So much of life is about managing expectations; we craft narratives in our minds which are easy to believe, but when we confront reality, we are pushed to reconsider those initial thoughts. Often when we embark on expeditions, especially those based in more remote, hard to access, regions, we expect solitude and silence, open tracks of land that hold a wilderness defined by nature, not humans. But it is in this very definition where we need to shift our fundamental thinking about nature and the wild.
The first half of our trek brought us through millet and rice fields, over creeks and rivers and eroded hillsides, and along steep pathways down into valleys. These landscapes showed us White Capped Redstart, stinging nettles, and bamboo. The second half of our trek raised us into the great Himal, testing our lungs and filling our hearts with scenes of glaciers and frost, zos and doves. We rose and fell with elevation, and moved into distinctly different zones of flora and fauna, bringing with them a change in the air, wind, and humility.
As we ambulated across the landscapes, it was not lost on us that the footpaths we moved along connect villages to villages to roads to towns to cities. For within the rhododendrons live families and under the pines work women and men whose livelihoods ebb and flow with the seasons and settings and among the boulders of the mountains walk young men carrying heavy loads upon their back for visitors hoping to see the sacred Tsho Rolpa lake. This—all of it—is the wilderness.
The wilderness is not merely a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as The Wilderness Act of 1964, passed by the US Congress, declares. The wilderness is that which is unknown to human perception. It is the interplay between boy and bird; it is the terraced fields of Simigaun; it is the questions we ask about how ice forms on window panes and why our minds change about the environment or love. Wilderness is a state of curiosity and is preserving what already exists so that for years to come it, too, can feel the heat of the day and the cold of the night.
While large areas of land unoccupied (by humans) surely exist in the world, limiting our definition of wilderness to encompass only these spaces also limits our scope of understanding the world. So, for the past few weeks we have reshifted our expectations and let the faces of the hills bring us closer to learning more about nature, about communication, about existence.
To spend time in the wilderness in Nepal means to spend time with others. When we push our bodies to new heights, especially in the outdoors, we should also push our minds. It is not inevitable that this is the likely course of action. So, as we climbed deeper into the himal, we interacted with all the parts of wilderness: children, dogs, clouds, glaciers, ourselves.
The faces of the hills, and the faces in our hearts, all occupy a wild nature that can not, and should not, be managed, and this, this is what—even after leaving Rolwaling Valley, even after leaving Nepal—we will continue to trek towards.