A wild paradox


I first encountered wilderness in the early '80s, when many of the law's backers and I were purists. I was backpacking for the first time, exploring West Virginia's Cranberry Wilderness.

I have always used crutches to get around and had never carried a pack for any distance. The experience was more difficult than I anticipated. Despite my companions taking the heavier equipment, the pack's extra weight threw me off balance. As the reality of the long slog ahead settled in, my optimistic pace slowed; I fell behind, and began paying more attention to the dirt beneath my crutch tips than the beauty of the forest. With a lot of support, I completed the trip and, despite aching bones and sore armpits, even felt some wilderness magic. Camping in the cool Appalachian mist amid wild rhododendrons and cushiony mosses was unforgettable.

But I realized then that I would never be a backcountry traveler, at least not without some motorized help. Today a Jeep and an all-terrain vehicle escort me to the wild, and I don't stray too far from the road. My idea of a wilderness experience is driving to a mountain lake, inflating my kayak and paddling around the marshy edges, camera and binoculars in tow.

It's not the pure "mountain man" experience I once imagined, but, as several of this issue's stories demonstrate, our ideas of the wild and how to access it shouldn't be too rigid. Christopher Ketcham laments the decline of backpacking, particularly among the younger generation, and the rise of "done-in-a-day" adrenaline recreation. What is lost, he writes, "is the radical encounter with the non-human" that technology-free wilderness provides so well.

John Hart has long reveled in – and worried about – the country's disappearing roadless areas, but he no longer sees wilderness protection as the central endeavor of the conservation movement, as it was in the heady days of yore. Rather, it is one of several tools that help us manage and inhabit ecosystems. Many wilderness bills today acknowledge this by incorporating the human dimension, from airstrips and livestock grazing to (occasionally) residential development.

Perhaps no one embodies our complex modern relationship with wilderness as well as filmmaker Sinuhe Xavier, the central character in the cover essay by HCN contributing editor Craig Childs. Wielding his Land Rover through Utah's redrock country, he is, as Childs writes, "as bad-ass an off-roader as there is," yet, he knows that without the constraint of wilderness and national monument boundaries, our love of motors would overrun the world's magical places.

In the end, as Childs suggests, we cannot be fully human without getting out of our vehicles, turning off our devices and directly encountering the wild, however we can do it. May you get the chance to do so soon.

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