Monday, December 17, 2012

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Montana

Oh God! I watched from the riverbank as Hillali, a 64-year-old woman on our trail crew, fell into the rushing waters while attempting to ford them with her pack still on. Now, she lay clutching onto a rock and flailing like an overturned turtle with the weight of her pack pulling her down. This made it nearly impossible to get upright again in the powerful current. She escaped with some help and developed a knarly pumpkin-sized bruise on her hip to show for it.

Yet, that’s what wilderness often means, and that’s why I love this place. It's not a national park, nor a state park, nor even a recreation area. Northwestern Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness is the biggest such area in the lower 48 states and also boasts the highest concentration of grizzly bears.

There are no bridges, trail markers, phone signals, or tourists. To cross a river, you roll up your pants, don some trekking poles, and hop into the biting melted-glacier-water. Sometimes waist deep. Navigating this wilderness requires a good map, solid outdoor skills, and a propensity not to freak out when you feel lost (ahem – something I'm still developing).

In the summer of 2011, I found myself living in this wilderness for a week with an ad hoc family of sorts on a trail work service trip. We drove over an hour on a dusty mountain road to our trailhead. Then we hiked 13 more miles to where we set up camp. This would constitute our home for the week.

Our tents sprawled amidst the trees surrounding the main community area, which held a primitive fire ring and makeshift kitchen. We dug our latrine a short walk from camp with a breathtaking view of the river below and a tree trunk to hug for balance. It was the loveliest place I've ever taken a dump.

Each day, the ten of us – five men and five women ranging in age from 17 to 64 – hiked straight up the steep mountain trail with daypacks and heavy tools. We returned to camp each night covered head to toe in black soot from the burnt tree trunks and with bodies stinking from a hard day’s work.

After a frigid soapless bath in the river, we tackled the evening tasks: gathering firewood, filtering water, and cooking dinner. By the time dinner was eaten and cleaned up, we had just enough energy left to sit around the flames and converse over whiskey.

I missed nothing about my "civilized" life back home. This trip reinforced my belief that humans are not meant to be domesticated. While not everyone can find joy in being covered with grime and working their muscles to the point of shaky exhaustion on a remote mountain trail, everyone has a wild place inside of them that should be heard, tended and allowed to breathe.

This adventure helped me to realize that my wildness was gradually shriveling at my 60-hour-a-week job in Washington D.C. In the summer of 2012, I headed West once again, but this time I have no intention of going back.

Melanie Cobb is a travel writer and adventurer, who seeks the wild places - on the earth, in the mind, and of the soul. You may find her loving her life in the California town of Santa Cruz. She is exceptionally skilled at playing board games, singing loudly on abandoned roads, and shaking her booty. Check out more of her writing gone wild at


  1. I always enjoy reading Melanie's musings. They remind me of the places I have been or places I want to be.

  2. Excellent post, Melanie! Just the part of the continent I'd love to see again!