The whole family and I decided to take a four day camping and rock climbing trip to Jackson Falls in southern Illinois. Now I would venture that aesthetic camping and rock climbing are not the first things you would think of when picturing Illinois. I was also skeptical a few years back when a friend first told me about this remote and beautiful climbing crag. However, Jackson Falls, located in the Shawnee National Forest is a wilderness gem and will not disappoint the sport climber or the lover of wild and remote places.
The road into the climbing crag and adjacent primitive camping area is horrendous and certainly lends to the remoteness of our destination. You have to drive through no fewer than three streams and endless potholes to arrive at our campsite. We own a truck, but favoring gas conservation over off-road capabilities, we chose to take my wife’s Pontiac Vibe (although the car made it through in one piece we were forced to drive the entire trip home in third gear due to transmission issues, next time we’ll choose the truck). Several miles past the last signs of human habitation we arrived at the primitive camp-site that we have used on previous visits. The site sits in a forest of mature red-pine and cedar. The fire-pit, made from bright red sandstone and the brown pine needles covering the forest floor contrast sharply with the green of overhead trees. A fast and turbulent stream borders the camp, which is convenient for our water needs. Getting out of the car I had an overwhelming feeling of homecoming. I felt as if I had arrived back to the place of my childhood, a place safe and soothingly familiar. Without having expressed my own thoughts my daughter Audrey jumped out of the car and yells “home at last”.
I believe a good deal of what makes a home a home is the familiarity and comfort one finds within. As a person who
has spent a fair amount of my life in a wilderness setting I have become familiar with many of its characteristics. Whether in the boreal forest of Canada or our camp in Jackson Falls the pleasant sound of water racing and crashing over stones is like a massage for a cramped mind. I can think of no better melody to spend a peaceful night sleeping to. From our campsite I can hear the roar of the small stream tumbling over the falls a few hundred feet distant. I also hear the wind blowing across the tops of forest trees, changing in intensity and pitch as gusts come and go. It is spring and the sounds of bird song and frog chorus permeates the air especially at dawn. Could there be a lovelier wake up call? Then there is the great silence that makes hearing all of these sounds possible, the vacuum left behind when you remove all human noise: the chattering of voices, the hum of traffic, the roar of planes and trains. This silence is rare and extremely difficult to find. Even in our homes these sounds penetrate thick walls.
Comforting smells also fill the air and nothing triggers the memory with images of times past more than a familiar scent. The mixed pine and cedar forest has a vibrant and fresh aroma. Spring itself has a distinct smell that is somewhat hard to describe. It is a mixture of moisture, earth and life that is unique to April. In this world of familiarity I feel safe and at ease. A place designed for me to relax and find joy.
Like a home made from brick or boards, the wilderness offers a sanctuary from the rest of the world and an opportunity to disconnect. In the wilderness you lose cell phone reception, computer accessibility and are cut-off from society. Some people are terrified by this thought. For me it is a unique opportunity to escape from the stress of my everyday life and I find peace in being inaccessible. I am lost to society and have no desire being found. Returning to my wilderness home I am far more isolated than when I close the door of my log home, where I can still be reached and burdened. No doorbell to answer, no emails to respond to, no incessant ringing phone. Even after a few hours in the wilderness, parasitic thoughts that might have plagued my mind for months begin to float away. My problems in society and my role there are irrelevant deep in the wilderness where food, shelter and warmth become my only concerns. Over time many perceived problems that seemed so overwhelming to me in my rural home become amusing and trivial. I have had the opportunity to spend multiple weeks in wilderness settings and at the end of this time I have always found myself with a clear mind and nearly care free, almost bliss. How quickly the simplicity of survival overtakes and cures the obsession of thought and worry. Is this the way it’s supposed to be?
Beyond my personal life experiences, I believe there is a more primitive and instinctual aspect to this sense of “home coming”, a possible explanation for my city-raised daughter’s affinity for wilderness and her natural tendency to refer to our camp as home. Our ancestors lived in wilderness settings for hundreds of thousands of years. We evolved into modern humans in an environment dominated by silence and simplicity. Our genome has changed very little in the relative eye blink since the dawn of civilization and even less since the industrial revolution. The modern world we have created with its noise, walls, and distractions is very different than the environment our species is adapted for. Our heritage doesn’t match our environment and I don’t doubt it is a constant stress to our well being. Humans can be compared to lions raised in captivity, our cages being our homes, offices, and automobiles. I imagine a lion released into the African savanna would feel an instinctual sense of being freed and at home. I don’t suppose I am much different from that lion except that my cage is of my own choosing. Freed from my artificial habitat I feel a sense of peace, relief and belonging. What brings me back to society? Mostly family and friends, but I have to admit that I am addicted to its comforts and familiarity.
I’m afraid only a handful of those who may read this can relate to the experiences of which I write. Most Americans will die without ever having a true wilderness experience; a day or two without any signs of civilization and its noise and clutter. Unfortunately, there are very few places left in the entire continent to do this. I have only found a couple: the Canadian and Minnesota boundary waters and some of the deserts and mountains of the west. Jackson Falls is semi-wilderness but you still come across a few cars and on peak weekends quite a few climbers inhabit the crags. If you haven’t tried wilderness camping and the thought appeals to you, I urge you to give it a try. You may just feel a bit more at home than you were anticipating and it offers a great escape from the stress of daily life.