Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do we "need" the wilderness?

Wilderness-loving guys like me tend towards hippiness (not like me.)  Loving to quote John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, they often talk about the spiritual "need" in mankind to have wilderness.  In this, they (as well as those they are quoting) are usually, actually, projecting their own tastes on to others.  I love the wilderness.  I love nothing so much as a hike in the mountains in the summer (but with a mantle of snow still on the higher elevations to give the mountains a suitably dramatic color-scheme!)  Backpacking in somewhere that you can't get to in a single day will tend to thin out the crowds considerably (something you'll probably greatly appreciate if your last wilderness experience was in Yosemite Valley, or the Great Smokies, or at geyser central in Yellowstone, or the south Rim of the Grand Canyon in the summer... or anywhere else where there are hordes of people making lots of noise and getting in the way.  I like this a lot too--some of my favorite experiences ever were deep in the desert wilderness of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the High Uintas Wilderness and the Weminuche Wilderness.  One of the things that I liked most about them was the very fact that they were remote and people weren't always about (although that's a little less true in the Chicago Basin today--the Weminuche has become a bit of a backpacker central, or so I hear.)

But I don't need it.  I just really like it.

To be perfectly honest, for the most part of human history, the wilderness was not to be embraced or explored, it was simply avoided.  Mountains were difficult barriers.  Deserts were inhospitable and unwelcoming.  Forests were dangerous and useless except as a source of timber.  People tamed the wilderness, they didn't coexist with it.  It wasn't until society became wealthy enough, and possessed of enough luxury, that people could afford to choose to recreate in the wilderness, or that anyone would have thought to do so.  Starting in about the mid-1800s, the first pioneers of wilderness recreation, or of living simply in a wilderness setting because you choose to, even if you had other options, first popped up.  Guys like Thoreau, or Muir, or Roosevelt were unusual. 

The Wilderness Act of 1964 systematized the notion of wilderness in the US, but it wasn't until the 70s that backpacking and hiking as a significant hobby became more widely popular.

So this notion that we have to get back into the wilderness, to reconnect with something or other, is a bunch of baloney.  We have to do absolutely nothing of the kind.  My wife has no interest in doing so.  She likes (or maybe better said, she tolerates) day-hiking, at least somewhat.  She'll occasionally tolerate car-camping.  But the notion of backpacking out in the wilderness and sleeping in a little backpacking tent sounds like a nightmare to her.  It's not something at all that the needs.

Some of us really enjoy it.  That's all there is to it.  It's nice to be able to do things that you enjoy.  But recasting the experience as some kind of spiritual journey or higher calling only makes you look like a moron.

Anyway, for the curious, supposedly the most remote area in the Lower 48 (defined somewhat arbitrarily as the place farthest from any road.  Given the extreme primitiveness and low traffic of many roads, this may not be a meaningful distinction, but there it is anyway) is in the greater Yellowstone area; the northwest corner of Wyoming.  Curiously, I don't know how it can be that remote if it's supposedly quite near to the USFS Hawk's Rest ranger station.  If there's a ranger station nearby, it's arguably not that remote.

Here's some pictures of the area, although not specifically in the Teton wilderness, where this supposed "most remote spot" is--these are from neighboring Washakie Wilderness.  That's really the thrill of the greater Yellowstone area, which is somewhere around 20 million acres of land.  There are two national parks and over half a dozen wilderness areas--as well as de facto wilderness making up much of the intervening land between, that straddles the line between Wyoming and Montana on the western side, centered around Yellowstone National Park itself.  What a spectacular bit of conservationism.

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