Let me start by saying that I do not qualify as an expert in the field of psychology, nor do I claim to have to have the stoicism of Jerimiah Johnson, Jim Bridger, or Hugh Glass. I am writing from my experiences in an effort to pass along where I have succumbed to the weaker side of myself but expand further to understand where we can capitalize on the failure.
If we all had given into the first failure when learning to walk, feeling the weight of gravity pulling us downward, our culture would surely look different than it does today. For the sake of my imagination, I picture us as a species without thumbs, crawling on our hands and knees and communicating with a limited dialect of grunts and moans. Or perhaps if the first settlers of the new world, sailing the Atlantic, turned around in the first moment they lost sight of land, afraid of an unknown and finding comfort in complacency. The land most of us know today would look quite different.
While these exercises of thought may seem exaggerative and inapplicable to the subject at hand, they offer a comparison of failure. If our species were hard-wired to throw in the towel whenever the going became tough, I am fairly certain we would have given up a few rungs on the food chain by this point in history. In contrast, we have learned to exceed and adapt in adversity. Growth does not come while in comfort; only with stress comes a response. Yet so many in modern day America have learned to stay between the bumpers of their everyday lifestyle, becoming adversely comfortable with the routine. They wake up, groggy-eyed due to an inadequate sleep, plagued with stresses carried over from the previous day. Dressing in the same work attire as they have worn for the previous five years, they follow the same clogged highway to the office building in which they will sit, punching a keyboard for the remaining eight hours of daylight, only to return home to a sleeping family and an empty ending to yet another day. With a little bit of challenge and questioning, the routine can be broken, forcing us to face the mediocrity we have swallowed day after day.
I bring these instances to words in an effort to show a comparison to our likeliness as a society rooted in finding comfort, to break under the pressure of adversity. When I first took to the woods in the cover of darkness, bow in hand, comfort was a far cry from any feeling I was able to conjure. My knees knocked as the cab lights in my CJ-7 dimmed and the emptiness of the mountainside lay ahead. I purposefully searched for every excuse to return to the comfort of the front seat, thinking no one would be the wiser if I were to turn around, pinning the failure on an equipment malfunction. Hesitant, I slowly pulled my legs through the deep sage, unable to conjure a believable excuse to turn around. If I recall to that morning correctly, I failed miserably as defined by my original goal to reach a remote saddle prior to the sun rising. I was insecure in my ability to navigate, to extract myself if anything were to go wrong, but most importantly to depend on myself. With that initial failure, came confidence. Albeit a quick outing and without a sighting of elk, it was a determining moment in understanding the stark contrast between a fear fabricated in my head and a legitimate fear for survival. The latter providing its own lessons, while the former offering nothing but a barrier to my growth as an outdoorsman.
The line differentiating the two fears can be fine, especially to a compromised mind, distracted by the comforts awaiting a return home. When deep in the wilderness dependent on solely yourself, it is easy to irrationalize fear. The consequence will undoubtedly push you toward the trailhead and the fresh set of clothes you have stashed in the backseat. It is similar to rolling a ball of snow for the base of a snow man; you roll it down the slightest of a hill, it grows in size and picks up momentum until a point at which it’s easier to watch it roll to the bottom instead of turning it around, back uphill toward the initial build site of the charcoal-eyed man. A task as simple as your weekly chore list unfinished will metastasize to a fear of dishonoring someone you care for deeply, leaving your wife to forge her way through unpruned mess to her car each morning. Clean the slate before you leave of any dues left undone, but when the inevitable thoughts creep in, rationalize them and do not let the fear of your failure dictate your decision.
Whatever the trigger may be; physical pain, mental anguish, or a rustle in the dried oaks under the cover of darkness, you must be ready to detach from the moment, give yourself some reason and remember that you and you alone made the decision to enter into the woods. For over three quarters of the year, you have dreamed about those empty moments only to be filled by the noise of the whistling pines and occasional finch singing its tune to match along the bugling bull. Do not let yourself talk your way off of the mountain in a moment of weakness, only to live in regret until the following fall. The colloquial phrase “hind sight is 20/20” will ring between your ears until you have the opportunity for redemption. Understand failure is inevitable and do not be quick to rule yourself out of the race. We cannot judge ourselves through our failures; rather, we should give ourselves grace in the moment, applying the lessons to the next opportunity. With experience comes endurance and with endurance comes success. There is no magic pill for wordsmanship, just as there is not for hunting with a traditional stick and string deep in the backcountry; embrace the challenge you have chosen.