I cinched shut the pack collar, flapped the red brain over it, clipped the buckles, and tightened the straps. I hoisted the beast (a 115-liter Dana Designs Astralplane) onto one shoulder, threaded the other arm through the other strap, and buckled the hip belt. With eight days of food, a book, a satellite phone, paperwork, and a full three-season kit, a wilderness ranger’s pack is heavy.
As if that wasn’t enough, I selected from among my potential weapons the seven-pound shovel that I’d wield against boy scout poop, clogged water bars, and illegal fire rings. Then pulled my final item from the truck bed: a small guitar inside a black fabric case. I threw the strap of the case over my shoulder and let the instrument drape in front of me. It was four and a half pounds of pure extravagance on top of the 50 or so pounds I was already carrying for work and survival.
My colleagues naturally thought I was crazy. They also appeared to be gifted with some ascetic tendencies of which I was often jealous. They were content to work all day and then simply eat and sleep afterward. Physical comfort during the day would have overridden any desire they could have had to create. I carried my burden with some combination of sheepishness and pride, like some sort of secret task I had to see through. While I was envious of my fellow rangers’ ability to live simply I was also aware that I was who I was: an artist, musician, and creator. I was someone who didn’t feel content leaving experience untalked about.
I am not a guitar player, by the way. I play better than someone who has never picked one up, but that’s not saying much. Most guitar players would not recognize me as kin. This makes it seem extra strange that I was willing to add four and a half pounds to my total pack weight. But I did.
Week after week I hauled my little guitar through half-dead lodgepole and carpets of whortleberries. Crumbly white and red rock passed under it mile after mile where it swung like a slipping saddlebag from the belly of a riderless, deranged, and lost burro. Its contents could have been useful for someone, somewhere, but probably not me, probably not here. The first of the day’s clouds shuffled steadily east on an invisible conveyor belt in the sky and I hauled my burden forever onward. When it rained, I pulled a pack cover over the case and then plodded dripping under dripping trees the final miles to camp.
The Forest Service issue tent at the time was the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2, which I pitched often in dumping rain, my guitar leaning against a tree nearby. I entered backward, peeled my rainjacket off, then my boots, and fell back into the tiny dome of protection.
After pouring boiling water into the freeze-dried lasagna bag, I slipped off the sopping cover, unzipped the case, and remove the badly out-of-tune Baby Taylor. Under the steady patter and thwap of rain falling on the tent fly, I tuned the tinny instrument to itself, turning my head and leaning in close.
I searched for a chord or two or three that would fit the day, the dripping canopy of trees around me, the afternoon thunder, the steaming lakes, and the humanlessness of it all. Being alone out there. I opened my notebook to see what I wrote that day or the night before at a different but similar campsite.
I sensed the trees around me: spruce, fir, lodgepole. Sliding the capo up to the 6th fret, I strummed an A minor shape with the pad of my thumb, a D-sharp minor in that position. The trees around me were both community and individuals. Pulling my first finger off the B string, I imparted the 9th on the D-sharp minor — a sense of mystery. Letting the melody descend but land hard on the 5th, I tried to match it to something I recognized in the stone beneath me. Quartz sandstone exists in an unfathomable timescale and because it’s beyond comprehension it feels eternal, unresolved, and unresolvable.
Even though I spent 70 nights per season in the High Uintas Wilderness, I was still just visiting. I repeated the same plucking pattern and then resolved it to a C-sharp major chord. Even when I’m not present, the trees are always there battered by winds, basking in sun, and standing silently in January drifts. A rhythm developed and on the second round of D-sharp minor pull-offs, I resolved to a B-flat minor: a sense of doom settling in like fog and distant thunder among the resolute beauty of the mountains themselves. The chord paralleled the sentiment of knowing there are things one will never know.
Through this process, I began to clearly see how badly I want to be more than a visitor in the more-than-human world. Now I read in my words a yearning to be part of a community predicated on nothing but its selfsame desire to be. Today I hear in the music heavy tones that link this desire to the words.
I was lamenting my daily immersion in objects and ideas that, to me, didn’t feel real. I was saddened by being beholden to an economy, what I saw as a completely made-up idea that not only had nothing to do with the mountains but is built on ideas that might run counter to them.
Listening now, I hear myself swimming through a world founded on what I perceived as lies while looking for the truth. And I hear myself believing that the world of the Uintas — or any wilderness — is fundamentally true. The complexities of wilderness may be a different discussion for a different day. For the purposes of this essay let’s agree to see it as I saw it when I was 27.
I also hear myself trying to nearly disappear into the gestalt of the wilderness: the trees, the fog, and the big skies. As I sat in my tent, the music took over, and the billboards and bright lights of the human world faded away, the real magic started to happen. Songs slipped from my control and started to do the work for me. Before I knew it, the raven — that everywhere bird from cities to deserts to tundras — came to tell me that I was still me and always would be no matter where I might go. I was just like him. He told me that this big truth applies to everything that exists. You’ll never be anything other than what you are.
But it’s not that simple. He also functioned as the voice reminding me there was value in my attempt to fully immerse myself in the land. He validated my effort to share the desire for this attempt with others. Was it really the raven who burst into my song squawking these affirmations? Or was I telling myself what I needed to hear? In a way, it doesn’t matter. Writing the song unearthed something special.
The process is essentially a form of praise. It’s going to church, paying my respects. I’m asking the land to give me the strength to live the community values I see in it. In the mythology given to me by this particular landscape, the raven is the liaison between human and more-than-human worlds. He acknowledges both prayer and action.
The land is where all of our metaphors come from. What other world is there? It’s the source of all mythology. Raven (Knows Its Worth) is a song born of the Uintas. The landscape was the medium I used to build a narrative which I didn’t become aware of until I started singing. Stories exist out there, just waiting for someone to unearth them. Once stories are written down, put to chords, and sung, I find myself emphasizing certain parts. I accentuate particular words and draw out others. Through this practice and repetition, I learn more about myself and the place alike.
When mythology develops, I can use it as a language with less effort. Raven appears again and again, both in the trees above me as I pass alone through dense woods in the late afternoon and in subsequent songs, dying without attaining all her ultimate desires, for example. (It’s a fear we all have, and an inevitability.) I see myself coming to terms with it by letting the more-than-human world experience it in a song. For if the real world too dies still wanting — I must have reasoned deep down — it’s the truth. Through this songwriting process, I find myself accepting my own mortality more easily. I find community and camaraderie out there. I wrote the album Unresting Event and several other digital releases and hundreds of unrecorded songs using some variation of this landscape-inspired process. And I’ll probably continue doing so.
Throughout that time I worked other field jobs, so not every song on the album Unresting Event was written in the Uintas. I spent time crossing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with that same Dana Designs pack on my back. It was filled with quinoa, dried beans, dried milk, dried cheese, masa, and tuna packets. The wilderness therapy staff’s rations. That year, I got used to sleeping on a foam pad under a flat tarp strung between junipers. I felt like I was inching closer to the limits of human need.
Below the gray and pink cliffs and above the white cliffs I plodded with a large group through the piñon and juniper. High desert imagery seeped into songs like the red mud that stained my clothes and skin. Monsoons, wet sagebrush, dozed junipers, and the cows that prompted the shredding were the mediums that later became arranged into music. The landscape tells its story and I place it in a human framework so I and a listener can relate. Sometimes I let it stand on its own to question human and non-human differences.
The primary theme in the Escalante region turned out to be the same as it was in the Uintas: a desire to never have to leave. I hear myself wondering if it’s possible to learn to subsist — the ultimate form of praise. Just by learning how to sleep on a foam pad and needing no more than a 45-degree sleeping bag and a blue Wal-Mart tarp, I feel close to the possibility. Of course, I am not close. Deep down I know this. But I hope that at least I can listen well enough to be rewarded with some intimation of the mystery that’s held within the place.
The first nighthawks appeared in May, the last in September. All summer long, I came to expect them every morning and night. Nighthawks first peent, an almost feeble sound that reminds me of my desires for the unattainable things I write and sing about. Then when they dive, the wind rushes through their primary feathers, producing a roar I mistook at first for a vocal growl, but rightly grasped as a metaphor for trying.
That first May nighthawk fell roaring, snagged some invisible insect out of the air, swooped skyward again, flapped teetering into the lavender distance, and I opened my notebook and wrote:
Nighthawks at dusk came with their two calls
With the one like loss and the other like light
My site held both, neither one alone
I could make one stay make one go
I wish I had written, “one like desire and the other like trying,” for that’s what I was really getting at. But the realization is the same; I have the agency to dive for that insect. I too can try. That was the message I needed to hear at the time, so it was the metaphor I found in the world. It’s not the only metaphor, of course. But that’s the beauty of the creative process. We find truths in the world we couldn’t invent on our own and form them into roadmaps that will guide us. And that’s where this process intersects with backpacking or any nature-immersion activity. The more we’re out there, the more metaphor we come to have at our disposal.
Unresting Event is now 7 years old. I listen to it now and wish much of it was different, but overall it holds up all right. Without the band, I don’t know what it would be. During my off days in the summer of 2013 I presented the songs to my friends and through a blending of drums, bass, electric guitars, and our voices in harmony, we made them into more than the sum of their parts. Melodies take the actions of the raven or the nighthawk and plot them onto memory. The drums put them in motion. The bass anchors them to the gut. In this way, both the players and listeners of Unresting Event get to revisit the landscape and the human walking through it over and over again in a form that is pleasurable. Through this process, we don’t forget what’s out there: the source of all metaphor and the only world there is.
Credits for the musical numbers in Unresting Event go to:
- Songs, vocals, electric guitar: Ben Kilbourne
- Drums, acoustic guitar, harmonies: Matt Laser
- Bass, pump organ, harmonies: Wren Kennedy
- Recording: Jesse Ellis
- Read more by Ben Kilbourne.
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