By Ethan Maurice | October 17th, 2018
From September 21st to 25th I hosted WONDER WANDER 2018, a gathering of adventurous and creative humans at The Range Rider's Lodge—the stunning, old log-cabin lodge I run in the summertime a mile outside Yellowstone National Park.
Never have I hosted such an event before, I had no notions of how it would turn out or who would turn up. What transpired was different, and better, than I ever imagined.
Why Host WONDER WANDER 2018?
In all my wondering and wandering the past five years, I've happened upon more than a handful of realizations.
One was that, though I do enjoy the periodic solo jaunt, I always turn back to people. Life without others lacks connection, comradery, and meaning. From a couple dark nights camping alone, to a particular week-long solo bicycle tour around Arizona, to six months living out of my Honda Element, time spent a bit too far out there and alone has repeatedly shown me that life is best shared.
Spurred by these lonesome lessons, WONDER WANDER 2018 was an attempt to bring together a tribe to share some of the most powerful, life-affirming experiences I know how to have. Wandering mountainous wilderness and deep, revealing conversations in which what we say is what we're actually thinking are two of my favorite things in life. A gathering based (and named) around those ideas seemed obvious and to the point.
But why go to the trouble of creating WONDER WANDER 2018? Because it was the quintessential experience I would have loved to have, but as far as I knew, didn't exist. I already managed the perfect space for hosting such a gathering, in an otherworldly location (the bottom of a glacially carved valley a mile outside Yellowstone National Park). Why not invite a bunch of other adventurous, creative humans to join?
What was WONDER WANDER 2018 Like?
WONDER WANDER 2018 was like your favorite day at summer camp, a drink with a long lost friend, and a backstage pass to a TED Talk event—rolled into one.
Of fifteen wonder wanderers, I'd only met two face-to-face beforehand and was unsure what to expect. The ideas of “wondering” and “wandering” turned out to be the perfect participant filters, attracting my kind of people and probably repelling those less open to such lofty ideas. This also brought people together from a full spectrum of backgrounds—our focuses including french literature, geology, audio-technology, videography, writing, music, information technology, business, yoga, meditation, and education.
In the final days before our gathering, waves of anxiety about ever-evolving weather forecasts, leading strangers through this experience, and other unfounded worries had me a little on edge. Then, the day that long dominated my horizon arrived.
The last guests of the lodge left the morning WONDER WANDER 2018 was to start. I spent the morning and afternoon restlessly putting the final touches on a million little things.
It began when I heard the crunch of loose gravel. Patricia, my dad’s cousin, world-traveler, and professor of geology at Notre Dame, pulled into a parking spot in front of the lodge. In a state of surreal excitement, I welcomed everyone over the next four hours.
Next thing I knew, we are all sitting down for dinner. I looked to my right and left, down a long banquet-style table at all the faces that composed the applications I'd harped over months ago. Here we were in real life. I think we were all a bit nervous, but everyone wore smiles and anticipation. I held up my mug of tea and said cheers to a wonderful four days to come.
After dinner, I gave a welcome presentation and Patricia gave a talk about Yellowstone, its geology, and how visiting this place as an undergraduate student was the turning point of her life. Everyone was exhausted from traveling and while I would have liked to get deeper into introductions, we called it a night to catch some sleep, as we were getting up early.
We were up before the sun rose. In Yellowstone's Lamar Valley, we lucked out almost instantly, sighting three wolves (the amateur wolf-watchers trick is simply to find people parked along the road with spotting scopes and ask what they're looking at). Following wolf watching, we spent three hours in a relaxing, conversational soak in the outpourings of the Boiling River. The remainder of the day was set aside for exploring Yellowstone's geological features in groups of three or four per car. For me, the drive between sites might have been the best part, brimming with deep, meaningful conversation.
After dinner at the lodge, we sauntered up the street among sunset painted peaks to Dan and Cindy Hartman's place. Dan's a naturalist, wildlife photographer, and spends more time with Yellowstone country wildlife than almost anyone around. In the living room of their home, Dan regaled us with stories of his wildest animal encounters, remarkable film clips, and a strong dose of inspiration. Dan and Cindy's story of building a life doing what they love in the wildest of places is soul-stirring (from years of struggling to sell photographs to stay afloat to hosting nearly two hundred talks a year and filming Planet Earth and Netflix Specials in their front yard).
What was planned to be a brief talk rolled on for two and a half hours. Increasingly curious about his wide spectrum of an audience, Dan eventually asked “What are you guys doing?” of our group and then of each individual that composed it. The evening ended with a discussion of dreams and Dan's hard-earned belief that those who want them most are the ones who get them.
Day three was “EPIC HIKE DAY” as written on the whiteboard bearing our schedule. I led seven wonder wanderers up Mineral Mountain, a steep, trail-less peak right out the back door of the lodge. The other group drove three miles up the road to Republic Creek Trail, a picturesque jaunt through lush pine forests to the back wall of a valley where the trail switchbacks the remainder of the way up to Republic Pass.
I've wandered this mountain valley for three summers now and forgot how intense my first encounter with scrambling up near vertical fields of loose rock was. I think it's safe to say everyone who came with me was challenged by the experience. Even Peter, an avid marathon runner I met biking across the USA five years ago who reached the top an hour before the rest of us but nearly became stuck following a different route through a drainage back down. It was this day that I learned how comfortable and skilled I've actually become at navigating alpine terrain the past three summers.
In the evening, designated WONDER WANDER 2018 photographer and videographer Christopher Bellizzi played a short reel from his recent nine-month journey across thirteen countries and led a long, insightful discussion on the nature of travel.
We left the lodge at 6:20am in three cars bound for the top of Beartooth Pass for sunrise. The underside of the clouds were literally red, the sun squeezed between their bottom and the horizon, as we wound our way up to the top of the pass. Perhaps we should have left ten minutes earlier. But still, at nearly 11,000ft in elevation with a fresh dusting of snow, the remainder of the moment was bitter cold and unbelievable beauty.
Fog rolled overhead and clung to the mountains as we descended back into the valley. After a communal breakfast, our group set down to write out answers to eleven heavy, causal sorts of questions about ourselves and broke into small group discussions about them. This might have been my favorite activity our entire time together.
After, we took a couple hours to reset ourselves. With snow falling outside, many went for a walk in the woods. I joined a couple others in our creek-side sauna and one of the most surreal experiences to be had in Silver Gate: jumping into the near-freezing creek while it’s snowing after cooking oneself in the sauna.
Our final evening began with a profound hour of yoga and meditation that created this serene awe that carried throughout dinner. Then, musician and DJ Matthew Hahn took center stage for the night. He explained how he makes music, made a song on the spot with us, and then broke out his DJ set and turntables for what I'd guess to be a three-hour set.
With the lights off and beer to finish, we drank and danced and laughed late into the night, for in the morning the friends we'd forged over the past four days would scatter far and wide, back home, from Hawaii to New York.
What I Learned from WONDER WANDER 2018
There's something unexpected and special on the other side of fear. It's a lesson I've learned again and again that I often forget in my darkest moments of doubt: that fear is the needle of your heart's compass. It gathers around the ambitions we care most about.
More work goes into a gathering than I expected. It's all worth it. The amount of time it took to bring together WONDER WANDER 2018 was, at a minimum, double what I anticipated. There was a low point a month before our gathering when three participants backed out the same week and I wondered if it was worth the effort. It unquestionably was.
Wondering and wandering are things that attract my kind of people. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of WONDER WANDER 2018 was the quality of people it attracted. To meet a dozen people you hope to be friends with the rest of your life, in the same day, was a weird, wonderful experience.
Strangers become fast friends in intentional immersion. When people come together with the intention of sharing the depths of themselves with others—without the usual prerequisite of first discovering that another is worth being vulnerable with—bonds form fast.
The more I get out of my way, the better. Viktor Frankl touted the moment between stimulus and response as the fountain of freedom. But it's also the fountain of hesitation, “a mental wobbling,” Alan Watts might say. In social situations, I often find myself struggling to close that gap between stimulus and response—to just be myself without any puppeteering.
Experiences are meant to be shared. I felt a wholeness unlike I've felt in a long, long time at our gathering. Not just from being surrounded by good people, but from sharing the experiences I love most with them.
We do different things for the same reasons. The actions of a geologist, musician, and yoga instructor are very different, but why we do anything is remarkably similar (curiosity, a sense of contribution, purpose, financial rewards etc.).
Our most important achievements are not external. A question we all answered in writing and later discussed was, “What are your top 10 achievements?” Among a discussion group of five everyone's greatest achievement was overcoming something internal that hindered their experience of life.
We are alive, and that's always a reason to celebrate. In planning our gathering, I was so focused on experiencing wonder and fostering an environment of openness and learning that I totally neglected celebration. Luckily, it happened naturally. From a late night game of Kings Cup to the last night's DJ set that instead of lying on the ground, eyes closed, in full focus on the music, we got up and danced and laughed and joyed in our final moments together.
Will I host another WONDER WANDER event?
It's a question most of this year's participants have asked already, which I take to be a good sign! I had such fun, gained such insight, and felt a wholeness unlike I've felt in a long time. Most likely, YES.
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