The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I woke up and heard a bird singing. Two others answered–same song, further away. Wrapped in my blue tent, cocoon-like, the sound had an all-encompassing quality. The whole of the woods, mountains and sky above and around me was distilled melodiously into that song. It enfolded me with a sweet lightness and joy. I let my consciousness center itself in the sound. No, I didn’t “let it”–but it happened.
Muir often commented on birdsong and his horror of people shooting songbirds for their dinner. What would he say to recent interpretations of bird song? That most is a loud proclamation, “I am here–this is my territory! All the seeds are mine! Stay away!” Those sweet voiced, cute and fluffy little singers above my tent were warning one another off. Beauty remains a human concept, even when it is beauty of an animal or its song.
The mozzies, not at all beautiful to me, still whined for my blood so I had a cold breakfast inside the tent, then hurriedly packed and left. In a mile I came over a rise and saw the dark masses of Ritter and Banner looming impressively over Garnet Lake. In the foreground, Sean sat lolling in the sun. His tent was perched above the lake–the grand campsite I should have had.
Sean, I discovered, had also had a fit the day before, at the same time I was cursing myself. His stove set him off. It wouldn’t light. He cleaned it. Still no flame. He tinkered with it some more. Zilch. Then, as he was about to settle for a cold dinner, it finally lit. He sighed as he told me about it. “That’s just the way it is, I guess. These long trips are like that. An emotional roller coaster. It’s always something–the stove, the weather, the mosquitoes –something.” I said I’d look for him down the trail and headed off while he mused on his trip, his stove and his view.
The scarcity of people amazed me. I’d walk for an hour amidst beautiful views and see only one or two people. Sometimes not even that. One couple assured me that I would see even fewer people after Reds Meadows. Fewer than almost none?
Where were all the people, anyway? I’d been warned that permits were hard to get, you had to write months in advance to be sure of not getting redirected to a “less popular” trail. Fifteen years earlier, I overheard some friends complaining about how busy it was along the JMT–how the good campsites were taken by 3 PM, and there was almost no firewood.
Statistics for backcountry use in the Sierra were notoriously unreliable prior to the introduction of Wilderness Permits ten to fifteen years ago. Just at that time, backcountry use seems to have plummeted. The drop was exaggerated by the substitution of permit counts for estimates, and further refinements of statistical techniques have lowered the tail of the “Wilderness Person Days” graph even further. For instance, people are no longer counted if they merely write in for a permit–they must show up at the trailhead to show up on the graph.
But whatever the statistics do or don’t show, there almost certainly was a substantial drop in backcountry use in the late ’70’s. That was when most of the Baby Boomers started having children. It was also when membership in the Boy Scouts hit its lowest level in decades. Since there were fewer Scouts and the Boomers were deep in diapers, it was inevitable that backcountry use would decline.
The only real problem with this decline is that it is a statistical trend. Some people, especially some Wilderness managers, see statistical trends as something carved in Sierra granite. If backpacking is declining, it will continue to decline. So forget about the backpackers and their needs. Backpacking must have been just a brief fad of the sixties, like tie-dye shirts and bell bottom pants.
This perception that backpacking was in decline must have come as a relief to the budget mavens of the Forest Service and Park Service. As budgets shrank in the eighties, trail and bridge maintenance suffered. Most of the available pittances went to maintain bridges needed for the safety of valuable pack stock. As a result, moderate sized streams, ones that horses could cross easily, were un-bridged, although hiking guidebooks warned repeatedly of crossings that were “Dangerous in Early Season” when the snow was just melting off. Cheap but effective log crossings were rare, and most seemed very old, remnants of an earlier policy more sympathetic to the needs of hikers.
Trails across meadows strongly reflected this bias. Sierra meadows are soft and boggy in the early season (June and the first part of July). Hikers can walk on boggy trails without doing a lot of damage, but not horses and mules with iron shoes. They tear up the trail, cutting down through the sod. The trail floods with water drained from the adjacent soil. To avoid this wet ditch, hikers and riders travel parallel to the trail, creating a new trail which becomes a new ditch. In some places I found three such parallel ditches, all flooded.
Three different strategies can be used to correct this problem. The trail can be re-routed around the edge of the meadow, horses can be excluded, or a causeway can be constructed. Trails are occasionally re-routed, horses are almost never excluded, so causeways are built. Two lines of rock are laid about four feet apart bordering the eroded trail. Crushed rock is laid onto the old ruts and a layer of soil is tamped down on top, providing a smooth, even surface, curving across the meadow. I’ve seen major highways in Asia that looked less intrusive, that came closer to the Wilderness Act definition of, “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, … retaining its primeval character and influence, … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”
The Park Service and Forest Service see hikers and horsemen as two equal groups getting equal treatment. They believe they can simply provide whatever facilities are necessary or desirable for all backcountry users and ignore the conflicts between hikers and horsemen. The Yosemite Wilderness Management Plan puts this idea into standard bureaucratese:
“Wilderness Experience. Visitors can find a variety of wilderness experiences in keeping with traditional use patterns and can select the degree of crowding, solitude, or human impact which they wish to experience. Visitors have differing desires and expectations and should have the opportunity to have them met. Regulatory restrictions will be minimized to allow as much freedom as possible consistent with wilderness resource objectives. Opportunities are available for both foot and stock travel.”
This is a typical bureaucratic response. It ignores both the conflicts between these two groups and the relatively greater biological impacts of horse use, especially in certain areas. Maximum group sizes on trails in the Yosemite backcountry are actually the same for horses and hikers–35 hikers or stock for a day trip, 25 for an overnight. On the excuse of “traditional use patterns” the impact of horseshoes on a meadow is equated with the impact of a boot or running shoe.
Actually, there is probably another reason, never explicitly stated, but perhaps more important. Trail maintenance supervisors often ride rather than walk. Supervisory rangers generally ride. Park superintendents always ride. And I doubt if any Secretary of the Interior since Mo Udall has even owned hiking boots.
I had lunch where the imprint of man really was substantially unnoticeable–by a stream coursing down into Shadow Lake. I sat on a rock right in the stream, where the cool air spilling down with the current kept most of the mozzies away.
As I ate my usual cheese and crackers (my lunches had little variety), a pair of jays ate their lunch on a nearby branch. They flew up together and landed near the end of the branch in a flutter of feathers, blue and gray. Cocking their heads, each ducked his beak sharply, picking a bug off the branch. Then the one nearer the end flew a foot over the head of the other and landed a few inches further up the branch. He stabbed down by his feet, lifted his head back up and swallowed. Then the other jay leapfrogged the first and they progressed up the branch, eating as they went. When they reached the trunk, they flew out of sight. It wasn’t until they flew away that I realized these were Stellar Jays, an exceedingly common species. I’ve seen them in parks, gardens, and my own back yard, hundreds of times. I’d watched the whole performance without thinking about it, hardly thinking at all–just watching. The birds, the trail, even the mosquitoes–they were gradually attuning me to the rhythm of the land. I was, in Emerson’s famous phrase, becoming a “transparent eyeball.”
The heat that afternoon was oppressive. Though tall trees shaded the trail, the air was still and cicadas whined incessantly, irritatingly. When I got to Gladys Lake at 3, I decided to call it a day. I found a superb camp site. Tall pines threw long shafts of shade across the white granite. A fire ring of blackened rocks was bordered on two sides by logs set up as benches.
Mozzies buzzed around, but the open trees allowed a trace of breeze so they weren’t too obnoxious. To the east, I could see San Joaquin Peak along the main crest of the Sierra. The cicadas still sang in the trees, but now that I had a view the sound no longer irritated me. Muir spoke of “insect music” and for the first time, that is what it was to me, not noise, music.
Sean came along and joined me. His mood had also softened with the day. Like Ishmael and Queequeg, at the start of their catastrophic pursuit of Moby Dick, we were mellow, new-found friends.
A couple of distant rumbles shook the ground. I thought they were jets taking off from a distant airfield. Sean thought they were thunder from heat lightning across the desert. He said the weather pattern this time of year was of five or six days of clear, stable weather, followed by two or three days of afternoon clouds building up, culminating in a good thunderstorm.
Around sunset the mozzies came out in force, so I built a small fire hoping the smoke would keep them at bay. Unfortunately, the only wood I found was so sound, so dry, that I never got much smoke out of the fire. I sat at the edge of what little there was, coughing when it strayed too close. Sean hung back. He had a headnet draped over his hat like a bee keeper, plus a spray can of Cutters. It appeared a more efficient system than my little bottle of DEET and semi-smoky fire but he actually seemed more bothered by them than I. Maybe because I had been so bothered the night before, this was like stubbing a toe compared with breaking a leg.
Our conversation inevitably came back to the idea of Wilderness. I wondered, were we playing some sort of social game built around the legal definition enshrined in the Wilderness Act? I tried to lead him in a Socratic dialogue.
“A trail doesn’t count as a structure, right?”
“And a bridge doesn’t count.”
“Not if it’s needed for safety, for access.”
“But what about mountain huts?” I continued. “They have them in Europe and Japan and lots of places. Even around Tahoe, there are the four Sierra Club huts for skiers, plus Ostrander in Yosemite and Pear Lake Hut in Sequoia. If we had more huts, there wouldn’t have to be so many horses, and the bridges could be smaller and less expensive. And if there were composting toilets, we wouldn’t have giardia and high coliform counts in most of the lakes and streams.”
“Don, you gotta understand, for a lot of people Wilderness isn’t what is there or isn’t there. It’s how you relate, how you must relate to the environment.
“Look at it this way. When I’m at home I have to deal with traffic and school and bureaucracies. It’s all rules and other people, and rules about how you relate to those people. The problems you have to deal with are all artificial, they’re all created by people. Out here, it’s just you and the earth and the Wilderness Problem Matrix; planning your supplies, where to sleep, purifying your water. There aren’t any rules. At least, not many, and most of them don’t really matter.”
I sat by my fire long after Sean had turned in for the night, turning our conversation over in my mind. Camping in the mountains may be a kind of escape from the problem solving of Civilization to a “Wilderness Problem Matrix” –but problems in the Sierra brought us back, constantly, to our society, our civilization. Water purification, the logistics of getting to and from the ends of the trail, nylon tents, lug sole boots–all of these were the trappings of the very civilization we were ostensibly fleeing in favor of a glowing bed of coals on a mountain far from home. Were we really leaving Civilization if we ate freeze-dried food and drank Tang, “The drink of the astronauts?”
Even my fire symbolized Civilization–at least human society. The coals glowed in patterns of vivid orange. I thought back to the campfires of my childhood, those Kalahari campfires, and the fire altars of prehistoric caves. Prometheus isn’t the only mythical hero who stole fire from the Gods so Mankind could prosper. It is an almost universal myth. And that very universality tells us that the possession and control of fire is one of the bedrock ways we as humans mark ourselves off from the animal world.
We make fire. And if fire is not only useful and beautiful but holy, a bridge between the worlds of flesh and spirit, then we can control that bridge. We become masters of our fate. We are no longer battling the complex rules of the “Civilized” world. We have returned to our beginnings. In a recapitulation of the origin of civilization, we go to the Wilderness, build a fire, and watch the embers glow and die.
The day before I started on my hike, someone in a pickup truck stopped along the road and handed me a bumper sticker, “Norberg Says Bring Back The Famous Fire Falls.” For a century, until 1968, just after dark, a bonfire built on Glacier Point rained down through the sky for the entertainment of tourists in The Valley below. It was a cascade of embers in the night, all the stars in the sky falling out of heaven. Everyone who saw it remembers, though some are now embarrassed to admit how much they were moved by so unnatural a spectacle.
We’re gradually eliminating fire from our Wilderness experience. Muir’s tree-torching for Roosevelt, the firefall, high altitude campfires–these are gone already. When the new Boy Scout Handbook came out in 1989, minimizing the importance of campfires, that fact generated headlines across the country. Are we reaching the point where we no longer need to assert our control over fire in these rituals? Or are we merely embarrassed by the inner compulsion that made us build fires? I poured some water on the last embers and went to bed, the glowing, moving colors still before my eyes.