Field Notes

Confronting Our Personal Weaknesses in the Wilderness

Oct 4
Confronting Our Personal Weaknesses in the Wilderness
Posted October 4, 2013

By John Bradford

We worked hard getting into basecamp. Back packs loaded with the 50 pounds of gear needed for surviving a week in the high Sierra wilderness, we hiked in the 10 miles and 2500 of elevation gain. I was in the company of good men; a priest, 10 seminarians on a mission of worship, self-discovery and trail work.  When we arrived at our basecamp we were somewhat surprised to find that we would share it, for 24 hours, with a secular, coed trail crew, which would be leaving the next day. The potential for evangelization, and frankly, confrontation, was ripe, especially since we were using the same kitchen facilities; we weren’t disappointed. 

One of my personal challenges with the 7 deadly sins, like a lot of men, is controlling and channeling my anger in confrontational situations. How do I let God our Father mentor me more deeply into the man that he wants me to be by opening myself up to these learning opportunities?  

Upon arriving in camp we started setting up our tents in an area removed from the others. When we completed our basecamp, we headed off and found a good location for the Sanctuary and began building the Altar of Sacrifice. Some men helped one another move large granite rocks for the foundation, while others searched for a Mensa. Some of the men hauled smaller rocks to the site while a few took the job of stone masons and began fitting the stones together. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man from the other camp walking briskly toward us. His body language told me that he was disturbed, perhaps angry. He looked like a man heading into a confrontation. Through years of experience working in the construction industry, filled with men with high drive and ready to rumble attitudes, I have learned to confront these situations head on with candor and courage. I intuitively squared my shoulders, set my jaw, made a sign of the Cross, prayed a Hail Mary, repeated the mantra “no hatred, no fear”, and made a beeline that intercepted him before he entered the area where the men were building the Altar. As I approached him with the same speed and deliberation that he approached us, he finally detected me with his peripheral vision, hesitated and slowed, allowing me to square around, walk to within 2 feet of him, look him in the eye and extend my hand for a firm handshake. “My name is John, what can I do for you?” I said as I firmly gripped his hand and looked him in the eye. “What do you guys think you’re doing?” he said, waving his hand toward the Altar. My kidneys revealed that subtle tell-tale pain that informed me that my adrenal glands were prepping my body for conflict. I found myself fighting an internal battle of control for my heart and respiration rates and a flow of spontaneous, negative and aggressive thoughts. Gathering my composure I said “We are Catholic men, seminarians and a priest. We came here to build trails. We are building the Altar where we will celebrate daily Mass.” I continued looking him square in the eye as he retorted “This is a wilderness area and you are not allowed to do that here!” My kidneys ached and my breathing quickened. As I fought an interior battle between telling him that this was none of his business and he should leave before he is injured, or finding a friendlier way to engage him and defuse the situation; a sense of calm prevailed. From somewhere within me the words came out “At the end of the week, before we leave, we will remove the Altar and place the rocks back into their natural setting.” He softened, stepped back and said “Well ok then, ok” and headed back to his camp. 

That was just the beginning. Later in the day a woman from the group accused a seminarian and me of stealing her protein bars from the kitchen. Surprised by this accusation we tried helping her find them but that only increased her insistence that we had stolen them. Again, I was getting fed up on my internal battlefield and wanted to verbally drag her over the coals for even suggesting such a thing. But something held me back. Instead I struggled and politely said “I am sorry Miss but we did not take your protein bars” as we turned and left her fuming and ranting about our apparent larceny. 

Two weeks prior to this expedition we had been in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness clearing 10 miles of trail with cross cut saws, of fallen ponderosa pines. During that time we ate freeze dried backpacker food. Most of us lost 10 to 15 pounds due to the lack of quality protein and carbs. We had to filter our drinking water from murky slow running springs. It was a glorious ascetic adventure. We authentically thanked God for the cleansing and redemptive nature of that experience. 

The next morning, in the water rich Sierra, following morning prayer and the Sacrifice of the Mass, we headed down to the communal kitchen for breakfast. As we approached we could smell and hear bacon and potatoes cooking on cast iron griddles. “Wow” I thought to myself, “this is the lap of luxury”. When the other group began crowding for position in the chow line, we naturally chose the back of the line. As we waited our turn for food we heard several of the other group’s members complain loudly about having to eat bacon eggs again! I just shook my head. In the meantime they piled food upon their plates without regard for the crew at the end of the line. Observing this the cook shouted “Hey you might want to go easy on your portions, there are some men who need food at the end of the line.” But this fell on deaf ears. By the time the first of us made it to the table there was only one large serving left that we shared among the 12 of us.
Following breakfast, a man in his mid-30’s, from the “group of ungratefuls”, approached me. I extended my hand for a handshake as he stood sideways to me so his buddies could hear what he was about to say. His hand shake was limp and without strength or purpose. “Who are you guys anyway?” he said to me with an insulting smirk on his face. “We are Roman Catholic men; a priest and seminarians. We build and clear trails” I said to him. “Do you think you are really going to get any work out of them?” he said as he and his buddies laughed. I had been in moments like this before. I truthfully regret to say that I have displaced that type of smirk with my fist. My entire masculine being wanted to rise up and tell him: “Get your best men together right now. We are going to work you into the ground until there is nothing left but a toxic grease spot!” But I didn’t. I looked at his buddies and I looked at him and from somewhere found the wherewithal to simply say “We will do just fine”. 


The most difficult work of formation is helping a boy or a man, and especially ourselves, arrive at the point of maturity where the man can “see himself as he is seen”. This is the doorway into the internal battlefield. It is the hard and narrow way. It is the starting point of true leadership. It is the sign on the trail pointing to an examined life worth living. It leads to the frontier where a man can learn the deeper truths and connections in God’s complex universe; how cause and effect is separated in time and space; where the virtue of patience is cultivated so he can appreciate the true meaning of “all in God’s time.”

Then the gates of God’s Grace began opening. Tony, the leader of the “group” came up to me, offered me his hand, looked me sincerely in the eyes and asked “What denomination are you?” Roman Catholic” I said. “I am Roman Catholic also” he said. “I would be honored to join you in the future.” That evening two young USFS men hiked late into camp. They had been fighting a fire at the base of the mountain. As they entered our campfire area one of the men named Daniel asked “Is this Wilderness Outreach´╗┐?” I stood up and said “yes”. He approached gave me a joyful and strong handshake and said “Praise be to God, I am glad I finally get to work with some men who know how to work." 

All during the week we helped Grant the cook prepare and cleanup after meals; in fact we told him that he was the leader of the kitchen and that we would be his assistants. Treated like a brother, he looked forward to our daily fraternity born in the struggle of service and work. One evening around the campfire he confided in us that he had spent time in prison; that he had been volunteering as a trail crew cook since he was released; that he had grown to hate the trail volunteers because they were so unappreciative and entitled. “But you guys are different; you work harder than any crew I have been with; you come back into camp singing, laughing and praying. You treat me as one of yours as a friend and a brother. I have never seen anything like it!”

By the end of the week we had built rock water bars and rock steps up and down the 3 miles and 2000’ feet of elevation gain from Pocket Meadow to Silver Pass. On the final day of work near the pass, we were completing some rock steps when a wilderness ranger named Rob hiked out of the wilderness toward us. “Who are you guys?” he asked. “We are Roman Catholic men; a priest and seminarians. We build and clear trails” I said to him. He quietly looked up and down the trail. “This is amazing. This is some of the best trail work I have ever seen.” Later when Rob returned to his office he sent an email out to us and copied his colleagues up and down the Sierra honoring us with his praise of the work we had accomplished. 

John Bradford is the founder of Wilderness Outreach, a Roman Catholic Lay Apostolate whose mission is to challenge priests, seminarians and laymen to embrace and develop their God given manhood.