The tricky allure of unpeopled places

Longing for solitude on the land, and feeling uneasy.

 

A view of Sahale Mountain, Park Creek Ridge and Mount Buckner in North Cascades National Park, from the Stehekin River Valley.
Deby Dixon/ NPS

In the late 1980s, I worked at a visitors’ center in a trailer at the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, a still relatively unknown place then, a kind of secret. To get there, you had to drive 35 miles off the highway through slickrock and green sage, hazy mountains on the horizon and cottonwoods along the creeks, as startling a landscape as you’d find anywhere. Cars arrived at lazy intervals, and when people reached the desk, the conversation was often the same.

That was the most beautiful drive we’ve ever taken, they’d say. Now, how do we drive out?

The same way you came in, we’d say.

Sometimes they’d complain loudly. Sometimes they’d mask their disappointment. Rarely did they show enthusiasm. It was both exasperating and the stuff of comedy, but part of me could sympathize. 

When I was a kid, my family took cross-country trips and stopped at national parks — Zion, Bryce, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon. Were we finding solace in wide-open spaces? Uh, no. Our parents were just showing us all they could — on the way from one place to another— through the windows of an un-air-conditioned station wagon. Once, we kids refused to get out of the car: No more rock formations, we chanted. I sounded ungrateful, yes, but I was also getting hooked.

I remember standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, thinking: Someday I’ll go down there. The idea felt foreign but giddily within reach, like reading a book that opened a new world. When I finished college, I went straight to volunteer in a national park.

At the visitor center desk, the second set of questions was nearly as predictable as the first: Where can we camp with no one nearby? What hike does no one know about?

If we told people about the secret places, I wanted to say, they wouldn’t be secret anymore. Duh! But I also knew that part of me wanted them to stay secret so they could be mine alone. So I sighed and pointed out some less-popular trails and campgrounds.

There are a thousand reasons why I was a lousy visitor center ranger. I don’t like being indoors. I bristle at toeing a party line. I wear a uniform poorly –– “unkempt,” read one of my evaluations. But the biggest reason was my uneasiness. The love of nature sometimes seems to hinge on greediness. People aspire to “bag” peaks and “score” campsites. We elbow in, believing we’re more deserving because we are locals, or because we’ve invested more time or money into our vacation, or because we are stronger and more willing to take risks, or because, well, we’re wearing a uniform standing behind a desk.

I didn’t want to win the competition. I wanted to avoid it. So I found another relatively unknown park, North Cascades, joined trail crew, and headed for the unpeopled places.

All my best memories are out there: watching peaks float above clouds from a meadow thick with flowers — paintbrush, lupine, columbine, lily — sleeping in old-growth to the patter of raindrops on duff, steeped in cedar and smoke, cross-country skiing past a boulder in a river from which a lone otter track slid into an ice-hemmed pool, and, on one off-season trip, sitting alone beside the Colorado gazing up at the distant forested North Rim.

Still, I’m uneasy.

For one thing, I now realize these supposedly unpeopled places were actually well-known and often cared for by indigenous people. Then there’s the fact that working for the Park Service took me far away from people who were different from me. I’ve often said that I’m more scared of a subway than a cougar. Which is telling. What if, when I say I like to get away from people, subconsciously I mean certain types of people? There was a time I’d have denied it vehemently. Now, I am not so sure.

Still, I’m hooked.

Here’s the truth. I long to be in unpeopled places, and when I find them, I’m often overcome with aching loneliness. I miss the people I love. I desperately want to share these places, even if it means re-entering the fray.

Not long ago, I visited Yosemite in early spring with my mom. Parking lots were under construction, requiring muddy too-long walks for her, and calendar views hid behind a stubborn veil of clouds. We drove in and out in a single day, but stopped at a lone roadside picnic table where new blades of grass showed between melting snow berms. No one else stopped while we ate our string cheese and apples and listened the charge of distant running water and smelled wet pine and asphalt. For a moment, the clouds cleared, and we had our own private peek-a-boo view of Yosemite Falls charging from sky to earth. I’m telling you: We totally scored.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her most recent book is Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.