Please welcome today’s guest writer, Matt Medendorp. Matt graduated from Calvin in 2014 with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. He finished his degree in the mountains of Alaska, taking a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School where he learned intensive backcountry skills and pooped in biodegradable bags. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, sells hockey tape for a living, and is working on a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.
The backcountry is dirty, elemental, and rarely stylish. It doesn’t care how many National Park patches you’ve sewn to your favorite fleece, how great your Red Wing boots look through the VSCOcam filter, or that you’re using Dad’s old Walter Mitty Jansport.
Wilderness is not tame. It does not exist as a narrative for you to define on your own terms, or advance your own purpose.
One of my mountaineering instructors was named Mauricio, but he was called Tonto. There was something undeniably Shakespearean about this jesting nickname, knowledge labeled the fool.
He was Brazilian, a salt and pepper beard seasoned with decades of experience in the world of mountaineering. His English was broken in unexpected places, but we hardly corrected him. His words flowed melodically and sometimes poetically. The glacier route ahead was not cracked, it was crack-ED. Two separate words carrying both the thrill of adventure and warning of imminent danger.
His name was Tonto, and he spoke reverently of the mountain.
I’m not sure if it was the word choice of a limited vernacular, but he used the term ubiquitously. The mountain was both the peak looming overhead and the idealism representing an entire geographic phenomenon. But whichever he referenced, Tonto spoke of the mountain as almost a divine entity.
We were guests on the mountain. We learned that quickly. The mountain was not unkind, it was simply impartial, and we did not matter. If we disappeared into a crevasse or under an errant avalanche, the mountain would not have cared. It would have gone on as it does now, unaware that a year ago I clung to its slope.
My instructors in Alaska all carried a semblance of that humble worship. For them, the wilderness drew them in. They did not live contract to contract, spending months at a time unable to communicate with family and friends, simply to seem cooler in bars. They were dirt-bags and side-hustlers, choosing gear for effectiveness over flashiness. They eschewed popular interpretations of mountain peaks in favor of a more authentic type. They were the type of people who would journey into the wild even if they had no one to tell of the experience.
Alaska taught me a different kind of wilderness perception, a vast one I only began to comprehend. It taught me the reverence of a place that is infused with meaning, not through a shared nostalgia or a projection of values, but through a cold indifference.
We’ve built our houses, constructed our palaces of wood and glass, and we try to forget that there are places in this world where we cannot survive. We build cities, drive in air-conditioned cars, and bury our workday heads in fluorescent prisons… all while convincing ourselves that natural disasters are exceptions to the rule. Tornadoes, droughts, and forest fires are the irregularities in a world that is naturally well behaved. We are the masters of this planet, and these are just anomalies.
The backcountry reminds us that we are not our own, there is something much larger at play. It points us to a truth that we are part of a larger story, and within that holds a greater responsibility.
Because, despite all of its raw power, wilderness teeters between a dominant force upon the individual and a fragile entity to the collective. Individually we are at nature’s whim. Collectively we are tasked with stewardship and preservation. Individually we are guests. Collectively we are policy makers responsible for the rapid retreat of the glaciers, the bobbing sea trash.
When we lose this connection, we lose what it means to be part of something more important than the dopamine rush of a liked photo. When we forget there is a part of the world with power and the indifference to destroy us, we forget that the massive toll of humanity together has the power to destroy it. And our destruction goes beyond the simply the material.
We’ve commoditized the backcountry. Attempted to tame it, not actuality but in ideology. We’ve made it a product to be consumed rather than an entity that points towards God’s sovereignty. We’ve gone beyond just the mowing of the prairies and the stripping of the rainforests. We’ve attacked the very idea of the wild.
What if that’s how wilderness ends? When we forget its inherent value and stop listening to its story, we attempt to master it in control of our own narrative. Humanity has proven time and time again what we do with things that no longer serve our purpose. We discard them.
So what if that’s how it ends? Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.