This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion will publish special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the first of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.
I was born in 1964, the year the Wilderness Act was signed. As a result, maybe, I’ve always felt a sense of ownership, or at least association. I grew up near wilderness, balancing in canoe seats at five years old, carrying a backpack the immense distance of one mile. As a ranger, twenty-five-years old and under-fueled by a diet of Pop-Tarts and Snickers, I charged up trails looking hard for outlaws. I cleared the downfall of thick-waisted trees, chopping for hours with a double-bit axe. If there was another tent at the lake I came to at day’s end, I moved on to the next lake. I didn’t want to share.
I wanted wilderness all to myself, and I had earned it, I thought, by virtue of the trash I carried out, my backpack sometimes swelling to ninety pounds on the last day of a hitch. I hoped that people, with their propensity for littering and pooping indiscriminately, would stay away and quit messing things up. Wilderness was a twin sister I had to protect with a ranger’s shovel and ticket book, and I went to sleep enraged by the sight of trenches dug near tents and branches hacked off at eye-level, a sort of human browse line.
But that was years ago. Where I live now, the mountains are empty. The trails, unused, are covered over by tall grasses. Everyone stays home, enraptured by their gadgets, people my age declaring they’re too old to sleep on the ground.
This is what I thought I wanted—solitude—but it’s a bittersweet feeling. The fact is, I miss the people. I miss the conversations over the low roar of a Whisperlite stove, the maps pulled out mid-trail, the charge of possibility as strangers and I debated: Could we get over that pass? Cross that river?
As the people go, so, too, do the easy abilities of youth. At fifty, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to hoist heavy packs to the alpine basin. But I’ll continue to try, because in wilderness I’ve always found my better self. We’ve looked out for each other: me with a shovel and trash bag, wilderness with lessons I needed to learn. I hope now that, at fifty, wilderness can teach lessons about resilience and grace we’ll all need as we move into an uncertain future.
Mary Emerick first went backpacking at age five. Since then she has been a wilderness ranger, wildland firefighter, and recreation planner for the Forest Service from Alaska to Florida. She currently lives and writes from a log cabin in the Wallowa Mountains in Joseph, Oregon.