My first encounters with wilderness were, like those of so many others, controlled. One of my favorite places to visit growing up was the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and the Natural History museum in particular. There one can wander through a really spectacular wealth of knowledge in a building too large to see in one day and too extensive to recall if you could. The exhibits describe, display, and explain some of the most marvelous and extraordinary creatures and features of the natural world. They do so in a way that is compelling to children and adults alike. And of course, there are dinosaurs, the ultimate power of nature in the mind of a child. I loved the cool texture of fossilized bone in the one exhibit you were allowed to touch. To touch a dinosaur bone is to reach across a hundred million years and connect with the wild. It is to evoke a wilderness that is impossibly absent in our contemporary world.
I spent four and a half years working at a wilderness program for troubled youth in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ve hiked a great many of the trails in that area, and a lot of places with no trails at all. It is some of the most beautiful country in New England. Everywhere are rugged granite peaks, rocky cliffs, hidden streams, and the severe, steep-sided glacial valleys. Yet even in this, a harsh and less-than-accessible country, one is never alone. In the summer, the trails are busy on the most popular peaks. When I hiked the presidential range with my partner late one August, we came frustrated to the summit of Mt. Washington in midday, with its gift shop, cog railway, auto road and parking lot, and ever-present crowd of tourists. There was a line of perhaps a hundred people to take photos at the summit signpost, which we passed by almost without slowing down. The relief as we hiked away from the crowds and buildings was nearly overwhelming.
I am not saying there is anything wrong with making beautiful places accessible to the general public. This can and must be done, because we are small-minded creatures with short memories, and we rarely value or remember that which we do not encounter. But a parking lot on the summit of Mt. Washington or the edge of the Grand Canyon is not a wilderness. Something is lost by our encroachment on these places, and while millions more may see and appreciate these things, the very fact of their presence will prevent them from seeing what was there before. They will not feel the journey, the struggle, or the isolation. Secure in the company of fellow tourists, automobiles, wearing shorts and flip-flops and carrying little dogs, they cannot be humbled by a vastness that does not need them. They cannot feel… small.
Some may disagree with me. This is the trade-off of these developed places in the wild; for someone who leaves the city and drives to the summit of Mt. Washington, it may be the most isolated they have ever been. They may feel exhilarated and released by the comparative lack of people. They may have one of the most powerful experiences of their lives—but this is always relative. Their comforts are close at hand. When the wilderness begins to overpower them, they can go into the gift shop, buy a t-shirt and a “This car climbed Mt Washington” bumper sticker, and then load themselves back into their cars and depart. The wilderness that once existed at the summit is a distant echo. Perhaps they never even glimpsed it, or perhaps they felt its shadow. Perhaps, going only on instinct, they are fleeing from discomfort that has begun to settle like the summer haze. As do we all.
At the program where I worked, we would sometimes ask the question “Why wilderness?” of our students, a broad spectrum of “at-risk” youth. They were often failing in school, drug-abusers, dealing with depression, children of broken families, or suffering from autistic-spectrum disorders they did not understand and had never learned to manage. They were often entirely urban and privileged, and the world that existed beyond them was only a concept. And yet, when faced with the larger world, when taken to the summits of mountains and shown the tracks of a moose or coyote, and when they were able to see the value in walking softly and leaving no trace of one’s presence, they were often encouraged and emboldened and engaged in a way the cynical would not imagine possible.
The society we live in doesn’t generally promote wilderness. The Whites, even the wilderness areas, are crisscrossed with trails, developed and crowded. But for some young men and women, the granite trails are so far outside their experience that they come to a larger perspective. When you are out in the forest, carrying everything you need to live and relying on your skills to survive, everything else is balanced out.
Far from the cars and cities and sidewalks and crowds, far from friends and school and the internet, you are broken down to the core of yourself. Your assumptions, your hubris, your beliefs both right and wrong, are exposed in the face of the pervasive discomfort of being one small creature in a vast creation. On the summit of Mt. Washington, the tourists may begin to feel this before they leave. For my students, their expeditions into the Whites brought them farther into this place.
In real wilderness, this discomfort settles all the way to your soul, until you realize that the discomfort was there all along and the wilderness is only scalpel, slowly cutting down to remove it. The must be done. A kernel of discomfort is the beginning of a pearl of wisdom. When exposed, it is replaced by humility and smallness, and, finally, the companionship of rocks and trees and water and wind, and creatures who have no need of you.