Thursday, February 6

The Misunderstood Wilderness: What is Wilderness?

This Part II in the series.  Part I discussed the meaning of "adventure" and can be found here.  In this post I delve into the meaning of "wilderness."  In Part III I bring the two together.

When Wendell Berry set out to write The Unforeseen Wilderness the Red River Gorge was in danger of being inundated under a manmade lake.  The Army Corps of Engineers was bent on building a dam to impound the Red River in the name of flood control.  Legislation signed by President Clinton in 1993 has seemingly stayed that threat indefinitely.  Of course if it can be written it can be unwritten, right?

The Red River through the Gorge is a Kentucky Wild River.  The Upper Red River is a National Wild and Scenic River.  The Upper Gorge area is within the federally designated Clifty Wilderness, the Red River Gorge Geological Area, a National Archaeological District, and the Daniel Boone National Forest.  While there are numerous layers of protection for the wilderness area closest to my home it is still a very tenuous construct.

Ages ago I began to question what “wilderness” meant.  Once I realized I could walk across the Clifty Wilderness in a day I began to understand what the Red River Gorge actually is.  But let me go back just a little bit in time.  I need to explain to you what it was to me before I explain what it is now and how it fits into the grand scheme of things.

I was small within myself.  At times I still feel so small.  My family took me canoeing on the river.  We hiked above tall cliffs, scrambled up the dubiously named Indian Staircase before the Sheltowee Trace was constructed easing access to it, and I saw so many of the area’s iconic geologic formations before I knew much about the wider world.  The geologic formations in the landscape of my mind more strongly resemble the sandstone surreality of the Red River Gorge than any other place on earth. 
Boone's first trip up Indian Staircase
A large natural rock shelter near Indian Staircase that has the curious distinction
of probably being the most visited sensitive archaeological site in the region.

I remember having the distinct impression of a boundless forest north of KY 715 (the “Gorge Loop” road between KY 77 and KY 11).  I think I was at least a teenager before I understood that not so far north of the paved road were ridgetop farms and quasi-suburbs and the settled areas of Menifee County.  The wilderness mystique of my youth was shattered probably in looking at a road map.

I dropped out of college in 1993 with the passive-aggressive self-destructive intent to get a mundane job, buy some outdoor gear, and “get to know the Gorge.”  I wrote that in my journal.  That plan I made good on.  For a few years I worked dead-end factory jobs into increasing disgruntledness.  In my spare time I hiked and hiked and hiked.  I devoured Robert H. Ruchhoft’s Land of the Arches in a literary sense, but also as a fledgling life-lister I devoured it physically.  Meaning as I hiked each trail in the book I ticked it off systematically hiking them all.

My perspective of the Gorge region evolved then into something like it is today.  My concept of the world, my mental map, became more accurate and more realistic.  And ever since I’ve been compelled to continue filling in the gaps.

Like I said, at some point I realized that the label “wilderness” was somewhat inaccurate.  While I still enjoyed losing myself in the depths of the Gorge, I also realized it was a relatively small designated wilderness area as federal lands go.  I began to feel stifled by its diminutive land area.  I craved bigger and deeper wildernesses.  For years I felt like I had “hiked out” the Gorge.

As a quick aside, after moving back from Colorado I have discovered a new love for revisiting old haunts, obscure and well-trodden both, and I enjoy just going and being in the woods surrounding the Red River.

Somewhere in the Tenmile Range of Colorado
Anyway, as the years have passed I’ve found myself stomping across bigger tracts of land not so designated as the Clifty Wilderness.  I’ve expanded my comfort zone in places like Colorado’s Lost Creek Wilderness.  I’ve found places that truly do feel wild and dangerous to explore.  The scale of the West is stunning, overwhelming, and mind-shattering to contemplate.  It is a place where you can truly get lost and lose your life.

What’s interesting is that in my own backyard, literally, I’ve found areas wild if not remote.  And I’ve found areas hard to reach simply by being bound by private holdings, natural and built barriers, and just because they’ve been forgotten. 

Time has made some of these places wilderness.  The Gorge itself was once densely inhabited by those who depended on its abundant resources for their survival.  Much like the ridge behind my house, the Red River Gorge has taken back much of the civilization that had been imposed upon it in the past century’s logging industry.  What were once thriving communities have been reduced to constituent molecules by oxidation and rot.  Places that were the center of communities have been cut off by vegetation and erosion.   

That we have a place like the Red River Gorge and its Clifty Wilderness is due to the efforts of people like Mr. Berry and the late Justice William O. Douglas.  And while I’m not arguing that their efforts were in vain—on the contrary, I applaud and feel indebted to them—it seems that perhaps if we’d not gone to such great efforts to protect the area it might still be wild and mostly unspoiled if a bit soggy.  “Wilderness” in our time is little more than a title, and hardly what our imaginations stretch it out to be.  We’re surrounded by so much empty and unused land—underutilized land—that we sometimes look at the green polygons on the map and see them only. 
Looking into Clifty Wilderness (Gladie Creek) where thousands of people tread each year
A few miles away is the Short Creek drainage which is privately owned
and sees a tiny fraction of the number of visitors the "wilderness" area does
If only we had put our energy into allemansr├Ątten legislation instead of the protecting small parcel federal lands. . .how much better would the world be if we weren’t confined to only the publicly owned lands.  What happens to your ability to enjoy wild areas when the government shuts down as it did this past Fall?  Many were shut out.  I was fortunate as a local to the Gorge area to be able to continue enjoying our “public” lands despite locked gates and restrictions on overnight camping.  

What is considered—in both collective consciousness and legislation—to be wilderness was closed like an amusement park because of political infighting. 

I’m beginning to feel that private lands are the future of recreational opportunities for Americans.  Federally “protected” lands seem to be less so.  While I completely understand the importance of protecting sensitive resources I also feel the broad strokes approach to land management we’ve seen over the past few decades has only contributed to an increasing misconception about what wilderness is. 

For me, wilderness is simply land that isn’t easily accessible to the masses.  As our society becomes more sedentary more areas become wilderness based on my definition.  As more and more people opt to sit on the couch or recreate with machinery more places become wild because people become too lazy to visit them.

If you’re keen, Dear Reader, you’ve picked up on a key contradiction in what I’ve been writing about.  If you come back for part three of this exploration I promise I’ll address it in full.

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