Fifteen year-olds scare me to death. I’ve never been cool, and 15 was when my nerdiness fleshed out in all its glorious fullness. And now, the great karmic card dealer has dealt me this hand: I’ll be living with a whole posse of them in the Tetons for the next three weeks.
I’m used to guiding grown-ups, teaching adults how to travel through wild places, climb remote peaks, and go poo in the woods. Adults are comfortable and easy—they are, well, just like me in a lot of ways. But I’m a guide, which means most adults are quick to point out that I am, well, just like these 15-year-olds in a lot of ways.
[Hearing simple, somewhere in Wyoming. Photo: localcrew]
This crew—all boys—is LOUD; all loud voices, noisy bodies, clamorous movements. They come from loud places where they have to struggle to hear and to be heard. For the first week, they are the shameful dinner guests. Beneath towering limestone cliffs and vaulting granite peaks, along rushing creeks, through fields thick with waving grasses and wildflowers, and beneath the daily altar of thunderstorms, I lead the loud and awkward. On the threshold of yet another sweeping valley of meadow and rock, I humbly beg pardon of the silence that has fled before their wall of sound.
But then there’s Jack. I don’t hear much from him. His sounds—or lack of them—say a lot. This is what I hear from him: In times of toil, his breath. In lightness, his giggle. In grandeur, his silence. In hardship, his encouragement and silly jokes.
I stay outside of their circle—the old guy who doles out advice, corrections, and bad jokes. Then, one day, leading the pack on our ascent of a remote peak in the Tetons, Jack guides us into a small sea of ripe wild fruit. Leaves like large, green, luminous plates shroud dense, luscious clusters of fat, wild huckleberries. Waist deep and wading through this abundance, Jack turns a glance over his shoulder, and with a quick, empurpled smile states simply, “God loves us.” I’m not religious, but I feel a current moving in his words: he knows already the blessings of wild places.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to hear something else from Jack on our last night in the wilderness. We circled ourselves to share stories of our climbing, our travel, our fresh caught wild trout, when it occurred to me that these young men were about to return to a world ill-equipped to deal with their noisy bodies. Hormones, energy, potential, ideas . . . all clamouring to life inside of them. Soon to be in the midst of this din, I needed, suddenly, for them to know the texture of a wild silence.
I tell them: “Close your eyes. Keep them closed. We’re going to stay this way for one full minute. NO fidgeting! Get comfortable. And listen. See with your ears for the next minute.”
One minute passes. Two. Their faces, more than anything, hold this silence. Not a stir, not a whisper, not a wavering eyelash. Five precious minutes pass, and finally my voice—guilty—shatters the cusp of wild sounds.
“What did you hear?”
Creek. Trout leap. Rustle of leaves. Elk bugle. Screech of hawk.
The circle comes ‘round. It’s Jack’s turn.
In the midst of these yet-unfolding sounds, Jack closes his eyes again to find his own.
“Simple,” Jack says. “I hear simple.”
He opens his eyes again and smiles, the stain of wild huckleberries on his teeth.