YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — When the Rocky Mountain sky turns, your mood retreats into the gray along with it. Growing darker by the minute. Then the flash-crack of lightning and the menacing, mournful artillery roll of thunder. Then another, and more. Shock waves throb through storm-smelling air. One thousand one, one thousand two . . . Boom. The first stir of breeze is backed by gusts, then rain, fat slanting pellets that bounce off logs and dimple the rumps of nervous horses.
Park Ranger Dave Phillips, his head turned against the wind, tugs the last cinch and leads out from the trail head on a huge white mount named Traveler, the same as Robert E. Lee's steed. Behind him, laden with squeaking packs: a mule called Moose and a purposeful horse named Brownie. You follow on an oversized strawberry roan with the name Jackpot.
Jackpot flinches at the lightning flashes. But not as much as you do. Rain gains intensity and rattles off your hat and drips cold down your neck, and you try to reaffirm your purpose. Which is, to get away from it all. To get away as far as you can from the everyday, and to ponder why it is that so many of us share this urge.
"I need to get away." You hear it from friends, acquaintances and strangers, words spoken in shorthand as if to encompass a lot of other things about life.
So now you are riding out on this oversized horse, climbing up this grease-slick, muddy trail through this ridiculous weather, bound for the place that is farther away from a road than anywhere in the contiguous 48 states: the back country of southeastern Yellowstone Park.
Definitions are tricky and arbitrary. But at the end of this century, putting maximum distance between you and a road offers a plausible vantage for an inquiry into getting-awayness. Even if, as it turns out, you cannot get very many miles away from a road after all. And even if the quest seems more dubious now than it did when you climbed out of the warm security of a road and car a while ago to meet the mountainous dark fury bearing down from the sky. One thous . . . Boom.
A Life Forsaken but Not Forgotten
Getting away is an escape, but perhaps also a return.
For the urbanite, leaving the gliding surfaces of asphalt for the stumbling roughness of the mountain trail creates the sensation of departing the familiar and entering the strange. But humans have roots out here. For a long time this was home, storms and all. A strange place, yes, but forgotten, no.
In trying to explain the prevalent anxieties that swirl and fizz in our heads, Sigmund Freud's intellectual heirs now look back to the human past. Their branch of study is called evolutionary psychology, and the premise is this: For a few million years, Homo sapiens and their progenitors evolved to meet certain kinds of life challenges and stimuli. The days and seasons had immutable rhythms.
Then, in just the last 0.005% or so of our evolutionary history, humans overcame most of those challenges. In so doing, however, they altered nature's rhythms--gathering and preparing food no longer remains the center of the day. They established life with an unfamiliar array of complexities and stimulations. To wit, civilization.
In short, natural selection shaped us to succeed at certain things at a regular tempo. Now we require of ourselves different things entirely and at an intensified cadence. We're fish out of water, so to speak.
The result, anxiety.
The logic of evolutionary psychology rather neatly explains today's pervasive discontent: that somehow satisfaction refuses to keep pace with progress and material gain. Instead, progress creates alienation and mental illness along with comforts and possessions.
The consequences can be measured as well as postulated.
Richard Wright, author of the pioneering book "The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life," reports that villagers in rural Samoa produce extraordinarily low levels of a biochemical called cortisol, a by-product of anxiety.
Which is not to advocate a blind leap back to the Stone Age. Thinkers like Wright suggest only that we not overlook, as the cliche might have it, who we were as we try to understand who we really are.
"Though evolutionary psychologists would love somehow to visit the ancestral environment, few would buy a one-way ticket," Wright put it in a 1995 essay. "Still, to say we wouldn't want to live in our primitive past isn't to say we can't learn from it. It is, after all, the world in which our currently malfunctioning minds were designed to work like a Swiss watch."
A Voyage Into the Present
Flight versus fight. Wasn't that the choice of the cavemen back in those elementary days? Well, what about fright?