I’ve camped, hunted and fished in some of the country’s finest wild areas. Chasing caribou across the endless nothing of the Alaskan tundra was nothing short of a great outdoor experience, a time of isolation and a blanket of quiet that takes one a couple days to adjust to. Something most of us can’t imagine around here.
No radio, no road noise, no nothing — just an overwhelming quiet that rides on the lip of a constant wind from one distant horizon to the next, marking the treeless landscape’s only borders, limits that only move farther away as one hikes closer. Like a sea of land, the size of it all is worth the price of admission.
Packing mules and riding our way through the Selway Bitterroots was, in a way, just the opposite. Millions of mature trees limited our view as we followed secretive horse trails first cleared by trappers and Native Americans who found the isolation and the promise of fortune and lonely adventure in the granite slopes of the Rockies to their liking.
We camped each night in a different area, packed the animals each morning, then rode to yet another trout stream or mountain top. Our daily ritual followed a winding route, one that changed each evening as we studied our campfire, a shared source of primal comfort and cooking heat.
We drank from the same cold streams that quenched the thirst of those early mountain men and we sifted creek water and sand looking for the same twinkle of golden flakes that teased the hopes of buckskinned explorers.
I’ve chased bears and mountain lines in Idaho’s Clearwater peaks, a wild and steep piece of the Rockies where spring snow drifts make snowshoes the footwear of choice.
The hounds we followed were trail-wise and true, tough and determined dogs with shredded ears and snouts bearing ugly scars from close encounters with angry critters. The hill sides are steep and slick and canyons so deep, twisted, and long they seemed to swallow the yells and howls of the long-legged hounds.
And the wilderness of southwest Colorado is just as fine. The southern tail of the Rockies is somewhat tamer than the peaks to the north, but just as wild and wonderful.
The West Elk Wilderness area, like every one of America’s designated and protected wilderness areas, is a place set aside for future generations to enjoy, a place that restricts ever y effort to tame it. No vehicles, no motors, no mechanized anything.
Its shoe leather or saddle sores, there’s no other way in or out of a wilderness area, no way to ruin a wilderness experience. What you carry in you carry out, plus anything else you find.
I once helped a friend roll boulders aside to recover a bottle cap that he had spotted, a footprint that a careless someone before us had dropped.
Wilderness itself is grand, an escape path for those willing to walk it, a place of history and a place of discovery. Large areas of national forests and public areas have been designated as Wilderness Areas thankfully and thoughtfully, further protected from human greed, a force that brings with it roads and pipes and trash and ruin, a force driven by political favor and profit.
Today’s plate of greed is about fossil fuels, namely natural gas and oil, fuels to provide a short-sighted fix for a persistent problem, which is easier to feed and fix. Some say we need to drill more, drill here, drill there, “just drill” they foolishly say, as if the taking of underground minerals will magically fix the escalating price of gasoline and somehow repair our status in the world and our local economy.
A well, both for drilling and production, requires access and a road is like untreatable terminal cancer to the health of a protected area and its wildlife. Roads are an invitation to destruction, plain, simple and true. They never go away. They just let the wild in wilderness be hauled away a load at a time.
Nothing is very wild here in Ohio but at least our state parks and other public lands offer some retreat from everyday stresses. Let’s hope that profit and politics don’t haul away our wild places, possibly the only tangible treasure we’ll leave for future generations.
And while we’re at it, let’s encourage our national representatives to recognize the real value of our wild areas.
(Readers may contact this writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.)