Doug Bruns

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Birth of a Pilgrim

In Adventure, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

I am fond of the word pilgrim. For instance, I used it here just yesterday: “Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read.” Recently I closed a correspondence with: “I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said is true or even accurate–I’m just a pilgrim.” The first time I recall hearing the word used not in conjunction with Thanksgiving was in the Sydney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson. That was 1972 and I was seventeen years old. It is meaningful that I remember. The movie had a profound impact on me. In it a grizzled old mountain man named Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played perfectly by Will Geer), upon first meeting Johnson (Robert Redford) says, “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!” And later, toward the end of the movie: “You’ve come far pilgrim.” To which Johnson replies: “Feels like far.” Bear Claw asks, “Where it worth the trouble?” “What trouble?” Johnson replies. (The movie is based on the life of mountain man, John Garrison Johnston–or, as he was better known, Liver-Eating Johnston.*)

I was so captivated by the landscape portrayed in the movie that I sat through the credits to note where it had been filmed. I had to go there, wherever there was. The Unita Mountains of Utah. The following summer I took my first plane trip, leaving home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and landing in Salt Lake City, where I made my way into the mountains. Consequently everything changed for this pilgrim. Everything. A life of curiosity pursued was hatched.

As an aside, the word pilgrim is related to the word peregrine, from the Medieval Latin, peregrinus, meaning wanderer, or migratory. It is the word we attach to our fastest falcon and is, in my imagination, a visage of feathered purpose and ability.

George Santayana said, “The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.”  This captures the spirit and intent of the word for me. The “sedentary city mind,”  it would seem, is a mind that knows it’s place, recognizes the task at hand, and moves toward accomplishment. That is how things get done. The mind of the pilgrim, however, is restless and its profile is one of longing, of motion, perhaps aimless motion, advancing toward a grail of the imagination. To the kid  in the theater in Ft. Wayne, the message was clear: You are not a Renaissance man, you are a pilgrim, and it is time to cast off the fetters of suburbia and its expectation of confinement.

My worldwide perambulations have tapered off, but the mind remains unfettered and still roams widely. There is no rest for the pilgrim. Perhaps, I hope, you understand this?


* Johnston as scout led a party through Crow sacred territory. (Some accounts say it was Sioux territory.) Consequently, the Crow Nation declared war on him and sent its best warriors to kill him. Despite repeated attempts, year after year, the Crow braves failed in their mission. Johnston killed them all. The legend holds that he would slit open the dead warrior, remove the liver and take a bite out of it, leaving the organ behind, his intimidating calling card. The movie depicts the transgression, depicts the attacks, but fails in complete veracity by leaving out this business of liver snacking. That’s too bad. I would have liked Redford to show a bit more belly fire in his roll. If this sounds too Hollywood, it well may be. The very nature of mountain-man Johnston’s life is such that pinning down the truth is near impossible–a fitting end to a pilgram’s tale.


In Adventure, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Travel, Wisdom on April 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Flyby, Mt. Everest ©Doug Bruns

I took this photograph in April of 2009. The peak in the center of the frame is Everest, or Chomolungma. We were flying Buddha Air and the small plane was specially engineered for the high altitude. I likely will never get closer to that mountain. Tragically, two years later this flight crashed and all nineteen aboard were killed.

I have a friend, Chris Warner, who has been atop Everest, K2, and many other 8000 meter peaks. Chris is one of America’s premier alpinists. I climbed with him once in South America. It was during a period in my life when notions of climbing mountains appealed to me. Now, I prefer a canoe on Moosehead Lake.

With Chris I summited Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador. That took me to 19 thousand feet and change, the highest I’ve climbed. I don’t anticipate I’ll break that personal record for altitude. And that is just fine. Chris told me that his success in the mountains can be attributed to surrounding himself with highly accomplished climbers; that he learns from them constantly. What I learned from Chris was, in a manner of speaking, a hands-on tradition. It is a highly efficient way to learn anything and I recommend it. If you’re going into the mountains it is especially to be recommended.

As a young man I watched Robert Redford in the 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson. The real-life Johnson (1824-1900) left the Civil War and went into the mountains, bereft and broken. His life turned on one adventure after the other. Watching the movie in a dark theater in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I was spellbound. Upon graduating from high school I went to the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah, where the movie was filmed. There I experienced mountains for the first time. And so began a life methodology: turning curiosity into obsession.

One night in the Uintas I encountered a grizzled mountain man. He was a member of a team heading up to rescue an injured climber. They rested at our fire before advancing. The man motioned to the silhouette of mountains against the horizon. “I know what I need,” he said. “I need to see mountains.” I was seventeen and deeply impressed by a man who knew what he needed. Years later I came to understand the confusion that is wanting and needing. His wisdom remains among the profound lessons of my life.

“Andromeda! Sweet woman!”

In Memoir, Nature on April 16, 2010 at 10:10 am


More than a dozen years ago I was outside a hut in the Presidentials. It was night, pitch-black, ink-black, and Don, my hiking buddy, and I were  looking at the night sky. We heard the door to the hut open–I think it was Lake of the Clouds–a sliver of faint light escaping, then creaking close again. A fellow hiker joined us, clamoring over the rocks in the dark, proclaiming that he had to see the milky way at least once a year or he suffered dire consequences.  It was easy to spot, splashed across the sky like sprinkle dust on black velvet. He sighed and spoke of contentment.

Galileo proved in 1610 that the Milky Way consisted of stars. Two thousand years before him Aristotle called it “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together.” The point being, the night sky and the Milky Way specifically, have been a constant through the ages. As a species, we have existed under that night canopy, traipsed and sailed by its iridescence,  studied it, written poems about it. But, me, I have lost it. Unlike the hiker in the mountains, I never considered it important. There is no prodding motivation for awe. Isn’t that what the night sky does? Instill awe? How can I not want that?

I saw my first meteor shower as a young camper in Northern Michigan. I remember having sunburned my back from a day in a canoe and trying to get comfortable in my open air sleeping bag, my back blistered, when the first rock screamed across the night sky. It was followed by another, then many, a flurry of falling matches from the heavens.  Such things stay with a person. And yet, they don’t. Again, how can I not seek that out?

I’m starting to plan some camping trips for spring summer, which is what prompted this stream of thought. At fifty-four I am taking stock. I am making lists. No more of this rambling through life, not realizing what is important and thinking what isn’t is. There is not enough time to keep loosely hopping down that path. On the list, near the top, is the night sky.

Pascal (Pensées) on the universe:

The Universe is an infinite
sphere, the centre of which is
everywhere, the circumference

House a’fire

In Family, Life, Memoir, Thinkers, Travel, Writers, Writing on July 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

I recently asked some friends what they would grab from their house if it was on fire and they had only three minutes to escape. This question has intrigued me for some time. I can’t remember when I first thought of it—or maybe it was put to me at a dinner party by a host desperate to get things rolling. Regardless, I am cu

rious about what people find important, and this question speaks directly to the issue. It is too, I confess, a self-serving question, as I am trying to figure out what is important to me and am hoping someone will help me down that path. Anyway, my friends on this afternoon answered typically. Of the four, three said they would grab the family photographs. The holdout said he’d reach for his guitar. Guitars aside, in my unscientific poll, most people say they would most miss their photographs if all their belongings were irretrievably lost.

 Many years ago, I bought a video camera. Of course, with my usual lack of marketplace acumen, I bought a Beta video recorder, not VHS, but that is beside the point. Our kids were little and I felt compelled to record their every moment. It is a phase through which many young parents pass, particularly those boomers raised on “Kodak Moment” pablum. I dutifully fulfilled my fatherly obligation to posterity, recording holidays and birthdays, snow-fort building and summer beach fun. But after a while, a year or two, I stopped cold. I had watched a series of tapes I’d recorded, the kids being particularly little and cute, and it struck me hard and fast: I don’t want to watch this when I am old and they are grown and gone. I sensed a dark nascent warning, a potential for a wet-blanket-smothering depression. These tapes would prove to be an undeniable visual reminder of that which I no longer possessed: my youth and my future. My imagination, in my future viewing, delivered me to death’s door, and certain of the tapes would undoubtedly transport me, Black Dog in chase, across the transom. It is an admittedly contrary viewpoint, probably profoundly irrational, and I will likely regret my decision. But I’m not going to take the chance. No, no more videos. If the house burns, the videos stay. Same for the photos. My memory, unaided by even a photograph, will have to serve, as it should, being that much more exacting for its fragility.

 I read recently a comment the critic Frank Kermode made regarding a collection of his work, the compilation of which forced him to make some difficult decisions. He wrote that he had to confront “what ought and what ought not to be let go.” Precisely—and that is the troubling challenge. What ought to be not let go? To direct Kermode’s challenge to the world of the tangible, What would I pull from the burning house? Though not for lack of effort, I can’t think of a damned thing, leaving me to fear that I exist in a sub-human state, as to be so lacking in sentimentality that no thing has emotional value. Sentiment aside, to plumb the human desire for possession, is there no thing so essential that I cannot live without it? Again, I come up empty handed. The easy answers are not worth risking my life in the burning house. I would want my cell phone, because my wife and children call me on it. I would want my laptop because that has everything–some would say, “my life”–on it. And I would want my current reading material because I am a reader first. But these are all things that help me do the important stuff—they are not the important stuff—and can be replaced.

They are nouns and I long for verbs, active verbs.

I have on occasion lived out of a backpack. There is a wonderful simple elegance in having everything one requires on one’s

Walden, Thoreau

Walden, Thoreau

back. The unfettered freedom is palatable, and it does not surprise me, given the layered complexity of modern life, that backpacking is the most popular and widely practiced of outdoor activities. It is a relic, an unfathomable connection to a time when we as a species freely roamed anywhere and everywhere, Africa to the Bearing Straight, our only possessions the ones we carried. (It is a compelling thought that we, as a species, have walked at some time or another virtually everywhere.) The only thing I recall from my first reading of Walden is Thoreau’s admonition to simplify. (From the second reading, getting to know Henry David better, I thought: What a wild man. He would have been a curious house guest, an experiment of his own making, a site to see.) Buddhist monks are sent into the world with only their robes and alms bowl. That is simplicity.

Unencumbered is the word. An old woodsman I once met out in the Uinta Mountains of Utah said he could not conceive how a person could wake up in the morning and not see mountains on the horizon. He was someone who knew what was not only important to him, but necessary. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” wrote Thoreau. To be so compact and efficient, like a snail, or rather like my favorite amphibian, the common painted turtle, as to travel freely, wanting for nothing extraneous, is wildly releasing–and I think, close to an Absolute Truth, if such a thing existed. It is interesting that the painted turtle’s carapace is keelless, gaining her a range of motion subject to the least interference. The physicist and the code writer strive for the most elegant and simple equation or line. The architect and the draftsman seek elegance in an edge, a bend or radius that bespeaks simplicity in form. It is, I think, innately clarifying that life reflect the same principal. There is an entry in Camus’s notebook, not even a sentence: That wild longing for clarity.

 We have been educated, from Sunday school to Hollywood, that the prophets of old lived simply, by choice or divine edict, scratching out an existence, but living, at least in my imagination, a life of crystalline clarity. “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad,” wrote Hosea. I have visited the dusty expanse of the Middle East. There is good reason the desert breeds visionaries and madmen. Have we come very far? I am a struggling minimalist–they were beggars at the temple gate, voices in the wilderness. Mad fools, to paraphrase Hosea. The man who goes to the Seven Eleven for milk at night and turns up ten years later living on the other coast in another life is, I think, the most creative prophet imaginable—though likely a personal wreck. He starts over, creating a new self, like a snake shedding its skin, with the knowledge of the old, but free of it. I started a novel once whereby the protagonist walked away in the middle of a workday from a successful business, leaving a wild and brief note for his partner: “You’re in charge. I’m out of here.” He disappeared to everyone who knew him. Indeed, he walked right out of the novel and even I couldn’t find him.

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

Though likely the story teller in him, Bruce Chatwin claimed to have telegraphed Magnus Linklater, his boss at the London Sunday Times, “GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS.” I used to illogically figure that if I were ever imprisoned I would be forced to live a life of stark anti-materialism and simplicity. I would become a sequestered monk. It, prison, in this warped fantasy, sounded an odd and freeing experience, albeit a dark one–a place devoid of human vanities and illusions. There is nothing to pull from the burning house where there is no house in the first place. In a moment of introspection, Chatwin recorded this thought: “Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, ‘If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality.’”

 Nature strives to complexity. Organisms, like government, never evolve into smaller, more basic structures. To the contrary. That is the principal of evolution. To strive in the opposing direction, to simplicity, is counter to what our DNA is orchestrating behind the scene. Advertising, Madison Avenue and consumerism aside, this is biology. Perhaps we not only derive satisfaction from the material things that fill our lives, but are also fulfilling our genetic obligation to complexity. Of course this is metaphorical and not what nature had in mind. You will never see a migrating bird with a fanny pack.

 It has been an insidious journey from the backpacking days of my youth. Some time ago my wife, daughter and I went away for a three-day weekend to the lake. They packed a bag or two. I loaded my bike on the overhead carrier, put my fly-fishing gear in the back, along with photography equipment, books, laptop and trail guides. Clothing too. They looked at me, the great yapping minimalist, their eyes challenging. My wife was miffed, my daughter humored. I was embarrassed. I advise against revealing such duplicity in front of loved ones; years of hard-earned respect will be snatched away in instant. Of course I was troubled in that way only self-reflection can trouble one. We can be hardest on ourselves. How had I traveled so far? So began my quest to answer the question of what ought to be not let go.

 In reality, I am no longer worried by my lack of personal interest in possessions, which I believe suggests progress. I am no less human because I have no sentiment for things–in contradistinction, I think I am more so. Maybe our things can get in the way of our humanity. I do have many things still, far too many, but find comfort knowing that none are essential. I relish the freedom I sense upon returning from a donation collected of yet more purged stuff. To purge is clarifying and releasing. When I travel for short periods now I carry everything I need in a daypack. Two recent trips abroad found me managing fine with a simple carry-on. We are escaping the big house and moving to a place with less of a footprint, to use a modern and descriptive word. I struggle to resist consumerism, and have got rid of the big SUV for a small import. I know environmentalists applaud my efforts, and though that is a side benefit, my motives are largely to protect my personal environment–that is, to find clarity in simplicity, and if not find it readily, then carve it out. It took a long time to get to this place from which I must start again, only in reverse.

 The house is on fire. My family and Maggie the dog are safely outside. I am running through the burning rooms one last time, sirens in the background. I pick up nothing but speed, rushing freely and without burden to the open portal.