Lessons from a Primal Desert Retreat

Last month myself and 6 other guys headed out for a 4 day tour by mountain bike of the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. I highly recommend the trip in some form if you ever get the chance or have the inclination. It’s nothing short of amazing. You can do it by car (some sketchy roads to drive a car over though ;), motorcycle, hike or bike.

Leaving our beautiful state, storm just clearing out of Moab for our arrival, snow capped La Sals in the background

As I said the trip was amazing. While we were out and after I thought a lot about the experience. There were a few things that really struck me, things that were both the best part of the trip also served to expose what I feel are some real problems we all struggle with on a day to day basis. Things that have become pretty dysfunctional for many of us on some level. The modern world is amazing and wonderful in so many ways but there are some really important ways in which I think it’s failing people – or we are failing to notice and correct our course.

I used the word “Primal” in the title of the post to insinuate that there are some things in our “hard” wiring as human beings that have fallen away, some needs and deep seeded constructs that are not being met or ceasing to exist with the creep of technology and the modern age. I think we would be wise to acknowledge them, re-visit them and re-institute them to the extent that we are able in order to reconnect and restore. To aid in reclaiming something that is ours, to become a little more whole.

Ready to roll

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Dropping In

IMG_0190The power of retreating to a natural setting, being in nature etc. is profound. It’s the experience that provides the backdrop, the inspiration and all of the noticings I’m rambling about here. I have no doubt that if we were hooked up to a dozen different monitors and scientific devices while taking a 2 hour hike through the woods we would find some interesting divergences both mentally and physiologically from our day to day existence. Again, anyone who regularly contrasts the two can attest. The natural environment has this amazing power to absorb. Shit falls away. As a regular (ideally) source of therapy and connection I think it’s invaluable. At home I normally try and get out for a ride or hike wherever I can, 1-2x week for this exact reason.

Of course this was very much my experience out in Canyonlands but on a scale that was just massive. The country out there is so massive and in a sense void, it simply swallows everything. I was pretty surprised about how virtually as soon as we got on the fire road and started descending into the canyon everything in my mind, all my BS and life dramas, were instantly gobbled up by landscape like this around every corner…


IMG_0384One night when I got up to pee, stepping outside my tent, the sky overhead was a massive dome of stars and you could see the streaks of the milky way. Standing out there in a stillness and silence that is completely impossible to describe finalized the power of that place to absorb anything and everything. I was acutely aware of how utterly insignificant I am and although that feeling can be unsettling the actual experience in the moment was totally awesome and inspiring.

Something else that I really keyed in on over the course of the trip was the simplicity of each day. For me it was a pleasure to be out there. Nevertheless, you had some basic tasks you were responsible for:

  • Getting up and getting your food, coffee, snacks for the day, water etc. prepared
  • Breaking down your camp and getting all packed up
  • Getting on the bike and riding for 3-6 hours (being physical)/keeping up with the group/driving and helping
  • Unpacking all your gear and setting up camp again
  • Getting your dinner made

I can’t tell you how much satisfaction, intuitive understanding and pleasure there is in simply accomplishing the most basic stuff. You get to “be productive” each day, make some form of communal contribution and still have plenty of time for enjoyment. It makes so much sense!

Also, even though we had some technology out there (no signal for most of the trip), the nature of the whole situation was conducive to quality interaction with the rest of your “tribe”. Because you are not always face down in whatever digital stream of trivial brain suck, you have to look “up”. Low and behold there was this great group of people to connect with and a mind blowing landscape you were a part of. Now that’s connection. It was a great balance of an amazing shared experience, a bunch of goofing off and nonsense and still plenty of alone and contemplative time if you wanted it.

It’s funny that in a world that is effectively more “connected” than ever before, I think we are also more disconnected than ever…

And that world becomes more complex every passing day. This is obviously true when considering technology but it’s hardly limited to our devices and gadgets. The flow and intake of information alone is massive by way of comparison to what it was just 20 years ago. We are being bombarded by so much input! It seems to be accelerating at a rate that most people admit they cannot keep up with or comprehend on many levels. Perhaps faster than we are, again, presently wired to keep up with?

So…taking a trip like this and returning to simplicity and some “primal” tasks can be a true blessing. Taking care of your own shit and doing what you can when you can for the group is ENOUGH. And herein lies another fundamental issue/source of angst for so many of us…

Wouldn’t you like someone to tell you that whatever it is you did or accomplished today is ENOUGH? That whoever you are, perhaps simply as a function of your relationship to your family and whatever extended community you’re a part of is ENOUGH? That you don’t need to re-define yourself each passing day and somehow accomplish an ever increasing number of myriad “amazing” things in order live up to something or someone’s crazy expectation (especially if it’s your own ;)? That you don’t have to look and be like all the doctored images and misleading representations of people and lifestyles you are flooded with EVERYWHERE you look? That YOU are good enough? Better than needing someone else to tell you, wouldn’t you like to just know it.

I mean really, hasn’t it all become absurd on so many levels?

Thus the beauty of returning to simplicity. I think it helps us remember that which we have forgotten. I know I have found a lot of relief lately in my own life realizing this concept and reminding myself of it each day. What I did, who I am, is enough.

I’ll tell you what else was totally absent while on this trip:

  • Traffic
  • Pretending your someone you’re not
  • Superficial social interactions
  • Email
  • All of the incessant and more often than not negative crazy talk and re-enactments that you insist on filling your head with day to day back at home

I suppose the absence of these things helped to provide clarity on the previous concepts, helped to quiet all that noise. And when you quiet the noise you can actually get some presence. And when you are present you can start to take your life back.