The following excerpt is from Alden Jones’s hybrid literary criticism/ memoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness, which will be released by Fiction Advocate in August 2020. In her book, Jones originally set out to examine Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, but then began to look at herself and her own experiences in the wilderness. The result is something new and evocative, a synergistic celebration of autobiography, creative process, and nature. Never maudlin, the work remains tender, incisive, and revealing. This section centers on Jones’s self-exploration.
Melissa had spent a year at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, which I’d heard made my liberal Ivy League university seem downright Republican in comparison, but she wasn’t going back. She wasn’t sure where she’d land. That was where most of us were when we arrived at base camp: unsure of our next steps and hoping the wilderness could teach us something that would help secure our footing. Melissa had just come off following the Grateful Dead with her sister and, for the final two weeks, a boy named Edward she’d fallen in love with at one of the shows. After spending those two weeks with Edward she’d decided to make a life with him. (My private assessment upon learning this: questionable relationship judgment.) They planned to meet up a few months after Outward Bound and travel together in Central America. Melissa knew all about camping and outdoor cooking and sleeping outside and spending days on end unshowered. She was quick to volunteer for tasks, and, though she was the smallest member of the crew, she always carried more weight than anyone else.
When I watched Melissa effortlessly stake a tarp while I fumbled with the metal bars, I felt a combination of alienation, envy, and admiration. Obviously, we could not be friends. Her social life around the Grateful Dead was enough to thwart that possibility. A friend had pressed me to listen to their music once, and I’d sincerely given it a chance, but concluded that nothing about the music, the social milieu, or the aesthetic offered even the tiniest draw. It wasn’t a value judgment. I preferred synth-pop and club music in the vein of Deee-Lite and was aware that didn’t place me in any category of superior taste. I just perceived no entrance into that crowd. When I pictured myself at a Dead show, I was sober, arms crossed, grossly out of place in my platform clogs and dark lipstick, grimacing with confusion at all the tripping, swirling kids with their easy smiles. Too easy.
But maybe that was the problem. People like Melissa knew how to be happy in a simple way and I didn’t have it in me. Everything that made me happy involved intensity. I felt most joyful when I was in love, on a dark dance floor, traveling somewhere unfamiliar, having immersive conversations in an academic context, singing in rehearsal/performance settings, and deep into a difficult book. Once Melissa called me over, saying, “I want you to hear something.” She’d heard a dog barking in the distance. “Listen to the echo the barking is making,” she said, blissed out by this simple sound and wanting me to share it with her. Why couldn’t I appreciate life in this way, I wondered, straining to enjoy the sound of the echo while my mind spun a wild and messy narrative about my inability to enjoy the simple things in life.
Melissa’s wilderness know-how and gutsy attitude also pushed my ignorance and incapability into relief. I didn’t want to spend too much time near that. But at the same time, I wanted some of what she had.
I wouldn’t be friends with Melissa.
But what would it be like to be like Melissa?
It didn’t take long for Peter and me to establish a routine of sleeping next to each other under the tarp, him opening his arm for me to snuggle into, breathing in each other’s faces as we fell asleep. Though we would never have discovered each other in the real world, I adored Peter and I enjoyed his attention. I fell in with the extroverts because they were fun.
But they were also attached to the world I’d started to leave behind. They made, and laughed at, wife-beating jokes; they uttered “what a faggot” as if it were punctuation. I responded with stories of New York, of social and sexual deviance. I was deliberately trying to alienate them yet felt hurt when some of them started pulling away from me when I did.
John, at first, always arrived at my side to help me when it was my turn to set up the tarp. But when I told a story about a party at Tavern on the Green I’d gone to over the summer with my friend Margaret—we made it past the velvet rope, and there was Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite, surrounded by the most glamorous drag queens!—and that led to a story of me dressing up my friend David in my clothes and makeup for an LGBA dance, both John and Brandon stared at me like I was an unfamiliar creature, something alien and untrustworthy. John was slower to return my smiles after that. After I was outed during a dry game of I Never as someone who’d “kissed, or messed around, or anything with someone of the same sex,” John frankly avoided me.
I could not have it both ways. The day after I Never, I wrote in my journal: “I let too much hang out last night.” Then I wrote: “I feel trapped.” What did I want? To be considered likeable by everyone, or to be free? I didn’t want to have to choose. But I would have to choose.
Melissa, throughout this, was unflappable. An unflappable hippie who believed in love and acceptance and honesty and kindness. She neither blinked at Ellen when she said “what a faggot” nor at me when stories of “my gay friends” inched closer to what I really wanted to say. She did not tell people how to be. I kept my eye on Melissa as I zigzagged through the highs and lows of the first month, the ease with which she used her body and the comfort she had with her body, and the suspicion that she was probably the only person in the immense expanse of forest I now inhabited that I could be truthful with.
Our final expedition of Month One was disastrous. Robin and Eliot must have used a secret satellite phone to call base camp and tell them we had strayed off course and would arrive days late. It rained and rained and rained. Our rain gear began to emit a foul smell that Robin likened to cat pee. We began rationing food and flashlight batteries and hoarding strike-anywhere matches. The mood plummeted.
Rest periods shrank so they were just long enough to chew food and chug water. Even Melissa’s face went sour. A rift formed between the boys, who would have been more than happy to sacrifice the slower members of the group in order to finish the expedition, and the girls, who were tired of being barked at to pick up the pace as if we weren’t at our limit. John glared and snapped at everyone except Andrea and Brandon. Ellen exclaimed “everybody smells like ass!” Caitlin muttered under her breath. Jake assumed Caitlin was muttering about him and exploded on her in rage. Caitlin cried. I made vaguely accusatory statements about the abuse of male power. Peter and I did not even consider cuddling. Ahead of us on the trail, someone yelled “BEES!” Brandon turned around and waited for me to run the other way, but I was too tired, so I just stood there and looked and him, like, yeah?I could handle bee stings; I could not handle running. Brandon was terrified of bees, as if we all hadn’t been stung twenty or thirty times by now. “What are you doing? They said BEES!” He shoved me aside, hard, leaving me suspended in the rhododendrons. I sagged into the mesh of branches and cried. Andrea and Caitlin brought me an orange and pulled me upright by my pack straps, coaxing me back onto the trail.
“I’m so weak,” I moaned. I moaned a lot about being weak. It was kind of my thing during Month One. I moaned about the unfairness of biology. When would the world bend around my idea of fairness? I would stay mad until it did. I complained, complained.
Was the wilderness beautiful? Was the AT majestic and inspiring? It probably was, but most of the time our eyes were on our boots on the dirt, the pack moving in front of us. When we summited a peak with an expansive view of the mountains, we huffed and paused, muttered “pretty,” and walked on.
The military issue maps, our leaders finally revealed to us, were fifty years old. A spot that marked an orchard—a crosshatched section of white and green we’d never encountered on the map before—was assumed to be some kind of semi-clearing. But the orchard had since overgrown, and now presented as regular uncleared forest. Navigating without this information, we wound up on a peak way above where we needed to be. We broke for snack and then packed up to set off in the wrong direction when Eliot and Robin finally relented.
“We are actually only a few hundred feet from our destination,” Eliot said. “It’s right down there.”
Eliot decoded the map for us. He pointed down a slick, unwalkable slope overgrown with poison ivy. No discussion was required: we abandoned the trail, sat down on our packs and began sliding down the slope. We arrived at the end point with ripped and filthy clothes, covered in scratches and plastered with dirt. Poison ivy rashes blossomed on our arms and legs the next day. But we were done.
We did not feel triumphant. We had achieved the physical goal. But the lessons we were supposed to internalize were absent in the wake of the bickering and blame and aggravation. I felt no closer to self-reliance or self-understanding, and now my relationships in the crew were fraught, some of them maybe even broken.
As I dipped my dirt-smeared clothes into the river, I recognized with utter clarity that frustration, the dominant emotion of the moment, was not what I came here for. Something was going to have to shift. And I would have to be the person who shifted it.
I also knew that I had accomplished physical feats that I had never attempted before. I wasstronger than I’d known. The metaphor had not reached its full development—I still didn’t see how meeting physical challenges made me a better person or more psychologically calm or together. But two months in the wilderness remained. I acknowledged possibility.
Downriver, Melissa squatted in the shallows, naked in defiance of Outward Bound rules. Melissa disdained the “no nudity” guideline. It was the only rule she broke. (So far.) She bent forward and rinsed out her hair. She didn’t seem to mind that the water was cold. She didn’t care if someone might see her. Maybe she even knew I was there. I watched her with great interest. I stripped down to my sports bra and my ex-boyfriend’s lacrosse shorts. I entered the stream.
At the end of Month One we broke for three days. I flew home to New Jersey and hung out with my mom and ate all of my favorite foods and soaked in a very clean bathtub for a very long time. I called friends and got caught up on their normal lives. I flew back to North Carolina. When I arrived at base camp, I walked directly to the spot where Melissa was tending the trail. It was our responsibility to leave the trail and camp better than we found it. I reached for a shovel.
“Hi,” I said, and dug with her.
I told Melissa about H. About the other girls. I told her everything. She talked about her love for Edward. She said no one left Evergreen straight. She’d thought about women, too, abstractly. We talked for an hour. She told me I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. I believed her. Month Two was going to be a different kind of month.
Melissa unrolled her sleeping bag next to mine that night. When I woke in the morning light, I found her staring at me. “I had a dream about you,” she said. The nerve switch silently flipped. Now it was just a matter of when.
The official publication date for The Wanting Was a Wilderness is August 25, but it is now available for purchase (and immediate shipping) via Fiction Advocate.