The Call of the Wild: A Wilderness Retreat

How best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard found her inspiration under a starry sky on a grueling eight-day trek into the high desert.

By Jacquelyn Mitchard

Ill-Prepared for the Journey

I lay shivering in my sleeping bag, which, it turned out, was rated not warm enough for the bitter cold of spring in the high desert. My feet ached because although I had bought hiking boots, I had not taken the time to break them in. I had worked until the moment I got onto the plane, and it had never crossed my mind that I was going someplace in which I would need serious protection from the elements. I had assumed that my guides, Lorri and Danielle, would be carrying my tent, but there was no tent. How had I gotten into this?

The summer before, the third of our seven children, Marty, then 15, had walked triumphantly out of the northern Minnesota woods after six weeks of extreme paddling, rock climbing, and writing. Streaked with grime and wearing clothes so torn and filthy they would have to be pitched that night, our once-chubby son had emerged lean, tanned, proud — and changed. "I’m not going to be Joey-Bag-a-Doughnuts anymore," he said of our nickname for him. "That’s over."

He had been on a Soltreks trip, a wilderness therapy program that Lorri Hanna and her husband, Doug Sabo, had founded for teenagers. Soltreks flipped the formula used by most Outward Bound-type regimens so the emotional work was paramount and the physical challenge was the key to that. Having expanded Soltreks to include families and couples, Lorri recently added treks for women in midlife too. After Marty’s adventure, as we headed down the trail to our car, he said, "You need this, Ma." Then he smiled and tousled my hair. "But you’ll never do it. You couldn’t live through it."

At that moment, there was more preventing me from a therapeutic adventure than a shortage of time: I had no faith in midlife reversals. When friends trilled to me about the peace they had achieved through yoga or sweat lodges, I truly believed they were fooling themselves, extolling the virtues of each effort to justify the money they had spent.

Nevertheless, one early April morning nine months later — a morning so bright the trees looked backlit by movie spots — I was at a trailhead in the Gila National Forest, in New Mexico. Lorri put me to work right away "building" my pack. Having left the gathering of supplies until the day before — as I did before every business trip — I was, I quickly saw, ill prepared. My socks were too light and too few. My exercise clothes and fleece pullover were no match for the high-desert weather. Although I hoped for a little pity and perhaps some supplemental gear, Lorri and Danielle simply took away the one thing I really cherished, my crushable foam pillow, and gave me pots, bags of dried food, a plastic ground sheet, cooking utensils, lengths of rope, and a tarp. "Push everything down as far as you can," Lorri instructed. When I finished, she raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips and shook everything down, opening up another full square foot of space. Into that I put Dromedary bags of water, two journals, a headlamp and pens, a first-aid kit and my sleeping bag. The full pack, nearly the thickness and weight of a bale of wet hay, sat on the ground in front of me, a reprimand. I struggled to hike it onto my shoulders. Lorri and Danielle, meanwhile, whose packs weighed 50 pounds, at least 10 pounds more than my own, seemed able to toss theirs into the air and catch them.

Finally, with me unsteadily adjusting to the weight, leaning forward into the trudge of a pack animal, we began to hike. One hundred feet down the trail, Lorri said, "So what’s blocking you from being happy?"

"Nothing," I said. Why would I be unhappy? I had a beautiful family. I wrote best-selling novels. I had my health. Anger spiked in me like a fever. Lorri and Danielle were behaving just as kindly wilderness goddesses should: tender and supportive. But at 46, with legs sculpted by hours on the trail, Lorri looked 30, and I’d seen her and Doug together, radiating mutual respect and contentment. Danielle, meanwhile, a skier and climber, really was about 30. What did they really think of my thick thighs, my lap of belly, my bad back and dumb doubts? I mumbled something to Lorri and Danielle about needing more time to think and waddled down the trail in their wake.

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