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Know the West

The Big Nasty

On garbage and tolerance in the wilderness.


When I went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in 2010 as a wilderness ranger, my friends were curious. What did I do in the woods all day, besides weave garlands and write poetry?

In conversations at potlucks, I learned to skip fancy terms like "assessing resource damage." I was a glorified garbageman, I said. My pickup route? Fire pits big enough to lie down in, full of twisted masses of melted beer cans and polypropylene tarps. Tin cans and oozing batteries stuffed into stream banks, trees garroted with steel baling wire and impaled by 12-inch spikes. Moldy canvas tents, sodden camo jackets, rotten cowboy boots, bent tent poles, broken camp chairs, abandoned sleeping bags, rusted-out sheepherder stoves, miles of baling twine, frying pans, coolers, propane canisters, rebar. Fifty-five-gallon drums.

The really old garbage bothered me less, because I was willing to pardon old-timers' ignorance. After all, even my nature-lover friends seemed unaware of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as "an area of undeveloped land ... retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation ... with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable." When it came to the new garbage, however  –  longer-lasting and more toxic  –  I'd think: Some people just don't give a damn. Whatever happened to Lady Bird Johnson and her "Keep America Beautiful" campaign?

Although "burning" aluminum foil remains a universal sin, backpackers generally pick up after themselves. They just reduce vast acreages of lakeshore to hardpan through their sheer numbers. No, the really big messes are produced by horsepackers and hunters, who have the means to pack in a whole lot of stuff, and tend to frequent the same sites year after year. I started giving the worst camps names: Dirty Little Secret, Camp Catastrophe, Tin Can Massacre, Open Sewer, Highline Orgy, Second Little Pig's Tinkertoy Village, Camp Desecration, Shit City. Each name well-deserved.

Early July. I hike up into a high and achingly beautiful basin, where I find a camp with a commode. They brought their own toilet seat? What babies. I fill my trash bag, put the bundle on the seat of the commode, and tie it all up with baling twine. How am I going to carry this thing? I set off down the mountainside through false hellebore and delphinium and lupine glowing green and purple in the late afternoon sun, cumulus clouds occasionally throwing me into shadow as I walk toward the trailhead, crowned with a commode.

August. Exhausted after seven hours at the Not OK Corral, cleaning up hundreds of rusted tin cans and whiskey bottles, dismantling two corrals cobbled together from illegally cut trees, I leave at sunset. Perhaps it's a mistake to clean out these fire pits. I can just hear them: "Hey, Bubba, look! I told you glass and aluminum will burn! Nothing but charcoal left in the fire pit!"

Early September, and the mountains are cold. As I clean a site with terribly hacked trees and 250 feet of 3/8-inch steel cable strung as hitching lines, three horsemen come by. I've known the oldest, amicably, for years. No matter: He sees the green uniform, he sees red. He has nothing but contempt for the Forest Service and, therefore, me. Later, through the small-town grapevine, I learn that he'd taken a bad fall on a washed-out trail. We like our wilderness, but we like it civilized. We want the Forest Service to keep the trails open so we can get to our backcountry campsite and turn it into a Dogpatch.

My last hitch. Dan and I string five pack mules down to the Minam River to pick up garbage I'd cached earlier at The Big Nasty. Someone has added more junk to the pile, knowing we'll pack it out.

I don't know if backcountry travelers are leaving as much trash as they did years ago. After all, the Forest Service keeps cleaning it up, removing the evidence of their misbehavior. But this I do know: 60 mule loads of garbage in one wilderness area is about 59 loads too many. Perhaps it boils down to a simple adult maxim. Clean up after yourself. Soon the Wilderness Act will be 50 years old. It would be nice if the rest of us grew up, too.

We ride the Skyline Trail back to camp under a luminous sunset. The high peaks of the Wallowas fade to purple, and distant city lights seem to give birth to the Milky Way. Riding silently in the darkness, just warm enough in fleece and leather gloves, our knees tender, pasturing the horses back at camp, eating in the dark under the stars, lying down to sleep near the dull stomping of hooves, I think: Dogpatch. I haven't used that name for a campsite yet. But I'm sure I'll get my chance.

Rick Bombaci lives and writes in Wallowa County, Oregon, where he has been picking up after himself since 1980.