Gadd’s Truth: The Wild Life

Moving confidently in the mountains is a beautiful skill, but it doesn’t come naturally to many of us who live in a world of concrete. I’m used to guiding guests who need help learning to navigate the irregular terrain, but Freya was on a different level.

She wobbled over the frozen mountain dirt like a baby taking her first awkward steps. (I could tell she’d rarely been off a sidewalk in her entire life.) She walked so tentatively that forward progress was measured more in metres, than kilometres, per hour; each foot placement an adventure into the unknown. Every forest sound made her stop mid-step, eyes scanning for whatever beast was causing it. But she was also oblivious to the real hazards—slick rock slabs with big drops below, wet logs and impending rain. Being comfortable just moving in the mountains after being caged in the city is the first step to enjoying a wild life. So Freya’s behaviour wasn’t unfamiliar—I’d just never before seen it in a dog.

Freya arrived as a “rescue dog” in our house direct from a year-and-a-half of being mostly abandoned on a concrete patio in Mexico. I didn’t believe any dog could lack basic coordination, but when we took her for a brief walk outside the dog rescue operation where we were interviewed for our suitability as dog owners (our first set of pictures failed the test, I had to re-shoot them—the rescue market during Covid is competitive!), she didn’t want to leave the road to explore the dirt beside it.

At home, she tangled all eight kilos of herself in this new thing called a “leash” faster than a guest ruins a coiled rope. She’d trip over pebbles and wobble like a drunken sailor on rough terrain, but the worst was snow. Snow was clearly the paw-swallowing enemy and so viciously dangerous she pulled her lips back at it and refused to get near it. Given that it was late February in the Rockies, this was a problem.

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool  

I’ve known since I started taking people into the mountains that we city-dwelling humans can often be completely out-of-touch with our wild movement skills, but I am still surprised by how far out of touch people can get. I once guided a wonderful woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who tried to walk on top of the snow like Freya, not realizing that her feet would sink into it. She was frustrated to tears by the experience. Ms. Atlanta had been a gang member in an earlier life, and had stories about how she’d navigated it all. Those tales made the hazards of the mountains seem small.

She fell a lot our first day, but I could tell she was going to get back up because that’s what she had always done, and she had the scars to prove it. On our last day together she competently walked across a frozen creek in her crampons, and climbed a up a vertical ice wall. It was a one of the most satisfying moments in my guiding career, and she lit up with all the joy in the world as she swung her ice tools with crisp, whip-like cracks. “There’s music in this!” she said, and I felt it too. But what really sticks with me is how she, like Freya, went from being afraid of moving off the concrete to revelling in moving through the natural world. Fear to fun, bumbling to competency, unknown wilderness to love of the same. Those skills are in us, but we have to remember them.

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool 

AFTER A FEW short months, Freya now zooms over steep terrain that makes the guide in me nervous, and the vet says she has the biggest leg muscles he’s seen on a dog her size (we’re proud of her). Her eyes sit on either side of her head like mine, a clear signal that she’s a predator in the ecosystem, and squirrels fear her (although some stumps still scare her). And, like Ms. Atlanta, me and many of us who read this magazine, Freya is a much better beast when outside in the dirt than she is in the concrete jungle. And, while I celebrate every walk with Freya, I also feel for the people (and dogs) who will never have the opportunity to smell wild air, to move through rough terrain and wild spaces confidently and to just get outside and move.

For me, moving in wild places is my single greatest freedom and wealth. I wish everyone could experience it, but many won’t, and that seems a tragedy to me, like a dog who doesn’t know she can run fast. What we used to do simply to survive—and none of us would be here if our ancestors hadn’t been good at moving in wild places—is now a luxury. And as I think back to Ms. Atlanta crunching confidently in the snow or watching Freya charge along a trail with absolute joy, and I have to give thanks for the chance to do so as well.

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool 

While I still like to grunt up hills fast while breathing like a broken steam engine, more and more I like to simply walk in the wild with my family, small dog and friends. From teaching so many city-dwellers how to walk in the wild I’ve accumulated a book’s worth of tricks for teaching mountain movement. But Freya and Ms. Atlanta both taught me not to take what I have for granted, and see it for the beautiful luxury it is.

Well, Freya is giving me the eye and making that longing sigh beside my desk to tell me it’s time to go for a walk in the woods, so I will.

Keep moving. It’s a privilege.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue. (“Gadd’s Truth,” page 20). 

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