Paul Andersen: Fair Game
A friend returned last week from the Grand Canyon, where he had an unlikely encounter. Other people were on “his” trail. “There were six people descending my route in the Grand Canyon on my final morning, and I was like, ‘What the —- do you think you are doing here?!’”
We Westerners are so accustomed to the absence of people on our remote public lands that when we find others in our hallowed places, there is a predictable response: “What the hell are you doing here, and who gave you permission?”
Those of us with our own backyard wilderness areas are the true elites of this country — the one-tenth of a percent. When you look at the array of public lands and consider that most of them are west of the Mississippi, the majority of Americans are getting shortchanged.
Most Americans have little knowledge of the West, so the vast acreage of public lands we enjoy is mostly off their radar. If they had any inkling of the luxurious open spaces we often take for granted, they would not only turn green with envy, they would call for equal rights in New Jersey and Illinois.
While the U.S. Forest Service advocates the “land of many uses,” much of the Western domain is the “land of few, if any, uses.” This is an almost daily realization for me as I hike the public land that is literally 30 seconds from my door.
It is a popular understanding that the minute you get off even the most popular hiking trails, the chance of seeing anyone equates with catching a glimpse of Sasquatch. Most local hikers have places they go where they can feel like the only person in the world. Seeing another person there is greeted with shocked umbrage, as if their childhood fort had been discovered by a nosy parent.
When I walk in the Seven Castles behind my house, I rarely see another human track other than mine. The trails I follow are marked by my shoes — plus an assortment of elk, deer and bighorn sheep and an occasional mountain lion — so it is rare to find other human footprints.
It is so rare that if I do encounter tracks, I study the tread pattern to see if it belongs to a long-ago cast-off boot of mine. To actually come upon someone on my turf is a staggering shock that feels like an invasion of privacy.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” is an evocatively written book that describes the reason she and her family moved west. It all starts when Pa hears the ring of another man’s ax off in the woods. “We’re outta here,” he announces at dinner. “This place is getting overrun.” Ma doesn’t have much to say about it, so they sell their home, say goodbye to kith and kin, hitch up the team and head off to where a man can think clearly and breathe the fresh air of freedom.
Searching for the untrammeled landscapes of yore has become an obsession for me and my friends as we debate where to escape the madding crowds. Rappelling a hundred feet into a slot canyon or bicycle touring across arid Nevada have become the norm for us renegades as we follow Frost’s “road less traveled.” Actually, we seek a road never traveled, which means no road at all. Now that’s paradise!
What we’re after is a sense of discovery, a mood of excitement we get from places where maybe someone has never set foot before. Carl Sagan, in an essay titled “Wanderers,” wrote that we humans have a proclivity for novelty and newness, always looking for something unknown and hidden: “Those other worlds — promising untold opportunities — beckon.”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Explorers” speaks to the innate drive to go beyond the bounds of civilization. “Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look beyond the Ranges. Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
Just don’t go looking for it in my backyard.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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