Blissfully Lost in the Woods

ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, Ore.

ACTUALLY, that dateline isn’t quite right. It shouldn’t be “on” the Pacific Crest Trail, because my daughter and I drifted off the trail. We ended up completely lost in a wilderness of snow, mountains and forests.

No phones. No e-mail. No work. A perfect father-daughter bonding experience.

The adventures began after my 14-year-old daughter and I started out on a 200-mile backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail this month. Ultralight backpacking is one of my family’s summer rituals, but this time we ran into an unusually high snowpack for July.

For the first 50 miles we managed to bound over five-foot snowdrifts and stay on the trail. Then we hit higher elevations in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and later the Mount Jefferson Wilderness: the trail completely disappeared under many feet of snow that lasted for miles.

We gave up on the trail and followed map and compass. Once, we were delighted to find footprints that we eagerly followed. Then the footprints became more distinct and we realized that they had toes. And claws.

“Dad, I think that’s a bear you’re following.”

So we returned to map and compass, scrambling up steep ridges and tumbling down snowy slopes, bounding across vast fields of boulders and lava, and finding patches of bare ground to camp on when darkness fell.

For much of the way, we were mauled by the most bloodthirsty brutes of the American wilderness — not grizzly bears, but mosquitoes. My daughter had DEET repellent and a head net, but neither helped much.

“Look, Dad! I just counted! I have 49 mosquito bites on my forehead alone!”

This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests.

In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable.

In our modern society, we have structured the world to obey us; we can often use a keyboard or remote to alter our surroundings. Yet all this gadgetry focused on our comfort doesn’t always leave us more content or grounded. It is striking how often people who are feeling bewildered or troubled seek remedy in the wilderness. That’s the point of the best-selling new book “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, about how she escaped from heroin and grief over her mother’s death by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

“Wild” is a terrific yarn, opening with a moment in which Strayed loses one precious hiking boot over a precipice — and then angrily hurls the other after it. Over time, the forests tame her, providing free therapy and the setting for her maturation. Strayed’s book has been successful, largely by word of mouth, partly because it reflects a truth we recognize.

For decades, youth programs have found benefit in sending troubled adolescents to drink from wilderness streams and lap up truths about themselves. Outward Bound takes a similar path, for everyone from at-risk kids to returning veterans to corporate executives.

Perhaps wilderness is an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption. It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once. It’s a window into a world larger than ourselves, one that doesn’t respond to a remote. It’s an Olympiad for all of us.

Yet, increasingly, it’s for only a tiny minority of us. Getting lost in the wild used to be routine for generations raised on hunting and fishing, yet those pastimes are becoming less common. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006. In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.

Likewise, the number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.

Look, trudging uphill through mosquito swarms isn’t for everyone. But unplugging long enough to encounter nature is less scary and more fortifying than people may expect. My daughter and I were never in any danger and eventually muddled through all 200 miles of our hike. After 10 exhausting, exhilarating days, we emerged from the woods — and my daughter was promptly telling her brothers tales of snow and misadventure that had them yearning for frostbite.

To guarantee wilderness in the long run, we first need to ensure a constituency for it. Environmentalists focus on preserving wilderness, because that’s the immediate priority, but they perhaps should be as energetic at getting young people to interact with it. We need more Americans working through their challenges, like Cheryl Strayed, by hurling boots off precipices. We need more schools and universities to offer classes on the wild, in the wild — with extra credit for students who get lost.