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A Redrock Wilderness Retreat, Part 1


The clock in the car reads 6:21 as I pull out of my morning driveway and head down the dirt road. Destination: Elephant Canyon, Utah! I listen to NPR as I work my way south towards I-25, and then west on US160. Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz seem to monopolize the news stories. Especially Donald Trump. I climb La Veta Pass and am happy to lose reception. Enough of Donald.

I leave Cortez on Hwy 491 and immediately see the snowy La Sal Mountains directly in front of me, probably 75 miles away as the raven flies. An island of white floating on a red dirt sagebrush landscape. I pass through Dove Creek, Home of the Anasazi Beans, and soon cross the Colorado/Utah state line. I approach the town of Monticello and see that a wind farm has sprouted just north of town since the last time I drove this highway a year or so ago. As I lose elevation heading north on US191, signs of the red rock country I am heading towards in Canyonlands National Park start to peak out from between the green pinyons and junipers.



I arrive at the Needles District Visitor Center at 2:30 – eight hours in the car. My left sciatic, which turns 60 today, doesn’t like it one bit, being in the car for that long. A short and pleasant visit with the ranger, a quick late lunch, and I am soon hoisting my backpack onto my back. Not since I finished the Colorado Trail a couple of years ago has my body felt this familiar combination of sensations – the weight of the pack balancing between hips and shoulders, hip flexors saying “hello,” and that feeling that borders on euphoria, knowing I am going spend a few days immersed in what Gary Snyder calls “wild Nature.” This wild redrock canyon country very much qualifies as wild Nature!

This four-day adventure is a pilgrimage of sorts. I first came to canyon country about 25 years ago after hearing about it from a magazine article on the quietest places in the country. Being a passionate appreciator of natural quiet, I took note of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. As soon I could make it happen, I made my way to southeast Utah. I was accompanied by my two kids, Sierra, then around 13, Sequoia, 10, a friend of mine, Todd, his 12ish daughter Sarah, and Dylan, a good friend of and the same age as Sequoia. We arrived at the same Elephant Hill Trailhead I just arrived at and was heading for the same EC2 campsite that I am hiking to today. That first trip here forever imprinted this landscape deep into my spirit. I’ve been back to what has become my favorite national park nearly every year since that iconic first backpack into redrock canyon country – car camping, backpacking, day hiking. I’ve been here in rain, hellish summer heat, snow, wind, and days like today – warm, sunny, gentle. But I’ve never experienced this place solo.

The seed to come here on my own was planted exactly a decade ago, the day I turned 50. I was on a solo backpack along Frijoles Canyon in New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument to say good-bye to my 40s and welcome my 50s. I decided then that, when I turn 60, I would acknowledge that milestone – which sounded a good long decade away – on another solo wilderness retreat, in Canyonlands National Park.

Well, that decade has come and it has, as of today, officially gone, and here I am, just where I said I’d be when I turn 60. All too often, we make plans to do something for ourselves, but life gets in the way, or, we let life get in the way, and those plans fall through. I’m guilty of it. But not this time; backpack on my back, sun on my face, I’m a just-turned-60-year-old pilgrim happily working my way into the backcountry of Canyonlands.


I arrive at the campsite, set up the tent, and head down to where there should be a good source of water. This canyon country is a desert, so finding water can be tricky. It’s been a rather wet winter in this part of the world (thanks to this year’s strong El Nino, that warm water in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean thousands of miles away from this place), so the “puddle” I’ve found water in many times in the past is bigger than I’ve ever seen it. In fact, there is more water along this wash than I’ve ever seen. Good, finding water will not be a problem.

Dinner heartily enjoyed and cleaned up for the night, the evening sky is graced by a just-past-new sliver of a moon, sliding down into a gap in the backlit hoodoos that make up the western horizon. I locate the Big Dipper, standing on its handle, the last star of which is hidden behind the rocks that rise from across the main canyon. The sky begins to explode with stars. I check the time – 7:29. Hmm – nights are long on late winter backpacks. I’m glad I brought along something to read – a copy of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic book about this redrock country – Abbey’s country.

I can still see all of us on that first trip here, listening to Desert Solitaire. We were preparing dinner one evening, the fading light of the day just barely discernible in the western sky. Sierra was reading aloud, the book illuminated by her headlamp. Everyone, even Dylan, who really liked to talk, was quiet, listening. Sierra was sitting on a log, knees bent, feet out in front, reading away, while a mouse scampered back and forth right underneath her legs. No one else noticed. I said nothing, as I figured she wouldn’t have appreciated knowing that little critter was as close as it was.

When we turned in for the night, we all decided to sleep out under the stars, lined up side by side by side across the slickrock. Haley’s comet was a part of the magical desert night sky for a few weeks that early spring, which was off to our front left as we lay there on our slickrock bed. I can close my eyes and see the bunch of us all those years ago, cozy in our sleeping bags on the same white slickrock where I ate dinner this evening. Sometime in the middle of the night, Sequoia, who was next to me, whispers, “Dad, are you awake?” “Yeah.” “A mouse just ran over my head,” he said in a rather nonchalant voice. “Are you ok?” “Yeah.” “Then don’t worry about it, it won’t hurt you. Go back to sleep.” “Ok. Good night.” “Good night,” I whispered, “see you in the morning.”

Looking Back at Turning 50 on a Wilderness Retreat

I turn 60 next month. I will turn 60 only once, and so I’ve been thinking about what I might do to acknowledge this milestone (and try to understand how I could already be 60!). This led me to dig up a little essay, which I called Living in Awe, that I wrote when I turned 50. I can now say without hesitation that I am so glad I carved out a few days to step away from my busy life ten years ago to acknowledge that milestone. A decade later, I can still remember lots of details from retreating into that late-winter, northern New Mexico landscape – my first good look at an acorn woodpecker, hiking up out of the drainage into a landscape healing from a wildfire that burned many years before, gingerly crossing the icy creek while questioning the thickness and strength of the ice…  


“Looks like you’ll have the whole place to yourself since this is the only backcountry permit we’ve issued. Have fun!” With these words from the park ranger fresh on my mind, I strap on my pack and begin a four-day solo in the 23,000-acre wilderness of northern New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. A few raindrops and 30 minutes of easy walking and I have left the developed part of the park, including the ruins that are the park’s main attractions, behind me. Not that I am disinterested in these incredible remains of a centuries-old thriving indigenous village, but I am here for other reasons.

I am hiking up Frijoles Canyon, hopping back and forth across the partially frozen creek every few minutes. Frijoles Creek, which will be my water source for the next several days, has been eroding prolific deposits of “tuff” – rock comprised of ash from nearby volcanic activity – for thousands of years. As the ash solidified, countless air pockets created natural cavities in the soft rock, the larger ones becoming the cliff dwellings of the native peoples that called this area home up until about 450 years ago.


The trees are all very familiar to me, dominated by ponderosa pine, Douglas and white fir. Replace the tuff with pinkish granite, and I’d think I’m hiking the Devil’s Canyon Trail in Pueblo Mountain Park. Ground dwelling plants that include holly grape and grama grass, accompanied by plenty of Gambel oak, make me feel right at home.


After five miles of hiking, with camp set up and water bottles filled, I have the afternoon to do whatever I please. With a warmth-eating shadow already beginning to envelop my campsite, I scramble up the east side of the canyon and find a large flat rock on which to enjoy the remaining sunshine. A canyon wren sings its lovely melody as I notice some feelings of loneliness that often accompany the early hours of a solo. “More and more I am realizing the natural world is my connection to myself,” says Terry Tempest Williams. The loneliness is a good sign – without the distractions of the peopled world I left a little while ago, I am much more aware of the natural world I am immersed in, and I am much more aware of myself. That’s why I have come to this wilderness.

Satisfied after a simple dinner, I am sitting just outside my tent, dressed warm for a chilly evening, writing with gloved hands. The air is perfectly still. The ponderosa pines surrounding my campsite are black silhouettes against a still-bright but quickly fading western sky. I am facing an exquisite crescent moon, the illumined sliver facing up, gently cradling the remaining earthshined-lit orb like a cupped hand. A few small white clouds lazily drift by. The loneliness has already morphed into an over riding sense of pleasure, basking in the solitude and beauty of this place. In a few days, I turn 50. I am here in this wilderness to turn 50 deliberately. Just to have reached this age seems impossible – I was just 30 the other day, hiking the Tower Trail with my two young kids. A few days before that, I was 15, contemplating life on a lonely beach in eastern Long Island. How could I be 50?

These wilderness days have come and gone, and now my backcountry solo is nearly history. In an hour or so, I will hike out of here and return to the people I love, my work, my life. I have hiked, explored, watched birds. I did a lot of thinking. “To live life fully, to avoid devoting your whole life to accomplishing things, you have to be aware of death.” “Everything is transient. Without that awareness, how can you truly live in awe of what you see – the seasons, the sun.” Not that I expect to die any time soon, but, with fifty already here, these words by Lorry Nelson ring wise to me.

Accomplishing things. Living in awe. I think I am pretty good at accomplishing things. One thing I’ve landed upon during these wilderness days is that, as much as I may continue to get things done, I do not want “accomplishing things” to be the dominant theme of my life in my post-50 years. No, it’s the idea of living my life always in awe – of red volcanic cliffs full of ancient air pockets, of the mystery of indigenous peoples hidden in the ruins of their village, of the crescent moon graced by lazy clouds, of the song of the canyon wren, of the eyes of my grandchildren as they watch birds at the feeder, of three decades being married to my teenage girlfriend – this is what I am drawn to.

Frijoles Canyon_ Bandelier National Monument

So, I take with me from this wilderness experience a renewed realization that it is my love for the people in my life and my love for Nature that are responsible for all the meaning in my life – these loves make me the person I am at the half-century point in my life. And, I take with me the intention that “living in awe” will be the dominant theme of my life after 50. And, I’ll be back!                                       ~ Dave Van Manen, March 2006

The Call To Take People To Nature

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” ~ John Muir

What was left of the daylight was rapidly fading. The primeval silence of the forest was as much a presence as the Douglas firs that towered above us. The deep hoot of a great horned owl suddenly punctuated the silence. It could not have been better timed as each of us “solo hiked” out of the canyon on Ursula’s last evening of Nature Retreat Leader Training. I was no more than 50 yards ahead of her, yet this distance, and the owl making its presence known, seemed to amplify the feeling of being truly immersed in wild Nature – exactly what I was after!  Moments later we reunited along the trail and shared … what it felt like to be out there, what came up, did we each hear the owl?, were we scared?

Ursula Nature Retreat Leader

Over the course of three days and evenings, Ursula hiked, learned to properly use binoculars and some basics of birdwatching, examined a dried out aster with a hand lens, spent time alone on a sunny hillside with her thoughts and her journal, was introduced to using a dichotomous key in identifying conifer trees… and discussed numerous subjects related to safely providing people with opportunities to connect with the natural world. Ursula Nature Retreat Leader Tree(Not only Nature subjects, but business subjects too – running a successful Nature Retreat business requires both.) And, most important of all, Ursula got to rekindle her own connection to Nature before she flew back to her busy life in the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania.

As the 21st century flies through its 2nd decade, chock full of more and more technological wizardry, frightening environmental news, and societal upheavals, it seems that more and more of us are wanting – no, needing – to find our way back to Nature.

Now I don’t mean selling it all and moving to a homestead in the woods. I simply mean to step away from the peopled and built worlds for an hour, a day, a week, and experience that other world, the one that many of us felt much more connected to when we were children. Maybe it was the backyard, or the neighborhood park, or the climbing tree along a city street, or the scouts – this is where most of us established our connection to the natural world. Then we grew up, and, well, you know what happened.

Ursula Nature Retreat Leader Rock

Ursula currently makes a living in the corporate world, which, as so many of us can relate to, takes up so much of her time. She also feels the pull of the natural world – she knows she misses it, and she is actively working on re-establishing her connection to it. But Ursula also feels that she is being called to help others connect – or reconnect – with Nature.

And that is how I got to know her, through the Nature Retreat Leader Training that my partner Helene Van Manen and I offer. Ursula is working on taking her many skills that she uses in her current career and combining them with what she is learning through our training to create a new livelihood, one that is all about connecting people and Nature.

When I think back on that evening hike into Devil’s Canyon, I know that I will remember it for some time, as it truly was magical. I have a feeling that Ursula feels the same way about it. My hunch is that it will not be long before Ursula is providing folks in her neck of the Pennsylvania woods with the same kind of meaningful and magical experiences in Nature.


Dave Van Manen / Healthy Planet Blog

Hanging Out in a Treehouse

Fifteen feet above the forest floor.

Enveloped by the needled branches of white fir and Douglas fir trees. Cooled by a most welcome breeze that carries the slightest hint of fall. Chattering pygmy nuthatches from the tops of the nearby pines. It’s been a good long while, and way too long – decades, in fact – since I spent any time in a treehouse.



Every kid should know what it is like to play, daydream, climb into, relax, and just hang out in a treehouse.

Making sure my two grandchildren would have this knowledge is a part of being a grandpa that I take very seriously. It’s right up there with camping, pointing out birds and animal tracks and bear scat, visiting National Parks, hiking and backpacking, teaching them the names of wildflowers and trees, building things like a birdhouse, a raft, and, of course, a treehouse.


So, over the past several months when we could carve out some time, Jude, Scarlett and I have been working on this wonderful little structure that is perched around the red-bark trunk of a 100-year-old ponderosa pine. It is located in the woods that surround my funky mountain home. With the completion of the ladder that we built this past weekend, the treehouse is now officially done!

jude w drill





Jude and Scarlett are in school today, so I am up here by myself right now.

I may be a grandfather, but the kid inside of me can’t get enough of being in this treehouse. What a perfect way to spend an hour, or two hours, or a whole September afternoon.



 Dave Van Manen/

Why John Muir is One Of My Nature Heroes

I’m reading yet another book on John Muir, this one by a fine writer, Kim Heacox, about Muir’s travels to Alaska to observe and explore glaciers.

John Muir imagesI am always moved by accounts of how Muir’s love of wild places was such a driving force in all that he did. I especially appreciate the story about Muir’s meeting of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was 1871, Emerson was 68, Muir 33. In spite of Emerson’s entourage, who were concerned about the old man’s health, Muir begged Emerson to spend more time with him in Yosemite and camp in a grove of big trees, sleeping on the ground. “You are yourself a Sequoia. Stop and get acquainted with your brethren…It will do you good.” I love this – encouraging the old man to stay and spend time among his brethren, big old Sequoia trees. Emerson’s acolytes prevailed, and Emerson went on his way. Even so, Emerson considered Muir one of the most inspiring people he had ever met. Thanks to good books, I too consider John Muir one of my most inspiring and influential people.


Dave Van Manen –

How Loud Did He Burp? What Kids Learn At Summer Camp

Ah, summer – long hot days, rainstorms, no school, vacations from work, fishing, swimming, picnics, visits to National Parks, trips to the beach… We all have our own associations when we think of summer, these and others. Last week, I picked up my 10-year old grandson Jude from a summer camp that he attended, one that focused on wilderness skills such as shelter building, finding safe drinking water, and how to build a friction fire. I thought that summer camp will likely be on his list of summer associations when he is an adult. I hope so.

Dave Van ManenAlong with being fun, summer camp can be one of the most valuable experiences that a young person can have. Jude talked about learning to use friction to start a fire and how his shelter, built out of sticks and pine needles, was a bit small for sleeping. Beyond the wilderness skills, he talked about how he ran out of lunch snacks because he ate all of them on the first day, and how tired he was on the last night because he was up so late the nights before, and how there was this kid who could burp really loud, like at 50 decibels. He said that he wasn’t at all scared when a thunderstorm rolled through just as he was falling asleep on the first night, but some other campers were, and so he told them that thunder couldn’t hurt them, but that they should always be on guard about lightning.

You see, along with giving kids experiences in Nature, which are so important since so many of our children suffer from Nature-deficit disorder, summer camp also provides young people many opportunities to practice being more on their own, without a parent telling them when to go to bed, or constantly reminding them not eat all their lunch food at once. Sure, the camp counselors are looking out for their campers, but camp counselors are not their parents. From the sounds of Jude’s comments on his counselors, they were all about keeping the campers safe relative to fire and bear etiquette and the like, but they didn’t hover over them when it came to lots of other not-so-dangerous things. They told them the rules, and then they let the kids run with them. From the sounds if it, they were good camp counselors who understood that camp is about having fun, and being safe, and learning all sorts of cool things. But they also recognized that summer camp is just as much about kids learning to be responsible for themselves, and that includes making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.

camperThis morning, I ran into a Mom who sent her son to many of the camps that I used to oversee when I ran an environmental education center. Her son is now finishing up college, with a major in environmental studies. She said she was just talking to him about his college experience, and what kind of jobs he is looking at, and how pleased they both are about the direction he took with his education. She said that her son always mentions that the summer camps he attended had a lot to do with why he decided to major in environmental studies, and also why he now loves to backpack, and hike, and spend time in Nature. She said he is an activist for the environment, and summer camp had a lot to do with why.

Yes, for many people, going to camp is a memorable association with summer. But summer camp may very well be so much more. Along with learning things about Nature, and being safe in the wilderness, and how getting enough rest is important, and how if you eat all of your food there won’t be any for later, and that Nature needs folks to act on her behalf, a child also might learn how to burp at 50 decibels.

If Not Me, Then Who?

I took a trail walk this morning, enjoying the cool moist morning air and the woods full of bird song. As I was nearing the end of the trail, I stopped to pick up several pieces of trash when I noticed another piece off the trail a ways. My hands were pretty full, and I did not really feel like scrambling through the brush to get the last piece. In the short mental moment when I was deciding whether or not retrieve it, the thought occurred to me, If I don’t pick up that piece of trash, who will? That was all I needed to send me through the oaks to get it and deposit all of it in the trash container.


This question is a good one for all of us to ask. We all see needs in our communities, and some of us sometimes entertain the thought of actually doing something about one of those needs. The fact that you noticed, and you had the thought of doing something about it, may very well mean that you are indeed the one who is being called to actually spearhead a response to that need. Maybe it is a park that needs cleaning up, or a piece of open space that needs to be protected, or homeless folks that need access to mental health services, or children from poor families in your community that need more to eat during the summer months and weekends when school is not in session. We really don’t need to look all that far, as there are needs of all sizes and all varieties.

Every program, every organization, every service that currently addresses a community need started by someone who noticed that need. That someone must have asked him- or herself the question, If not me, then who? In answering this one simple question, he or she realized that there may very well not be anyone else who was first going to step forward besides them. So, they took that first step and made something happen to address that need. Might you be one of those people who is in the process of asking yourself that question?

Remember, we are the ones we have been waiting for!