Tuesday, February 11

The Misunderstood Wilderness: On the Right Path

In the previous two (or three or four) posts I got into what it means to seek adventure and what is meant by “wilderness.”  These two things are inextricably tied together for me because when I go seeking adventure I most often do so in areas that are segregated from the flow of human traffic.
I alluded to the reason in the next to last paragraph of the second post when I said:
“…wilderness is simply land that isn’t easily accessible to the masses.” 

Looking toward the Continental Divide and Indian Peaks Wilderness from Thorodin Mountain
In recent months all the discussion around the Chainring family table has been about how I’m not really as anti-social and introverted as has always been advertised.  I get on with people okay once I open up.  It’s that initial icebreaking moment that I tend to avoid.  And historically I’ve avoided it by escaping into the woods or mountains and staying gone for hours or days.
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I don’t feel fulfilled until I’ve been able to share my experiences with others—either through written or photographic expression or by “guiding” others to similar experiences—and therefore my experiences of wilderness are rarely solitary in my mind.  I always think of how my experience will translate into some kind of communication with others.  Many times while I’m hiking or mountain biking on some solo jaunt I am also fantasizing about bringing others back into the place.  Most often I think of how I can share with my wife, children and close friends the amazing places I get myself to.
The conundrum then becomes: what if the people I take to the wild places I love most go back and damage them in some way?  This actually happened.  I took a cousin to visit one of the coolest (but off-the-beaten-path) waterfalls in the Red River Gorge area.  We’d been there fifteen minutes or so taking pictures and each of us wandering independently when I noticed he was carving his name in the soft sandstone of the rock shelter behind the waterfall.  I went berserk.  As far as I can tell no one has ever found the body.
However, most often I go alone because I have time to take solo-adventures where trying to coordinate group adventures involves too much forethought and schedule warping.  I’m pretty impulsive and way too opportunistic to be able to plan very far ahead.  Ironic that I’ve chosen a career path in planning.
A long time ago my mom got onto me because I spent so much time hiking alone.  And without thinking about why I answered: “If I wait until I’ve got somebody to go with me I’ll never get to go.”  Looking back on twenty years of adventures I can attest that I would have seen far less, and done far less, if I’d heeded conventional wisdom and waited for a partner.  I can also say with some certainty that I wouldn’t be as self-reliant, I wouldn’t have the level of confidence in my own abilities (something I lack in other realms of life), and I wouldn’t have all the amazing memories and experiences I gained during all those opportunistic adventures. 

And so I wonder why I am compelled to go into the woods or mountains to recreate.  Why do I feel my adventures have to be undertaken in uninhabited places?  I’m never content just to go walk around the block.  Since moving back to Kentucky I’ve taken to road cycling, but mainly because we have so many lonely rural backroads that it appeals to the side of me that loves the earth divorced from human influence.
I’m sure it’s related to my post-apocalyptic fantasies.  Being alone in the woods gives you the feeling of being in that sort of world.  It’s easy to sink deeper into the fantasy when you can’t see any built environments.  Ultimately, for me anyway, it goes back to my unique quirks.  And I think that’s why I’m okay with tossing everyone else’s definition or expectations of wilderness out the window.
Miles from the trailhead there are no societal expectations.  Oh, of course there is the expectation to Leave No Trace.  There’s the expectation to obey the rules of the land managers wherever you happen to be roaming assuming you’re not trespassing or already breaking the rules with your mere presence.  What I’ve found is that I follow “the rules” instinctively.  I don’t have the urge to destroy plants or rock formation.  I’ve always had an aversion to carving messages in the stone.  I’ve never been inspired to cut down a live tree for firewood or fun.  And so “the rules” are almost offensive to me, as if I can’t police myself.  But then I see the damage others inflict.  I see the garbage discarded miles from the trailheads or washed in from further upstream. 
Ages ago I came up with the mantra: “I must be on the right path” when out exploring for obscure places.  Too many times I found myself following an intermittent trail of empty beer cans.  I came to the ironic conclusion that if I were seeking solitude and a unique experience then I was bound to be afflicted by evidence to the contrary.  And who would have gone before me to find the secret places of the woods?  Someone crass enough to leave their empties behind.  My common dream of exploration was shared with the invisible frat boy always a few steps ahead of me.

From a frontier tailgating party
But what do we do?  Do we exclude everyone but those who deeply appreciate wild places?  How do we make that kind of determination?  And what if I don’t make the cut?
That’s just more regulation.  That’s more of the kind of stuff I can’t stand.  Rules in the woods.  Bah!  I don’t go into the outdoors to live by rules.  I go to escape from them.  I go into the undeveloped places of the world to practice my harmless anarchism.  The best form of regulation truly is peer pressure.  Be the example.  Show your distaste for poor behavior.  Clean up after others and encourage everyone to do so.  Shame will keep people from doing things.  This is one instance where more of the right kind of people in the wilderness is a good thing.
I don’t think its right to “protect” the environment from human impacts by excluding people from the places we mean to protect.  People cannot appreciate intangible things easily.  If I see the rock art in its proper context I can better imagine what its creator must have been thinking.  Photographs frame out so much.  Landscapes never occur in 2D.  Wind cannot be felt through a painting.  And how do we convey the scent of a beautiful place?  In this digital age when you can explore the world remotely via Google Earth it is incredibly important to get people to reconnect with the actual natural environment.  We have to live viscerally.  It’s not healthy to be an armchair Magellan.  If you completely ban people from sensitive places long enough they’ll stop supporting the protection thereof.
Socially we are encouraged to value expedience and convenience.  For ages I’ve been appalled by the proliferation of drive-thru establishments.  Drive-thru Hot-n-Ready™ pizza, drive-thru tobacco outlets, drive-thru liquor stores (still don’t understand how that’s okay), and…we translate the drive-thru experience to all other aspects of life.  Sometimes we take it too far though.  Like when the USFS closes a forest road to vehicular traffic for some kind of maintenance and the masses get up in arms because they can’t drive to their favorite camp site or overlook. 

Or mountain bike on their favorite trail
Gated forest roads only increase our supply of “wilderness.”  That’s a good thing.  I’ve written about this before, but back when I was a rock climbing guide I had an experienced climber from New England hire me as his vacation climbing partner.  He was looking to climb only classic traditional routes in the Red River Gorge.  One route I really wanted him to do was a two pitch 5.9 called Minas Tirith on a free standing pinnacle of the same name.  At the time the road that provides close vehicular access was closed due to a landslide.  It was easy enough to bike the two and a half miles past the locked gate to the approach trail.  My client was thrilled to get such an adventure while the frequent car-camping party-crowd were busy lighting up online forums and bashing the Forest Service for denying them access to their favorite spot. But no one had denied them access, only their cars.
Ultimately my escape into the wild is an escape from the expectations of what I feel is an oppressive society.  We are oppressed by the capitalist mandate that we exist as little more than industrious perpetually spending consumers. 
If we can escape via contrived adventures in pretend wildernesses that is still a good thing.  We need greenspaces and undeveloped lands in which to throw ourselves and our suppressed post-apocalyptic fantasies.  Even the most dedicated urbanite needs some open space every once in a while.  Even the most die-hard car camper can gain something from going off-trail. 
I just wish they’d leave their garbage in the car.  Or at home.  Or not generate it in the first place.

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