Recently we returned from a weeklong backpacking retreat within Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah. The experience was physically grueling yet emotionally and spiritually rewarding. Along the 25 mile round trip, I was faced with inner thoughts of doubt, concerns about logistics and group dynamics, and the sheer physical feat of having to lug a backpack the distance of 440 football field lengths. If that wasn’t enough, add in the need to prance around prickly pear, find a trail that was barely visible at times over sand banks and washes, and traverse up a 700′ crack in a sheer bluff. Why then, do I feel so restored after this experience?
The answer lies not so much in the physical characteristics of the hike, but in the ritual of the events that took place. Ritual is defined by wikipedia as the sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence. While in nature, the “sequestered place” refers to everywhere around us- the sky is literally the limit. Within this seemingly endless boundary, repeated acts are performed to ensure we have drinkable water, shelter from sun, food to eat and the all important place to sleep. Although I did not quite realize it at the time, every act of survival while in the backcountry can be defined as ritualistic, as it involves the repetition of known gestures while hiking and setting up camp.
For several years we have been taking youth into nature on field trips and overnight backpacking expeditions, and it feels like I am just beginning to grasp why these trips seem to resonate so well. During the hike, while setting up camp, when filtering water and preparing meals, the students are actively participating in a ritual event without being told they “need” to. When partaking in the basic acts of survival, ritual is a part of life and is honored for the place it takes in the day to day. Not only that, but the boundless natural world is constantly reflecting how ritual takes place in every moment: tadpoles gathered along cool banks as metamorphoses sets in, hawks soaring effortlessly on thermals rising from sandstone ridges, bats swinging out from crevices at dusk to seek food in the twilight.
While surrounded by nature, ritual is stripped from anthropomorphic pedagogy and baptised in the glow of sun that cannot be stifled by AC, in the currents of wind that are felt through the thin fabric of tent walls, and in the feeling of hands on smooth sandstone carved by millions of years of the flow of water. When ritual is understood on a natural level, the real challenge is to bring it back to the world of society and continue with due diligence the work of participating with reverence and intention, even when “survival” becomes the act of getting good grades and a decent paycheck.
Keep up the ritual!