I just finished watching the film Leave No Trace, and I’m still processing and coming to terms with it. The performances by Thomasin McKensie and Ben Foster, as the daughter and father, are utterly flawless. They imbue their characters with such emotion at times it feels like I was watching a documentary. Based upon the Peter Rock book My Abandonment, (which was inspired by a series of Oregonian newspaper articles in 2004 about a real father-daughter found living in Oregon’s Forest Park), the film treads on the edge of what we consider acceptable in modern American society. It asks what if home is the wilderness? Are people homeless even if the only place they can find peace is out on the fringes, in nature, away from everyone else?
I’m not going to get into spoilers, but director Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the screenplay, handles the story like a novel. We come to the film walking into a fully realized world, stepping into the hiking boots of Tom and Will, and Granik doesn’t waste any time trying to delve into their backstory, instead we just see them living in the woods of Oregon. We get a sense for what it might really be like to not merely dabble, but to actually live off the grid in the vast natural wonders that the United States has to offer.
As someone who has spent some time practicing dispersed camping in national forests, living the Leave No Trace mantra, hiking miles into the backcountry, pitching my tent far off the trail, digging holes for my waste, using only deadfall wood to make my fires, in general making as minimal an impact on nature as possible, I found this film to be something of a revelation. There is a cathedral like beauty to being in the wilderness that cannot be denied, especially when all the residue of civilization falls away and you find yourself truly alone in nature.
It’s not silent, there is a rhythm to the forest, but when the cacophony of city life, the monotony of suburban sprawl, the constant thrum of traffic fall away, something subtle happens to your thoughts, to your mind, to your spirit, your self and your soul. You realize you can hear your own voice -- not the one we’ve all been taught to hear in school to find ourselves, not the one we learn to use in our jobs or in church, or with our families or friends -- but our own real voices, stripped of all artifice, all politeness, bereft of all the window dressings that normally adorn the social constructs that we think of as us.
The same thing happens after a time sailing on the water once the last vestiges of land have dropped away and the only thing you can see all around you is the limitless sea and the clouds in the sky above. When all you hear is the cadence of the waves against the hull, the rippling of the wind in the sails, something special happens. It’s a transformation of sorts, like in the deep wilderness, you look through your self, past all the distractions, to the core of who you are. It’s especially true at night, when even the waves seem to vanish, leaving only the dark and if you’re lucky the stars and moon above. It’s a gorgeous, humbling privilege and also a burden because it’s so easy to forget, to lose the timber of that voice. It’s so simple to slide back into that space where literally all we hear is noise, where all we see are mesmerizing illusions, where all we taste is artificial.
I’m not like Will, I’m not Chris McCandless or Timothy Treadwell, I like modern convenience too much to ever really abandon society. I love air conditioning, washing machines, hot showers and a soft bed. I love screens that keep bugs out and toilets that flush. And I love movies. And television. And reading books on my kindle. And like most people I’ve got a raging addiction to being connected to WiFi, to the internet, to social media and I am caught in the same feedback loop that imprisons so many these days. And yet, I remember that voice, the one that speaks when no one else is around, I can’t forget it no matter how hard I might try, so every day I work to find a bit more balance, to live a bit more in harmony with the gorgeous natural world.