Wilderness Experiences

When I was 14 and went to Youth Conference for the first time, our stake held a campout. It was right near the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, with lots of trees and greenery. We walked to our tents in the dark and woke up to a breakfast of an orange and nothing else, not unlike the trek experiences I’ve read about. That first afternoon, after “fasting” all day, we were told to take our scriptures and find a place to sit and read them and journal for an hour. And as orchestrated as the experience was, I remember writing in my journal that I did very much feel the Spirit that day. 

Years later, studying the Book of Mormon at BYU, my instructor talked about “wilderness experiences” and how when God needs people to learn things, He sends them out into nature to teach them things He couldn’t otherwise. His examples included Lehi’s family, the Jaredites, Moses and the Israelites, Joseph Smith’s first prayer, and Zion’s camp. My mind went back to that campout and I’ve wondered off and on since, do I have “wilderness experiences?”

I’m not the sort of person who does a lot of hiking or climbing or walking in nature. I live in a city, travel in the city, and stay in cities, for the most part. I went to only 3 years of YW camp, though that decision wasn’t solely related to the outdoorsy-ness. When my parents would take us hiking on family vacations, I rolled my eyes and groaned because it seemed to so fake to my teenage self to suddenly have an interest in being out in nature simply because we were on “vacation” now.

I sometimes wonder if I’m missing out on a vital way to commune with God because of my lifestyle. Maybe my Book of Mormon teacher was right in that some lessons need isolation in nature to learn and I’ve been denying myself those experiences. Perhaps I should do more travelling and camping or spend some Walden-esque time to myself.

Have you had strong “wilderness experiences?” and how have they affected you? Do you make it a point to go out and be with nature? Or has the wilderness been unexpectedly thrust upon you at times? Feel free to share your abandoned-15-miles-away-from-civilization-while-on-a-road-trip stories. Do you think it’s important to seek those sorts of experiences out? What lessons has the wilderness taught you?


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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16 Responses

  1. Jess says:

    First, I’m new-ish to the exponent and I love it! It is so nice to know that others think about and struggle with similar issues.

    I have had several really powerful experiences in nature; when I’m out by myself in the woods or the desert, I often feel a deep sense of how good God is. Nature is so big and beautiful. Being out in it makes me feel profoundly humble and connected to my Creator.

    But I don’t think that ‘wilderness experiences’ have to happen in the literal wilderness. I’ve had those same kinds of feelings in a yoga class or when I am reading something that changes the way I think. For me it is more about being reflective and aware of Heavenly Father’s presence in the world around you. Wherever and whenever you feel that one-on-one connection with Him is a ‘wilderness experience.’ I feel like we all have different spiritual languages that we are predisposed to be sensitive to. My brother, for example, has always been really moved by written language; he will read a poem or scripture and it will really strike a chord with him. When he shares it with me, I don’t get the same feelings. I can look at a piece of art and be brought to tears, but to him it’s just a nice picture. For some of us, being in the great out doors may speak to our souls. For others, it may speak to our need for more bug spray. You just have to figure out what your language is.

  2. DefyGravity says:

    I agree with Jess; there are all kinds of ways God can speak to us. “Wilderness experiences” in the scriptures might be about being in nature, or they might be about being alone with God, and the easiest place to do that was in nature. Joseph Smith talked about wanting to be alone to pray, not specifically about wanting to be in nature. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Or maybe a lot of the prophets were just outdoor people at heart. 🙂

    I have friends who are total outdoor buffs, and find God there. I, like you TopHat, am a city girl at heart. I love big cities and while I find nature beautiful, it does not inspire me the way it does others. I find God in performance and in the written word (mostly prose over poetry).

    A few months ago, a friend called me because he is struggling with the church. He wants to continue to have spiritual experiences and find God, but struggles to do so in church and church related activities. I told him to figure out how God speaks to him, and to make time to do those kinds of things like people make time to go to church.

    It seems strange to think that a God who created us all differently would only have one, or even just a few, ways to speak to us. Since we were created differently, it stands to reason that there are as many ways for God to communicate as there are people to listen.

  3. Amanda says:

    I too agree with defygravity and Jess. I thing Spiritual experiences happen when you’re reflective and receptive, and for many people (including myself) this happens in nature. I grew up in Alaska and the wilderness was thrust upon me (ha), and I can think of many experiences looking out and seeing the beauty of God’s creation and receiving inspiration. I’m also a professional musician, and I have had similar feeling while singing choral Masterworks by Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven. In both instances I was humbles and grateful, I think those two feelings are important when seeking God.

  4. spunky says:

    Yay, Jess! Glad you found us!

    And yes, I agree with both comments– for me, the wilderness thing is anti-religious. I like hiking, and did so when I visited Utah, but it has been years. It also involved a lot of planning for allergies, and food requirments that my body needs, so unless it is very well planned, I tend to avoid wilderness experiences so I don’t feel sick and miserable. In short, I don’t feel particularly spiritual in nature, though I think many- if not most– people do. I have had a spiritual experience in nature, once- a powerful one, but it was a particular experience that can’t be replicated with any ol’ wilderness thing.

    Perhaps one of the reasons all of the prophets had those spiritual wilderness experiences is because the wilderness was so close in proximilty to them, and a cultural or period-based accepted place for solitude. I think any woman could tell you that the privacy of a bathroom stall can be a place of desperate momentary solitude that offers prayerful revelation- and I don’t think that kind of prayer is any less powerful than a similar prayer made in the “wilderness.”

  5. Jesse says:

    I don’t have any profound wilderness experiences, but I love being outside. I am fortunate to live inWI with access to many beautiful open spaces. If I am having a tough day or my children are squirrelly, we go on a hike– and magically, we all seem to feel better and like each other a bit more. Nature is my language of peace. While I enjoy music, the written word, and the spoken word, only physical touch (snuggling the people I love) can come close to being outside, in terms of soothing my soul.

    As others have said, everyone has their own language of the spirit–I’m just very glad my children (and husband) seem to share mine.

  6. RS says:

    i’ve had numerous wilderness experiences. these experiences began at an early age, and were profound enough over the years, that they lead me to a career where i spend a great deal of my time in nature. i have the joy of taking children and adults on fieldtrips to explore the wonders of the natural world. whenever i need clarification on an issue or spiritual direction, i always go into the wilderness (literally) to seek answers. it feeds my soul unlike anything else on earth.

  7. Moonlight says:

    I have grown up playing/camping/being in the outdoors. I love it. I always thought that it was a little strange that I felt closest to God when I’m outside but, I knew that I did. So, when trying to make a large decision or pray in a quiet place (away from a home with four kids) I would take a walk outside. For me the outdoors are a kind of ‘temple’ where I can go to be with God.

    However, I think that God/The Holy Ghost speak with us in our own personal language and that we each have our own personal place to go to be with God. So, if you feel uncomfortable outside or simply don’t feel the spirit strongly there then perhaps your ‘temple’ is somewhere else. I think when communing with God you should try new things and if they don’t work (feel more spiritual) then stick with what’s comfortable.

    Hope this helps 🙂

  8. Megan says:

    In literature the idea of going into the wilderness is a major trope, and it’s explored in a lot of ways. The whole concept isn’t necessarily to go be in the forest or climb a mountain or squidge through a swamp or something, it’s more to move yourself outside of your ordinary because that’s where personal change can take place.

    So yes, Shakespeare drags his poor lovers through the woods where the fairies give them a sharp lesson in infatuation and love, but Elizabeth Bennett has a profound change of self without leaving civilization – simply by going away from her own small world and seeing herself and her ideas against that changed context.

    I think it’s worth point out as well that there is value in this sort of ‘journey’ whether or not it has an overt spiritual aspect to it. Change and challenge and growth can happen in a number of ways that are all interconnected and are all valuable.

    • Rachel says:

      “…to move yourself outside of your ordinary…”

      This is what I think of when I think of wilderness experiences. It is being away from home, away from where you feel comfortable. It is some degree of exile. I believe it is at least partially those other aspects that allow learning and change to take place, perhaps even more so than the createdness or beauty of nature, though those could amplify it.

      When I think about what my personal wildernesses have been, they haven’t been on camping trips, or walks, or hikes (even though I like those things). My wildernesses have been my big moves to big places where I was stretched and made raw by my experiences and loneliness. One is Boston. Another is Vienna. Both cities. Both my wildernesses.

      (As a note of the first though, I really did love to go to Walden, and found measures of peace there, if not the spirit. My friend who visited, on the other hand, was disgusted by how populated it was. She wanted the Thoreau experience, and couldn’t find it there, because so many others wanted it too.)

      I am reminded of the unique Mormon belief that we started in heaven, with God, but had to leave in order to learn, which in turn reminds me of the difference I see in people who never left the town where they started, and those who did leave, before coming back. They are profound.

  9. Diane says:

    I have lived in both the city and the country. When I was younger I lived in Upstate New York, in the middle of nowheresville. To give people some perspective the nearest McDonald’s was an hour and half away. I went to school in a building that held grades k-12, and a graduating class of 12 was considered large.

    I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition in country living vrs. city living. Most of us think of country living as being quiet and laid back. And for the most part that’s true, but, on a quiet night just step outside in the country and its loud. Crickets, cicadas, birds of all sorts.. Trust me they can be dizzily loud. City living on the other hand has more in your face noise, car honking, people cussing, jackhammers to name a few.

    I think I can see God/inspiration can be found in either place. Living in the country I saw puppies being born. There’s beauty in that, you see life in that, living in the city, I saw and continuously see dandelions trying to push themselves up thru a city sidewalk. There’s life in that to. Think how strong that dandelion has to be to want to push thru concrete.

    I also find inspiration thru written words, there are some books,”The Diary of Anne Frank,” “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,”( being two of them) that I read over and over again because I always find something new to learn from them.

    I believe I can see god in pretty much all places, but, sometimes, we just have to step back for a moment to think and appreciate the way it appears

  10. April says:

    I know this isn’t the main point of the post, but forgive me, I just can’t help saying, they took a bunch of active teenagers camping and fed them nothing but an orange until late in the day? Seriously? I believe in fasting–but I think it should be a private, non-mandatory affair, and for safety reasons, fasting should not be combined with physical activity that requires hydration and energy. I can’t imagine an outdoorsy teenager gathering where all the kids would be sedate enough to safely fast, and I would think that the fact that they were away from home at a campout where food was supposed to be provided would make it difficult for the youth to feed themselves if they had health or other reasons not to fast. Someday when I send my kids camping with the other youth, I want them fed.

  11. Andrea says:

    I went on a similar wilderness conference, we were given an orange in the morning at that was it! The conference I attended was in California, and it was in record-breaking heat that day. We had to go from activity to activity (there were at least 15, each one requiring energy we did not have), and if someone decided to sit an activity out, they were reprimanded by one of their “parents for the weekend”. I do not have fond memories of this conference, and ended up with the worst headache I have ever had. I also got in trouble for putting shorts on (apparently everyone was meant to wear long pants). A couple of the youth took off to the beach, which was nearby, I only wish I had gone with them! We also endured a terrible lecture from someone about sexual sins, most of the terms this person used were unknown to us. It was awful.

    In contrast to that experience, I attended Girl’s Camp, which was at a boyscout camp. I had such great experiences at camp each and every year I went. I continued to go after I had finished my years as a camper, and enjoyed being in that setting – it was something I looked forward to every year. I always returned from camp with a stronger testimony and a confirmation of my divine nature.

    I truly believe that all things point to God and his son Jesus Christ. They can be found anywhere you look!

  12. Annie B. says:

    I grew up in a camping/hiking family in the desert, so I guess I’ve had tons of “wilderness experiences”, although I never really thought to specially classify them. As a kid I actually thought the desert was sad and barren because I was into fairies and unicorns and the desert did not seem like the type of place that fairies and unicorns would hang out. As an adult, I find the same desert beautiful. I love the wilderness.

    I definitely feel closer to God on a mountain top than I do in a LDS Temple or church, but that may just be because I no longer identify with the words and ceremonies that go on inside them. In a Temple I feel more like I’m taking part in an organization where loyalty and obedience to the organization is valued over personal closeness to God. I worked as a Hike Guide at a fitness resort for almost 4 years and during that time I felt the furthest from depression I have in my life. I felt very connected to the changing seasons, and grounded and content as far as daily habits and rituals go.

    I also feel a closeness to God in urban sprawl though. I like to think of manmade cities and infrastructure as humankind imitating God’s creative and orderly nature.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    TopHat, I sometimes wonder the same thing, too. Though I’m not a huge fan of camping and general outdoorsiness, I suspect I would gain some spiritual insights if I took a week or two of Waldenesque solitude. I just think I like flush toilets too much to ever do that 🙂

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