The Human Game: Wilderness, Nature Casinos, Chimp Muscles, and Why Being Alone Matters

I recently had the privilege of spending several days camping in Glacier National Park. The first couple nights I had company, but the third day I had the trail and the backcountry campsite to myself.

bowman lake, glacier, national park, montana

Solo hiking trips are, at least in so much as safety is concerned, not recommended, especially in places like the wild lands of the Western US, where you’re not, strictly speaking, on top of the food chain. Bears, mountain lions, wolves, wolverines, bison, moose, rutting elk, and the assorted animal dangers of the wilds aside, though, hiking on your own is dangerous. Injuries like a twisted ankle can turn deadly, if you happen to twist your ankle a few miles up a trail and get caught after dark. A slip, a fall, a miscalculation . . . a wrong turn is all it takes. And wrong turns are easy to make when you’re alone, with no one to check your thoughts against, cold, rushed, hungry, tired, and dehydrated.

On a day-to-day basis, the greatest threat to your life, no matter who you are, is other people. It’s one of those little things we simply recognize, internalize, and don’t worry much about as a species, but it’s been this way forever. At least since some critical threshold was crossed, and intelligence went from a minor outlying trait to the determining factor in our domination of the globe.

Out there, though, when there’s no one but you, no one to help or save you but your own cleverness, caution, and preparation, the greatest threat to your life is . . . still a human. You.

I thought about this as I packed my day pack for the trip from the head of Bowman Lake to Hole-in-the-Wall. I have only so much room, so what should I take from my main pack for the trip? What are all the things that can go wrong, and what do I need to survive them?

The first step is making sure I have a camp to get back to. I triple-stake my tent, secure my windbreak tarp with more line (the winds had snapped some of them), and make sure my sleeping bag is entirely on top of my sleeping mat, so if the rains come down too hard for the drainage to keep up, it will float, nice and dry, in my then-flooded tent.

Water? Unlike a desert hike, water isn’t critical. The steep walls of the glacially sculpted valleys are shot through by fast little waterfalls. One 2.0 liter bladder for the pack, and a filter, then. The filter’s probably overkill, too, since the water is going almost directly from a glacier to my mouth.

Food? A couple bars, a couple apples. Enough to fuel a body in constant motion, and fuel a night of shivering if I get caught up there.

Clothing? Two layers of shirts, thermals, and a waterproof jacket. Add a space blanket and an emergency poncho. The day is warm enough, but the night is supposed to be cold and rainy, and the wind in the mountains might as well be thrown knives.

Compass, map, waterproof matches, medkit, tape, warm hat, knife, bear spray . . . And that’s about it. Unless I’m forgetting something critical and it kills me.

It’s a dangerous game, but a fun one.

H Headed Back Down Sunlight
Whatever the risk, the view is worth it.

It’s not so much about self-reliance as the underlying topography of the act which makes it so much fun, like how the boulders and pools below the surface shape whitewater, because to play this game is to be human. This is the Human Game. It’s a game you win or lose before you even start playing.

It all goes back to chimpanzee muscles.


Chimpanzee muscle fibers are much longer than humans, making them, pound-for-pound at least twice as strong as humans. This figure doesn’t seem like much compared to the often exaggerated figure of four or five times the strength of humans . . . but for perspective, it means that a chimpanzee the same weight as my girlfriend would be notably stronger than me.

Imagine Wren bench pressing more than my weight. It would be pretty amazing to see, but Chimp-Wren wouldn’t even break a sweat.

Resting in the wind shelter at 12,635'
Resting in the wind shelter at 12,635′

Why did we lose these strong muscles? Well, our weaker, shorter, muscle fibers allow us to achieve a level of fine motor control beyond the grasp of other apes. It would be very interesting to figure out exactly when this change occurred (and should be possible via genetic studies), because that will probably tell us very closely when the Human Game started. It was the moment when strength became the secondary feature in determining survival, and our minds took the wheel.

Given the relative abundances of humans and chimpanzees, the lesson is pretty clear: when it comes to strength or intelligence, pick intelligence, every time. If Nature is a casino (a very high-stakes one at that) intelligence is the house, no question.

To break that metaphor and venture into a closely related vein of reality for a moment, casinos are great places to learn an awful lot about human nature. We happily risk what we have for the possibility of more, and the first instinct of most of us, when we realize the odds are not in our favor, is to start counting cards. When the rules are against us, we cheat.

When we’re running low on water, we turn the seas fresh or pump from deep below, or build rivers running from the wet places to the dry, and lakes to hold them in preparation for the dry months. When we can’t farm enough food we find ways to store more food, to ship it from other places, we change the plants themselves to grow in a wider range of climates . . . and on and on.

This world is a human world, and we build wonders with barely a moment’s notice. Maybe it’s more noticeable in places like the United States, that are new. When was the last time you really, really, looked at the city around you? Every time I venture to Las Vegas, where I grew up, and I see that ocean of lights and people, I get hit by the hammer blow, This place did not exist a century ago. We have, in a century, filled a valley with such wonders of engineering and art and so very many people that, even a quarter of a millennium ago, it would have been heralded as a wonder of the ages . . . now it’s just one more city, not even a very good one, really, and we never even stop to think of it.

We lose something in this, too, when we jet around the world on wings we built, or even walk beneath the endless lengths lines of lights we’ve strung up to rob the world of the darkness which limits us, powered by wind, water, gravity, sunlight, the splitting of atoms, and the bodies of the mindless things which came before and died.

We spend all of our time as part of a seething mass, a horde, a hungry and endless swarm. We take this mass for granted, and simultaneously worry about it all falling apart. We forget the truth: if half of us died tomorrow, just dropped dead, and world awoke to only three-and-a-half billion . . . it would barely be a blip on the trendline of human history in a thousand years.

We don’t really play the Human Game anymore, because our ancestors, in most respects, won it centuries before we were born. Whatever changes to climate or culture come, whatever future wars and plagues ravage, humanity will most likely continue. To go back to the casino, we’ve made ourselves the house, and the only way we’ll lose is if we burn the whole place down . . . and soon, because it’s a safe bet we’ll be opening up new franchise locations in an eyeblink of the universe.

Then you walk out past the lights.

Past the road.

Past the developed campgrounds.

Past the running water, past the other hikers and campers, past all of that.

Still there are trails, still there are footprints, still there are names attached to every hill, pond, and stream, every rise and dip in the land measured, recorded, and visualized . . . but here, you can still play the Human Game, and it’s something everyone should do. It says something about how thoroughly we’ve won that game that you can only really do this in a few places, most specially preserved for just such a purpose, their entrances controlled, permission to enter tightly held.

Still, it can be done, and it should.

For in these places, you are Alone. You are not part of the unstoppable mass, you are not a piece of the juggernaut of history, you are just you. You and you alone. There is only self, and awareness of mortality, there among the trees and the stones, surrounded by the cry of angry wind, dancing between the teeth of the cold which would so happily and thoughtlessly kill you, you are so small. So fragile, your existence so tenuous. A loose stone, a breaking branch, a frightened animal, a surprise storm, any of these things could obliterate you. People would come, they would find you, mourn you, remember you, for awhile, but you would be gone.

It’s in these rare moments, when you are just yourself, you can really appreciate what a tiny sliver of time and space you are, a consciousness squatting briefly in borrowed matter, and accept that you are flailing about, trying to make waves in an infinite ocean.

It’s in these rare moments, when you are just yourself, you can really appreciate what a tiny sliver of time and space you are, a consciousness squatting briefly in borrowed matter, and accept that you are flailing about, trying to make waves in an infinite ocean. Always, though, following these moments, an ancient voice roars in to fill that void, and makes you understand just how great everyone is, because somehow, each of us has faced this lonely vastness, understood our smallness, and come together to defy it.

Each of us is a drop in an ocean, but together we are the ocean. We do not make waves; we are the waves. We do not weather storms; we become them, create them, control them. When we are the ocean, though, we cannot see ourselves for what we are, as individuals or as a whole. For that, we must rise up above the seas, high and alone, into the places the ocean cannot follow, and gain that higher perspective, ride for a time the storms, embrace the hungry wind, and live. In these moments, these lonely moments of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability, eyes up, gaze out, each footstep chosen with care, above the wide ocean and isolated, separate from the rest, we can find the wisdom to be small, and the courage to be great.

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