Roderick Nash, author of the still-selling book, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), likes to tell people he grew up in a New York apartment staring at a brick wall. A trip to the Grand Canyon at age 8 changed everything; from then on he was fascinated by the West. Eventually, he became an activist, scholar and professional river guide, and in 1957 he was among the first to run a commercial river trip. The river recreation industry has come a long way since then, says Nash, but he worries that some commercial trips have turned into pampered vacations. In a recent interview in the Boatman's Quarterly Review, a publication of the nonprofit Grand Canyon River Guides, Nash describes an antidote to the catered approach that he calls "unguiding': It's the art of letting the river teach its own lessons.
"As a professor, I've
always tried to get people into self-discovery. I don't teach by
telling people something. Rather, get the bulb to go off, let them
discover. Sure, some people will go in there and they'll make
mistakes. I think those mistakes are precious. I don't like the
"safari syndrome" very much, even though I've been a part of
"I don't like the kind of menus we're serving
the people down there now. I don't like the food service
regulations. I don't like the fact that 9-year-old girls are
dumping cans on the tarp for me to smash and walking away to read
their comic book.
"Of course, people get value
out of (commercial trips) and of course they have had some changes
in their attitude toward the natural world from that kind of
experience. But I think they would have even more, if they had a
more self-reliant attitude toward it.
tell you a story that illustrates this. I call it "unguiding." For
a long while I took people up into Silver Grotto on trips, and we
rigged the ropes, and we told them where to put their feet. You
know the drill. "Now put your foot right here, Alice. That's great,
swing your leg up. Reach up, you got it. Now just one more step.
There you go, nice going." Alice gets up, she goes into Silver
Grotto; she thinks it's beautiful. Okay, back to camp.
"One year, I guess I was busy, or I was tired,
or something, and I just told a group of people, "There's a canyon
up here that's kind of interesting. Why don't you guys see if you
can figure out how to get into it, and see what's up there." They
took off. They were gone about two hours. I said, "Oh shit, they
may be hurt, I shouldn't have done this. Liability! Insurance!
"But they came back right about dark,
and there was fire in their eyes, and they said, "We just saw The
Temple of God!" And they told me about it. It was something they'd
"I say it's worth it to expose
people a little bit. I don't think real gains or discoveries are
made without a certain amount of risk. Be an unguide. Of course,
this involves a certain amount of ego suppression in the whole
"You ever teach a kid how to
ride a bike? It's wonderful. You start out by running behind them
and holding them up. They're wobbly, and they're a little scared,
they're making some mistakes, they're going back and forth, but
then they get a little more momentum. And you run and run, faster
and faster, holding onto the seat, and finally they're getting
those pedals going, and they're getting some momentum, and then the
magic happens, they take off - and they're on their own! And the
smile, the feeling of satisfaction.
holding onto people's seats too long in our wilderness areas;
guides are being training wheels, not motivators for independence.
Let "em off, let "em go."
* from Boatman's