Between Mountains

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Putting Life on “Do Not Disturb”

Words and Photos by Maren Nelson

“Standing there in the snow between mountains, I was reminded of a memory that was almost more like a feeling. The kind of memory that you think must be real, but it was made when your brain was still under construction and your consciousness was floating somewhere between here and now and then.


I stood on feet upon feet of mountain snow and I thought of the last time I had felt this small. When Minnesota’s winter would pile up and Dad would be outside late into the night, white dust flying in the dark as his shovel ravaged the never-ending snowfall. The morning after a big snow, my tiny body stumbled down the sidewalk of our South Minneapolis house, a neon tumbleweed immobilized by frostbite protection. My mitten was trailing in the snow next to me, carving a wobbly line in the icy walls. To a child, that much snow—the kind that seemed to tower above you—felt insurmountable. Beautiful. Terrifying.”  —2.26.18

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In the deep winter of 2018, I intentionally turned off my phone for four days and locked myself on a mountain with 50 other creators, makers, and doers. This unplugged retreat in the Cascade Mountain Range of the Wenatchee National Forest, was organized by a fellow Minnesotan and outdoors enthusiast Bobbilee Hartman. The concept intrigued yet terrified me. As Bobbilee explained, “Lodged Out was created to strip away the noise of daily life and devices. It exists to bring like-minded people to the mountains, so together we can immerse ourselves in an experience filled with outdoor play, experiential learning, and inspiring conversations.” This had sounded great when I registered four months earlier, but in the week leading up to my trip to Washington I had more anxiety about being unconnected for four days than I did about making up work once back in the office. A true millennial, I wanted to see and be seen at all times and now I felt like I was facing down blindness.

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In an attempt to gain control in a moment of what felt like helplessness, I made the executive decision to turn off my phone as soon as we hit deeper forests and mountain roads outside Leavenworth. Listening to music and staring out the window, I let the lull of the swaying bus and the increasingly frosty landscapes carry away my mind. I started narrating stories in my head and daydreamed about an alternate life where I built a cabin and never left. It wasn’t long before I realized I had spent the last week engulfed in anxiety for absolutely no reason.

We all went to Lodged Out to press a reset button, but I don’t think we were prepared for what that actually meant. Over the course of four distraction-free days, I learned how to be fluid with my time and gentle with myself. I looked up from screens and out to nature, and reaffirmed my commitment to being a steward of this earth and my neighbors on it.

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Each day, our free time was peppered with learning, exploring, and the permeating smell of bonfires. New friends shared stories and laughter at the breakfast table, weird confessions around the fire, and adventurous encouragement on the trails. I attended carefully curated workshops that challenged us to look beyond our comfortable selves toward the stars, our choices, and our hearts. Two of the nights we heard from speakers who bravely and compassionately shared their truths in order to strengthen the lives of people they had just met. Unplugging, it seemed, never felt so good.

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2.26.18

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“As we were driving up the winding mountain roads, I found myself greeting the giant elders of the forests—massive trees that held hundreds of pounds of snow. I saw these old, giant boulders jut out of the forest and they reminded me that I was ascending a mountain range. It felt like an ancient mother calling me back—reaching out to pull me home. To pull me up, away from what never really mattered to begin with.” 

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2.27.18

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“I’m astonished by how much time I have during the day when I don’t have a screen. All this tension has left and I’m feeling a remarkable sense of release and comfort in my own body. I’m not even stressed by what will meet me once I get home because I realize now that those things, those notifications and emails and demands on my energy, they do not need to have a central role in my life—not really. I choose whether or not I rely on them to live each day. When your life isn’t dictated by the gaze of others and your decisions aren’t made for you by constant notifications, you realize just how much time exists. Just how many moments you have to live in this life. It’s both euphoric and sobering: To feel that new-found freedom while acknowledging the heartbreaking reality that for most of your life you’ve probably squandered away the time you only now realize you could have cherished.“

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"Morning to night, someone is always at the fire. Sometimes thinking, sometimes waiting, never in a hurry. We talk for hours, share drinks and souls, talk about serial killers and philosophy. Fire is still so elemental—it makes us breathe in chemistry and breathe out our clearest selves. At times we all stop and stare into the coals and it feels simultaneously ancient and foolish. Someone laughs and we drink more whiskey. I can't get the smell out of my clothes or my head.” 

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"Every time I walk outside in the dark, I am startled by mountains. I can be surrounded by buildings and trees and uncomfortable men at a bus stop in the dark, but mountains shock my system to its core. The moon, diffused by clouds, lights up the snow every night, creating a moment of suspended dusk and dawn. The illuminated valley makes a mockery of all those man-made streetlights at home. Even my headlamp remains unused in my cabin, my eyes adjusting and proving more than sufficient for after dark navigation.

Goodnight cabins in the mountains, filled with compassionate humans and too much wine and whiskey.”

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2.28.18

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"I realized I haven’t spent time alone, outside, just being, in what feels like a lifetime. This feels good. I'm surprised by how empowered I feel to try new things, to be genuine and alive, to be nothing more than myself. As Tatina said, ’Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No one to be.'"

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“One of my goals for 2018 was to try a new winter sport. This inevitably meant facing down my residual fear of skis from that awful 5th grade field trip and trying something uncomfortable in front of strangers. In the end, I fell three times, consistently struggled with actually locking in my damn boots, never figured out how to turn while skiing, and ended up with a mysterious bruise on my hand. But the thing is, I also had a brilliant time. Sometimes I need to be reminded to get over myself and that perfection is overrated and adventurous leaps beget personal strength. Turns out a healthy dose of bravery and vulnerability, a community of supportive strangers on skis, and all that Nordic blood rushing through my veins can bring a hell of a lot of joy to my life when I choose to lean into uncertainty.”

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2.29.18

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“We once were strangers.

The past couple of days have been spent with some truly marvelous humans. Truth be told, I was fully prepared to spend time alone. I never expected the level of community that came together so quickly in the snow between these mountains. How easy it is to make friends when you finally look up from your phone and look into their eyes. When your breathing eases and you share a collective moment of peace as you inhale cold mountain air and breathe out everything you’ve carried with you that no longer matters.” 

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"When you hike alone, you can marvel at the universe completely and wholeheartedly. There is no worrying about your pace or feelings of foolishness. Instead you stop and sigh and laugh, turn in circles and run through snow paths unafraid and euphoric. For a split moment you wonder if you have strayed too far and there's a beat where uncertainty creeps alongside you. Or maybe it's just the sublime calling you home, reminding you that you are small in a mighty world." 

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“We just stood there in the reflection of moonlight against ice and for the first time in years I laid down in the snow. My body was cradled by the frozen earth and I stared into the night, breathing slowing. I could have laid there for three lifetimes, never once feeling cold. The only thing that could have moved me from that utopia was waiting at the other end of a telescope set in middle of the field. Standing there in that valley, I looked up at the sky and saw mountains on the moon.”

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3.2.18

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“I’m having a slow day today as I try to reconcile the perfection of waking up to snowy mountains and bonfire smoke in my hair with the traffic out my window and notifications blowing up my phone. I’m reading through my journal from the week and editing photos while burning incense and eating oatmeal from camp, but I’m becoming painfully aware that these things won’t erase the reality of my chosen life.”

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“It's hard to ignore the sound of never-ending traffic and the oblivious bar-close patrons. My built-in night lights of city life turn a garish glare of orange, unwelcome as they climb through my windows. In all my years of living conveniently close to the center of everything, is it possible I never really stopped to think about peaceful, purposeful space?

Holding onto the version of myself that I was investigating while I was in Washington is like trying to hold on to the plot of a lucid dream—pieces falling away with every new notification, familiar habit, dish I realize I should have washed last weekend. Life is just too fucking distracting. I’m already finding it hard to concentrate. Forgive me if I wander away for awhile, dear world. If I learned anything this week, it’s that most things in life can wait if it means focusing on just living.” 

Maren Nelson is a writer and graphic designer based in Minneapolis. She instagrams @marstarmpls

This article appears in the 2018/19 Winter Issue. Buy yours here.

Caroline Royce