The summer after my freshman year at Union, before heading to Wakonda to work, I completed the IRR “summer program”–a month-long technical rescue and survival training course held in the shadow of Lone Cone. As part of the training, we each did a 72-hour survival solo, wearing only street clothes, and taking with us only a knife, 5 feet of 550 cord, a metal match, a pencil, a sheet of paper (to write notes which would be left twice a day for our evaluators to read to know we were ok, since human contact was forbidden), a Bible (optional), a water filter, and two one-liter water bottles. We were offered the chance to earn extra credit by spending 24 hours within arm’s reach of a tree, without a fire and with only the 2 liters of water in our bottles. Although I didn’t need the extra credit, I knew immediately that I had to accept the challenge.
Like an idiot, I decided to do my 24 hours next to a tree at the end of my solo–by the time I walked to the tree with my freshly filled water bottles, I had spent 48 hours without food. I picked a small tree in an open area with a southern exposure, and laid down next to it. As the sun rose higher into the sky, I began to realize that choosing a souther exposure at roughly 7,000 feet of elevation might not have been a great idea. Despite my rationing, my supply of water began to dwindle. At some point, the heat combined with my lack of nourishment must have caused me to lose consciousness, because the next thing I remember is one of the evaluators shaking me and talking to me, and not being able to see him clearly, understand what he was saying, or figure out what was going on. Once I did figure out what was happening, I was upset at the evaluator because I thought the contact with him would cause me to lose the extra credit, and possibly credit for the entire assignment. He assured me that it would not be held against me, made me drink some of my remaining water, gave me some more water because of the heat, and left. With the extra water by body was able to regulate my temperature, and the rest of the day was pretty easy, albeit boring. Then the sun went down.
One interesting thing about high elevation is the amount of temperature swing that is fairly normal. I asked later how cold it got that night, and was told that it got down to 16 degrees. It certainly felt colder. Wearing only my canvas work pants and a flannel shirt, I was freezing. at one point I thought about trying to run in place to warm up, but after almost 3 days without food and an exhausting day of enduring heat, I just didn’t have the energy. I curled into a ball with my arms around my legs to conserve heat. Soon, my entire body began to shake violently, in what felt like a caricatured case of shivering.
As I lay curled on the ground shaking, I did not feel misery. Oh, I did at first, but soon that faded and my entire consciousness became aware of only a single thought: “I can make it another moment.” I never thought about making it through the night, or even through an hour or a minute–just through the moment.
I had another similar experience in Nicaragua my junior year, when we spent 24 hours on a boat in open ocean as part of our open water survival training. Cold and wet as the boat bobbed up and down and back and forth, for a time in the middle of the night I again found myself enduring moment by moment. Sometimes something similar happens when I swim a long distance. Somewhere around the 2-mile mark, I usually want to stop and rest for a second. Instead I keep going, one stroke at a time, my whole consciousness absorbed with simply performing one stroke.
I like to refer to that phenomena of the consciousness being whittled down to just the present moment as “living in the moment.” I know that phrase has been used in many ways, but that’s what it means to me, and I’m trying to apply it more to my everyday life.
Not that life is some pain to be endured by focusing on only a single moment at a time–I don’t mean that at all. However, I think that sometimes I focus so much on the future that I don’t fully live out the moment that I am in. Whatever stage I’m in, I always seem to be in a hurry to get to the next stage, to “get on with life.” Sometimes, I’m afraid that I miss valuable opportunities by always being in a rush to get to the next thing. The experiences where I truly lived in the moment, such as my survival experiences, remain indelibly etched into my memory, because I experienced them to the fullest extent possible: to the point where my consciousness was aware of nothing else. How many times in the past might I have made equally lasting memories by simply choosing to experience to the fullest the situation I was in?
I don’t know, but I intend to give myself less reason to wonder in the future.