldom lethal on the page. It's easier to read Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" than to realize someone has stolen your food cache. It's easier to reach heaven by climbing Mount Analogue than it is by having your last, best handhold break off as you slip toward a 1,000-foot fall. It's easier to read Jack London's "To Build a Fire" than it is to dive into water with ice floating in it. It's easier to imagine the end of civilization than to wander around naked in cold starlight, which is what people did before there was civilization.
Still, it's a good thing to reduce the metaphorical content of your writing, because metaphors can get old and goofy long before the end of a book or poem.
You wouldn't think that reducing the amount of metaphor would increase the amount of meaning in your writing, but it does work that way. Sometimes meaning is increased so much that it's possible to see that the metaphors you've eliminated from your writing constitute a habit of mind indistinguishable from compulsive lying.
Julie and I came out of the mountains and were shocked by the amount of people and noise in the world. We had a compensatory margarita in the Redfish bar, went home, cleaned up, went out for a compensatory dinner, went home and slept for 10 hours on a compensatory real mattress. Did not check email. Did not turn on a computer. Did not find out that the stock market was falling. Did not watch videos of war and revolution. Did not know that American politics had gotten three days more corrupt and the world economy three days more in debt.
What sort of meaning is safe to make on a camping trip?
A decade and a half ago, Julie and I came out of the Sawtooths after a solid week. The first thing I did was turn on the car radio for the news. Julie made fun of me and said, "I'm sure the world hasn't ended in one week."
Then the news came on and we found out Jerry Garcia had died.
"The world has ended," I said.
"No it hasn't," said Julie.
"It has for Jerry Garcia," I said.
This column was adapted from Rember's MFA in a Box Blog, and was inspired by a backpack trip a couple of years back.