They looked at me with bright eyes and cheeks flushed with excitement. They couldn’t wait to set foot in the “wild” western part of the United Sates. The wilderness was calling them, tugging at their sleeves, blowing in their ears and pulling them back to the primal, in a call of the wild sort of way.
My years of living in United States as a foreigner resulted in frequent trips back to “the old country,” which brought me through many European cities. The flights back were long, and usually my seat companion and I would strike up a conversation, during which I would explain that even though I am European, I had taken up residency in California.
I learned to distinguish between the adventurous spirits who embraced the wilderness — the camping types with hiking boots, and then the tourists who loaded up on tons of tax-free stuff. The former usually looked at me with envy at some point, and said something like: "You live in the great Wild West? How wonderful it must be; vast areas of untouched wilderness.” And then they would proceeded to tell me how they would cherish every single moment of their vacation. I knew how they felt. I had experienced the pangs of an unknown longing for the wild, which was brought to light one summer in my new country.
Central Europe doesn’t have any wild and untouched places left of the magnitude of United States. Smaller, densely populated countries like Holland, Belgium and Denmark have very few. The remaining wildlife may be a lone deer or a couple of squirrels on the neighbor’s roof. You can’t drive very far without seeing signs of human development and habitation.
I remembered the awe I felt when I first experienced the West Coast up close the very first summer there, on my first camping trip ever.
However, I really didn’t think I was the camping type. I liked my daily showers and my fingernails manicured. I liked to wear crisp clean clothes, and I wasn’t particularly well coordinated. I stumbled over my own furniture in the dark, and I had no idea how to set up a tent. How was I going to make it in the woods? But I went camping in Yosemite anyway with my husband. We loaded up the car with camping gear and bought food that could be easily prepared. I felt nervous; I didn’t know how I was going to deal with the dauntingly uncivilized conditions.
When we arrived in Yosemite it was already dusk, and we hurried to set up camp. Luckily it didn’t take long or it would have been too dark. I was stunned to learn about the bears. Put everything — all food, toiletries, and garbage — in a bear safe container that each site had, the signs read. That made it real for me. I was in the wilderness. Wow. This was the real deal, and to my surprise, I felt a growing excitement.
As the darkness blanketed the forest, the camp fire and the thousands of exceptionally bright stars (since there were no large cities anywhere near by) had a peculiarly hypnotic effect on me. I started to regress into a past time, long ago, when the smell of fire and the rustling noises of the forest were very familiar. I felt a growing sense of contentment.
That night I slept better than I had for a long time, breathing oxygen rich air, smelling the moss and the woods, and if the bears came, I didn’t care. I was thrilled that they still roamed the wilderness around me.
My connection to the wild deepened with each passing day. I woke up to woodpeckers and hiked for miles of unmarked trails with no people around and no traces of them having been there in the past. The exceptional beauty of the land and the expansive feeling of space and freedom were indescribable. The silence soothed me, and I felt time slow down to a different pace. I even pictured myself as a Native American Indian, sitting by my tepee and watching nature unfold in front of my very eyes. I felt that I had arrived in a place more familiar than any other. I forgot about my fingernails and the dust in my eyes. I was feeling a part of it all.