By Leith Edgar, Former Army SGT, Denver, CO
Experiencing the world's first designated wilderness has always been an appealing prospect to anyone enamored with North America's Great Outdoors. However, it wasn't until the documentary Green Fire highlighted this national treasure and I fortuitously came across an opportunity to backpack the Gila National Forest with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) that I realized a pilgrimage to the mecca of conservation: the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.
Thanks to the Sierra Club and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I had the honor and pleasure of seeing the wild lands and wild animals the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, one of the godfathers of modern conservation, tirelessly toiled to protect from anthropogenic impacts. For anyone who's yearned to escape the manmade world, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest is your ticket to unencumbered nature.
The band of brothers (and sisters) - with whom I shared a week meandering densely-vegetated drainages, ascending the Black Range and observing the varied terrain of a national forest that stretches from the desert floor to more than 10,000-feet – were far from the typical patchouli-wearing tree-huggers you might expect to find trekking a place no visitor soon forgets. Nay, this motley group had collectively hugged more rifles than trees whilst serving their country in uniform.
Coincidentally including members of the four branches of the military, my fellow backpackers comprised the inaugural class of veterans to complete the Sierra Club's Veteran Outdoor Leadership Course. The course was initially conceived as a means of connecting the veteran community to the natural resources they had fought to defend. The group included combat, disabled and retired veterans, both enlisted and officer alike.
The mission of the course was simple on the surface: foster leadership within a select group of veterans in hopes that the positive experiences of the group would reverberate throughout the military community to thousands of veterans who've come home from overseas conflicts. Far from token charity, the program seeks to empower its students to lead outdoor trips for friends, family and fellow veterans.
In order to bring veterans with varying degrees of outdoor experience, NOLS trained us kinesthetically, i.e. via doing. Following basic instruction, we students took the lead as trip leaders, navigators and cooks, among other camp roles. Similar to the military, from sun up to well after down, we worked together on common goals. Whereas the common goals formerly involved national defense, this mission was focused on the group's movement and well-being in the unforgiving natural environment. Instead of guns, we shot azimuths; instead of Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), we dined on communally-cooked camp food; and instead of saluting those above our pay grade, we saluted our natural surroundings each day as we rose each morning to experience the natural wonders of wilderness.
Although modern camping - with all of the accoutrements of a big-box store - is arguably as comfortable as a suburban home, light-weight backpacking is the closest many of us may ever come to experiencing homelessness in that everything needed to survive is in your possession. Carrying your means of survival translates to carrying roughly one-quarter to one-third of your body weight – for more than eight hours in some cases. So it made sense that most nights the day's mileage usually left many of us ready for an early lights out. But one night the allure of the open sky proved stronger than the body's desire to recuperate.
That night under a cloudless, crystal-clear sky speckled with diamonds of light and peppered with occasional shooting stars was proof positive that there's peace to be attained by experiencing nature. Taking off of work, flying down to Tucson, Ariz., and spending a week with perfect strangers in the wilderness was all controlled chaos on the surface. But ultimately the leap into the uncertain delivered a piece of peace - albeit fleeting like the shooting stars, which raced across the dark tapestry of that wondrous night – but peace all the same. It's that sense of naturally-induced peace, which you cannot help but discover, in the eponymous wilderness that I believe drove Aldo Leopold to conserve the Gila National Forest so that all Americans, including those who've served in uniform, might experience it for themselves.
"Helping America's Military and Veteran Community experience the freedom of the land they defend"