I just returned from a 6 day ‘Executive Leadership Expedition,’ sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School into the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. I was one of fourteen middle aged adults, making a significant commitment to ‘unplug’ from friends, families and communities, and leave civilization for a short while to join others on an expedition into the mountains.
We unplugged from cell phones, email accounts, Ipods, and the 24 hour news cycle, in order to plug in to ‘something else’ in the back-country.
That ‘something else’ was a little bit different for each of us. We were a diverse group of men and women, with an average age of 50, from a very diverse set of successful careers, ranging from international oil executive, to college professor, to cattleman, to defense contractor. Previous experience in the outdoors ranged from a lifetime of hunting and fishing, to some with little experience in the outdoors since being girl or boy scouts, decades ago.
We all had at least one thing in common: Each of us had chosen to step out of more or less comfortable front-country routines, to enter an unknown mountain wilderness with people we didn’t know. But it was done wisely – with experienced ‘instructors’ as guides to help us manage risk and be safe, to teach the fundamentals of living well in the outdoors, and to minimize our impact on the wilderness during our brief visit. And we had six llamas to help carry our gear, making the expedition accessible to those for whom years of comfortable front-country living may have made a heavy pack a significant impediment to joining the expedition.
Our mission was to plug in to the mountains and the wilderness, and to each other – for just a few days.
As we worked together to survive and thrive in an austere environment, we plugged in to each other more quickly and more profoundly than is common in front-country living. We were together 24 hours a day. We lived simply. We hiked, cooked, and tented together. We climbed high mountain passes, and caught and ate trout together. We became more organized in managing our personal and group gear. We compromised to accommodate each other’s idiosyncrasies. We were competent and incompetent together, and we laughed a lot. We were frustrated (and occasionally grouchy) together when we got lost in challenging terrain. We cheered each other on as we met and overcame fears and new challenges. We took care of each other. We took care of the llamas together. We shared wonder. In some small way, each of us became better together.
We often began and ended our days with a short poetry reading, and the effect was sometimes powerful, and surprising. Behind our sunglasses, many of us quietly teared up when particular passages spoke powerfully to us.
One retired military veteran in the group, with ground combat experience in several conflicts, asked, “What is it about this place that makes the tears come so easily? Is it the altitude?”
Choosing to step away from civilization and immerse oneself in the wilderness and mountains can have a powerful effect. In the front-country, our practical lives often become (at least in our minds) separate from our spiritual lives. In the wilderness, with the lakes, mountains, and trees all around us, and the night sky so full of stars we can barely believe it, the line between the practical and the spiritual becomes blurred. The connection between what we do, and who we are in the greater scheme of things, is easier to experience. In the wilderness, we can plug in to parts of ourselves that we often don’t have time to experience in the front-country – we’re usually too busy taking care of details to truly experience our connection with the ‘big picture’ and each other.
When after 6 days, it was time to leave the mountains, we indeed looked forward to showers, clean clothes, and the comforts of civilization. But we also experienced a sort of re-entry shock, as we left the quiet simplicity of living together in the wilderness, and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by buildings and busy people, a hub-bub of activity, and a schedule of meetings and other obligations. Our smart phones and email accounts impatiently demanded our attention.
We were no longer ‘unplugged.’
But we vowed to each other to at least try to stay plugged in to what we had experienced in our brief visit to the Wind River Mountains. And that remains our challenge as we re-immerse ourselves into busy lives as front-country leaders: to hold on, in some small way, to that connection to the mountains, the trees, the stars, and the wonderful sense of communion we felt, not only with nature, but also with each other.