Coming home?


A favorite quotation of my early twenties was by none other than the archdruid himself, David Brower, from an essay he wrote for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1935. Having spent the previous summer wandering around and over the high peaks, Brower wondered whether his adventure was “the limit? Could the Sierra offer only transitory enjoyment, merely a temporary escape.” Fired by my own desire to escape suburban life, to test my mettle on hard terrain through performances that I later realized were central to modern masculinity, Brower’s answer to his question resonated strongly. Leaving the mountains “was not coming home--he had just left it!”

Of course, a twenty-something’s world eventually grows much messier, and Brower’s remark began to seem quaint. Outdoor play left permanent marks, but the wild itself was a transitory home. The same held true for most of my friends, as it did for Brower himself, and part of growing up was realizing that it had to be so. Manly adventure was a passage, a rite performed on the way to maturation, and once established, other challenges displaced the games and ideals of youth. Our time on the rocks, slopes, waves, and rapids were important, but we also moved on. Thus what are we to make of those adventurers who stuck it out, who did make the landscapes of play their literal homes?

This is not a prelude to a hoary tale about some legendary adventurer, usually seen at a distance in the early light on the way to the big one or virgin powder or a thin line, always alone with elemental nature in its purest form.  Rather, my question is about the social and environmental implications of adventure. Outdoor sports can produce such intense emotions that the self merges with wild nature, and once that happens it seems natural for athletes to identify with nature. Although society deemed them marginal figures, outdoor athletes strongly influenced the history of environmentalism. For John Muir, Bob Marshall, Richard Leonard, David Brower, Ed Abbey, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Mark Massara, Galen Rowell, and Yvon Chouinard, their passion for play fueled their passion for the landscapes of play.

This might seem a latter-day academic distortion, but by the 1950s even Sierra Club members were arguing that “the basic purpose” of their organization was “to fight to the last ditch to preserve places to have fun in” but also “that an equally basic purpose . . . is to have fun in the wilderness.” I once felt the passion for wild nature as intensely as Brower or any adventurer, but ultimately my buddies and I left it behind because, like the sociologist Georg Simmel, we learned that “an old adventurer [is] an obnoxious or tasteless phenomenon.” Outdoor play was rewarding but also transitory in the truest sense of that word, a phase one lived through and moved beyond. The problem is that part of western environmentalism has not grown beyond this adolescent vision of authentic nature as necessarily pure and separate, and outdoor athletes played a significant role in shaping that vision.

The more outdoor sports and environmentalism were guided by ideals of purity, the more both have suffered a kind of arrested development. Climbers, kayakers, skiers, and surfers celebrate extreme performances and view moderation as signifying weakness in physique and virtue. Meanwhile, the fixation with unpeopled spaces enabled wilderness opponents to dismiss the idea with a bumper sticker phrase: Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living? The climber in me bristles at that, but the scholar in me knows it contains more than a little truth.  In studying the history of outdoor sports, I also know that this was not always so. There was a time when the firebreathers of the Sierra Club were quite comfortable with complexly inhabited landscapes, and nature play was primarily about group fun rather than solipsistic quests to the edge.

Thus the tales of extreme adventure in wild settings sold at Barnes & Noble and REI reveal a key convergence of sporting and environmental culture. Outdoor sports illuminate not only the desperate desires within Camp 4 and the Teton Ranch but, to varying degrees, the impulses driving any athlete in Bend, Moab, Squamish, or Waialua. Beneath the sweat and dirt burns a desire for wild nature that is intrinsically linked to their sense of self, and their adventures have shaped our ideas about authentic nature. It behooves us to understand the roots of that passion and its implications, but it is also important to recognize the culture it displaced, and when and why the transition occurred.  Through outdoor athletes we discover something important about environmentalism, and through our ideas about nature we learn something important about outdoor adventure.

For me there is something indisputably true about Brower’s vision of the mountains as home. He felt it in his bones just as I once did, but “home” was ultimately a much more complicated concept. The history of outdoor sports reveals that play links us simultaneously to the wilderness, to each other, and to the larger world. In the end, there really is no escape, but then there never has been.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history and geography departments at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.