Marolt: Happy birthday to the wilderness areas younger than me
I’m glad that there are animals in the world too dangerous to see without a zoom lens. I’m happy there is far more ski terrain in the world too risky to attempt than is cultivated for carving. I am thankful that seeing the bottom of the ocean from a submarine or the curves of the globe while orbiting it are out of reach for me.
If it could be made safe, of course I would love to pet a tiger, ride a gondola car to ski the Orient Express on Denali, grab a seashell off the ocean floor and take a rocket ride to outer space, but after that, what? If I could do it, you could, too; and of course we all would. It is the progression toward dulling the future in exchange for a current thrill. It is what leaves us searching for discovery.
They say there are only 6 degrees of separation between all people on the planet. I think they meant that we are all connected by a continental web of roads. It is a miracle of modernization, and this has occurred in less time than the smartphone. Think about it: Not only can I drive into the City Market parking lot, but I can locate a hut in Peru via Google Earth then get in my car and drive to it without my wheels ever leaving the ground.
Just over two centuries ago, Lewis and Clark had to bushwhack to get from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean at great expense of human energy and risk of incredible peril. The odds of them dying on that trip were about the same as meeting someone we know at a gas stop along the way today.
It’s kind of crazy. Not long before Lewis and Clark, early settlers on the Front Range of Colorado weren’t convinced that man could breathe on the top of Pike’s Peak. The first one to arrive at the Mount Everest summit didn’t get there until 1953. Now, people are paragliding off the highest point on Earth.
We know why we do things like that. There are no more geographic frontiers to conquer. We have to create alternative ones. Modern exploration is limited to discovering how physically challenging we can make expeditions that have been done already; that were first accomplished in far simpler form with much greater difficulty.
For the modern era of conquest, there is an ultra-marathon run from Mount Whitney to the depths of Death Valley. Climbers try for speed records up mountains once thought unclimbable. Some ride pogo sticks across the Continental Divide followed closely by support vehicles. Nature may not be completely tamed, but it has been made gentle enough for us to tug at its tail.
Because we can, we want to have cabins in the mountains. We want tour buses to take us to nature’s beauty. We want to drive our cars here. We want to race our motorized toys there. We want to ride our mountain bikes everywhere. We want to see the wonders of the physical earth on our terms in convenient glances. What we need are places that allow none of this.
We must keep places that leave us in wonder, that keep us in awe, that remind us of our tininess as they inspire unaffected humility so that we can contemplate truth that guides us toward genuine wisdom.
In this regard, we created a great gift for ourselves 50 years ago with the Wilderness Act of 1964. Our own Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area was one of five created in Colorado that year. It was tripled in size in 1980, and 38 other wilderness areas have been created inside our borders since. As a nation, we have preserved nearly 110 million acres in 756 wilderness areas, where man is still only a visitor.
Critics might say that this is nothing but an artificial frontier, a facsimile of authentic discovery. They might be right. But it at least allows us to see what the first explorers saw, smell the smells and dare ourselves to spend as much time alone there as the basic necessities we can carry on our backs allow.
God willing, some day I will be too old to venture out into these areas we are wisely preserving. Even then the idea of it will buoy my spirits. I will be glad there are still places on the planet where people can go to be inspired and find quiet beauty. How can the world not be a better place when people simply know that such magnificent places exist?
Roger Marolt hopes to see a lot of wilderness lovers at the Maroon Bells Birthday Bash on Aug. 2 at the base of Aspen Highlands. He also wants to thank Wilderness Workshop, the Wilderness Land Trust, the U.S. Forest Service, our local governments and the many passionate local devotees who enthusiastically pursue the preservation of untamed lands for our inspiration and that of future generations. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.