Sitting on a rock overlooking Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, I gazed beyond the grass and sage-covered plains to a more distant view. In my mind’s eye, I followed the Lamar River drainage, exploring lonely dark spruce-fir forests and meadows in the footsteps of grizzlies and wolves. An hour earlier, on a park road jammed with tourists, I had actually seen my first wolves—a few specks of black dancing at the edge of my vision. And I imagined what it would be like to wind among sagebrush that had known the touch of wolves.
It is a trip that I have taken many times since. With each passing year, its memories grow more vivid and no less meaningful to me than if I had actually backpacked into that wilderness.
In this case, there was at least some link to actuality. I was in my sixties and at last had fulfilled my dream of visiting this iconic national park. The wilderness lay just ahead, not far from where I sat. I could almost smell the sagebrush on the wind. All I had to do was head for the horizon and keep walking. But why bother, when I had already imagined it.
Lately, I have visited other wilderness areas as well, with no sensory link other than a book, map or video image. When I look at them on a map, running my fingers over the contour lines, in a real sense I feel a connection. I have stood at the very Gates of the Arctic, surrounded by virtual black flies, flower-covered tundra and the immense solitude of the Brooks Range. I have wandered through alpine meadows of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite all the way to Mount Whitney and explored the endless hidden canyons of Escalante. And I have visited, at no expense, the fabled islands of Galapagos, where I have marveled at giant tortoises and marine dragons and followed the path of Darwin.
Being the dreamer I am, it’s a wonder I didn’t think of this sooner. It might have saved me a lot of grief and confusion.
Growing up, I was always a bookish loner. Since my earliest childhood, I have imagined wilderness, chiefly from the books I read. Writers such as John Muir, Sigurd F. Olson, William O. Douglas, and Edward Abbey provided such glowing firsthand accounts of wild places that I could feel myself there beside them. With Sigurd Olson I have skated down a silvery mirrored lake in the Quetico-Superior country, bathed in the aurora’s shimmering light. I have swayed in the treetops with John Muir as he described it in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests.” Once, while out walking in gale-force winds through a New Hampshire forest, I considered recreating Muir’s experience by climbing a tall white pine. The feeling lasted only a moment, then was quickly suppressed by common sense.
Indeed, we are indebted to writers such as these for instilling a love and thirst for wilderness that provided the first impetus for its preservation. Together with paintings and photographs, these earliest accounts of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other scenic wonders first stirred the imaginations of urban readers, often far removed from these places, to support legislation to preserve them. Only later would some get the chance to visit these places. But first we had to imagine them.
Starting in my teens, I would take long walks alone through the tame parks and state forests of Connecticut suburbia. Though a far cry from real wilderness, they provided me with a stage to act out the fantasy that I was some kind of wilderness superman, aloof from the world, sufficient unto myself, sustained only by my love for wildness. So powerful was the image that by high school I had convinced myself that the only path for me was to become a natural resource professional, protecting wildlife, forests, and scenery in the great outdoors.
I think my dad had something to do with this. He was always telling me about how he wanted to be a forest ranger. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, however, and he eventually landed a job as a postman with the U.S. Postal Service. There he remained and raised a family, in the small suburban city where both he and son were born. He seemed to be content with the life he had made, and I wonder if he would have been as happy spotting forest fires or cruising timber in some remote corner of the wilderness.
Rebellious child of the sixties, I was going to be different, not chained down by the stultifying sameness of Connecticut suburbia. Like my dad, I was a dreamer, but I was about to be kicked in the head.
In hindsight, I should have seen it coming, but I was a cocky, know-it-all kid who thought he had life all figured out. There were plenty of clues, if I had ever bothered to look. My dad, for instance, for all his talk of being a forest ranger, was a real homebody, a man who didn’t stray far from his front door. In so many ways, I was just like him. Yes, we took hikes in the woods, but not once did he ever suggest we try roughing it. Family trips to the Adirondacks and White Mountains always involved a well-stocked ice chest and clean, comfortable hotels. All I remember from the few times I tried backpacking myself was how much fun it is carrying forty pounds on your back, how hard it is to sleep with tree roots and rocks projecting into your butt, and the sinister rustling sounds that a mouse can make outside your tent.
Unlike my dad, affording college was no obstacle. So in 1967, at the end of my freshman year as a major in wildlife management at the University of Connecticut, I was ready to test myself against the wilderness. One of my professors had landed me an entry-level federal job for the summer cruising timber for the U.S. Forest Service, in the remote town of Cougar, Washington. Yes, that was its actual name. It sounded every bit as wild as my dreams. For weeks before I left, I lorded it over my friends. I was off to the wilderness—a real mountain man. Even bought my first sleeping bag.
The big day came, and my parents saw me off on my first airline trip—a red eye flight—to Portland, Oregon. There, early the next morning, I was picked up by a kindly Forest Service employee who drove us fifty miles northeast into Washington and the rugged mountains of the southern Cascades in Gifford Pinchot Natural Forest. Raised in New England, I had never seen such wild country in my life. Glacial rivers surging through ravines of giant boulders. Trees hundreds of feet tall, with trunks so massive it would take six men to span them. Forests that seem to go on forever. I was both giddy and slightly frightened. This was no imagined wilderness.
We finally reached camp where I was handed my first big dose of reality. The deal I had signed on for had stated that the Forest Service would provide lodging with a bed and a shared room. The supervisor informed me, however, that all the rooms were filled. So he assigned me to a cot in a huge tent shared by a few dozen fellow employees, all of whom snored so loud it’s a wonder the tent didn’t come down. Inside the tent, it was hot by day and freezing cold by midnight, and despite my sleeping bag I shivered most of the night. Nobody had told me I would spend the summer camping.
My first two days on the job involved working with a professional forester cruising timber. I took turns with another new guy measuring and recording such things as tree species, diameter at breast height (DBH), height, and defects. After a while, I got the hang of it, though the forester became increasingly frustrated with me at how all the number 2’s that I recorded in the entry book always looked like “s.” I could tell it was really starting to bug him. To this day, I can’t write a 2 without wondering if it looks like an “s.”
On Saturday morning, a bunch of us temps went out on a hike along a nearby river. There were elk tracks winding everywhere through the giant, moss-covered trees. We approached one huge Douglas fir, and it took six of us to get our arms around its circumference. And there in the distance was the snow-covered summit of Mount St. Helens. Little did I know that in thirteen years it would blow its top and lay waste to much of this forest.
That evening, we went into the local town and headed for the bar. I wasn’t into drinking back then, but I enjoyed shooting some pool and swapping stories. I remember one guy in particular, who made quite an impression on me. Frankly, he scared me. He had grown up in Washington and loved the back country more than anything else. He wanted to get as far back in the timber as he could to get away from people and modern civilization. “All you folks coming here from back East,” he said, his eyes ablaze with righteousness, “are ruining this state. Soon there won’t be any wilderness left.” For him, the state was already too crowded. People were the problem, and as far as he was concerned they could all go to hell. Who needs ‘em?
It’s funny how one conversation can bring everything into sudden focus. Up until that moment, I had thought that maybe things would be fine and that I could tough it out. Sure, I was homesick and had to sleep in a damn tent. Deal with it. But suddenly all the thoughts and impressions of the past few days crashed head on with my romantic notions of wilderness and myself. Is this really the life I wanted, a life alone in the wilderness? All I really knew was that I was not that guy back in the bar. I could hear Barbara Streisand singing “people who need people” in my head. It was all a mistake and I had to get out of there fast.
My supervisor tried to talk me out of it, then shook his head and accepted my abrupt resignation. He had seen it all before. Everyone was remarkably cool about it. The forester who had driven me into camp agreed to take me back to Portland and even loaned me the money to catch a flight back East. So I came home, tail dragging between my legs, and started life over again. The worst part was the way my dad looked at me as he saw his dream to be a forest ranger go up in smoke again.
Of course, I still dream of what my life might have been if I had stuck it out, a life full of adventures in the wilderness. But it wasn’t me. And as I look back on the life I have made for myself, I wouldn’t trade it for all the adventures in the world. Yes, it was painful and embarrassing to come home and admit my mistake. But if I hadn’t made that journey, I would never have found out who I really am.
I still dream of wilderness, and even hike there sometimes. Though I’m certainly no John Muir or Bob Marshall, I have logged enough wilderness hours to know some of the sensory images and feelings that only such places can provide. Each of my wilderness hikes, even if only for a few hours, has been a privileged moment. Whether in one of the great wilderness parks like Death Valley, Canyonlands, or Yellowstone, or in some smaller corner of wildness in Maine, New Hampshire, or the Great Smokies, I experience the same kind of emotion. I become a different person. Crossing the wilderness boundary, I can feel myself expanding, filling with new possibilities. These moments have provided me with a sensory record of detailed memories that I can call up faster than a mouse click. With this record I can not only recreate these actual trips but, by using input from many sources, including words and images of wilderness recorded for me by others, build upon them to create entirely new trips in my mind.
There are definite advantages to this kind of trip. Age, physical ability, and money are no obstacles. There are no bugs, rapids, or grizzlies. Also, if we agree that wilderness areas are precious, does it then follow that all of us must visit them? I doubt that the American wilderness would long survive such a loving assault. Maybe it’s better that most of us limit ourselves to an occasional visit, making do for the most part with experiences of the virtual kind—the kind that leave no footprints.
This is not about turning wilderness into some kind of video game. For no matter how convincing the experience might seem, there is no substitute for the actual. It is the source of all images, all input. The virtual wilderness is only as good as its programming, and for that we need raw data from the real thing to feed into our devices and dreams.
I suspect imagining wilderness will become easier in the near future, with virtual reality headsets and “interactive imaging systems.” Fascinated as many of us are with technology, I can imagine a time when virtual wilderness trips become so vivid and convincing that people may prefer them to the real thing. After all, why get wet when you can just put on a helmet and float down the Colorado? Who am I to judge when I can still get a virtual thrill from reading about John Muir swaying in the wind atop a tree?
I now live in Tucson, a city surrounded by mountains and bona fide wilderness. On a recent short hike at Sabino Canyon, I paused to rest my stiff, arthritic limbs. Just ahead was a sign marking the wilderness boundary. I gazed up longingly at the steep
trail winding for miles through the solitary feeder canyons, where new wonders beckon … if only my feet would take me there. But a man can always dream.