The sound of an ambulance washes up from the plains far below. From up here at 6600ft, in velvet early dark below the summit, Boulder’s lights and the humming noise of civilization are a short half mile away; the tumultuous ocean of humanity washing over rocky mountain shores.
I love the mountains; Colorado is good for that. I am charmed by Boulder’s easy access to the wild, yet I yearn for more. More wild, more free, more silent solitude: unadulterated untouched country. I drift off into memories of space.
Two months ago I found that untouched space. I walked for weeks, four weeks and four days to be exact, from one side of Utah to the other. I walked through desert canyons and high mountains, sand and water, I waded and I bushwhacked and I climbed and fell and scrambled. I walked across the Colorado Plateau, right through the heart of one of the most remote desert backcountry out there: Grand Staircase Escalante. An untouched roadless area so vast I didn’t see another human soul for days, where I could walk for weeks without ever setting foot on asphalt. A dream for some, nightmarish desolation for others: true wilderness.
I grew up in Germany, just one among eleven million German children with their seventy-one million parents and grandparents and grownup aunts and uncles all crammed into an area not even quite as big as California. Germany is exemplary: so safe, so clean, so civil. Every last little spec of usable land has been improved upon, to build neat towns and well-run farms and autobahns and big grand metropoles and tightly-managed forests. Germany’s rise from the ashes after World War II is the stuff of textbooks; chaos and destruction turned systematically to meteoric order and success. A triumphant return to civilization, and in its march there is but one thing that got overlooked: the necessity of wilderness.
That’s why I so value the existence of unspoiled wildness. Because I remember what it feels like, having none of it. I remember being a kid in Germany, standing in our back yard, looking out across the fields. I remember feeling the urge to explore and to get lost, and I remember how disappointingly the world closed in on me once I was old enough to walk the talk, to head off on my own to see my little German world: there was no exploration to be had. The fenced-in backyard of my childhood was bordered by a field was bordered by a road and three more fields and the two local farms and fences and more farms and roads and fields and towns. You see, less than 1% of the land in Germany is undeveloped; there was no wilderness.
That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw the American West’s great public lands at age 12. I remember that first time I tasted the desert, feeling small and feeling wild. It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since. It’s the feeling I set out to live fully and taste deeply when I started my long solitary walk across the Utah desert along the Hayduke Trail.
I set out north of Moab at the northern edge of Arches, enveloped in the darkness of a moonless night. The first few miles of my month-long journey take me through protected lands inside the iconic national park. Soon I find myself traversing along the very edge of the national park boundary, and this is what I find: on the inside of the fence, cryptobiotic soil, deep and undisturbed; on the outside of the fence, inches from the boundary, dirt roads and natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Stark contrasts and a powerful reminder of the importance of protection.
Weeks later I walk through the roadless heart of Grand Staircase Escalante: a 1.9 million acre landscape so complicated and fantastic in its revelation of progressive sandstone layers that 'Staircase' had to be its name. Days go by without me seeing another soul; I feel more alive and human to the core than I have in years. Living among wilderness brings out human essence; there is a primal peace to existing simply, a natural rhythm of living with the land. Being small and part of nature drives home life’s beautiful simplicity.
I spend hard long days on the Kaiparowits Plateau, crossing through its hellish heat and desolation. “It is a fierce and dangerous place, and it is wilderness right down to its burning core.” I didn’t know these words before I headed off into Kaiparowits, but having come out the other side I know first-hand how true they are.
It is here on the Kaiparowits that I first walk alongside surface layer coal beds. It is here I realize that I have no excuse to not speak up for public lands. The Kaiparowits drives home for me what wilderness entails: existential clarity, unforgiving solitude and irrevocable experience. Development is just the same but on the flip side of the coin: unforgiving, irrevocable. Once development starts up there is no going back; once wilderness is lost, it’s lost for good.
There’s a funny thing or two about how natural treasure works.
Size matters. Three individual parcels of wilderness don’t carry the same value as a single area three times the size of one. Contiguous wild spaces are the most powerful form of preservation, for wildlife habitats and historic study just as well as for adventure and explorers.
Pure existence matters. We don’t have to actually be out there hiking and exploring; simple knowledge of wilderness’ existence changes our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future. We don’t have to constantly - or ever! - venture off into the wild to feel its value; simply knowing that it’s there, that we CAN get lost if we just wanted to, and that our children have that very option, changes our lives.
Do you remember the feeling you had when you got the keys to your first car: all a sudden, the possibilities are endless; you could drive over to your friend’s house, or even all the way across the country! Did you actually drive all the way across the country? Your answer doesn’t change the power of the notion.
Another ambulance starts blaring. I am far above the lights of Boulder still, abruptly taken from my desert dreams. My Hayduke hike was a dream. This, here, is life; it’s real. And for now it’s time for me to sink back into the depths of the turbid ocean of humanity.
For now, wilderness is far away yet still in reach. Out west, just on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, there still are those places that are vast and wild and free. Grand Staircase is still wild; Bears Ears is still on the brink of monument protection. For how much longer… we don’t know.
Go visit your wild lands while they are wild, go see the marvels that may soon be paved and mined; and if you believe in the value of knowing wilderness is out there, for yourself and for your children: speak up, post and tweet, and let Trump know that public lands deserve protection.
As I head down the well-built trail towards Chautauqua Park, Congress’ definition of wilderness reverberates within me: “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” How I long already to return to those areas where I may not remain.
'Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.' [Edward Abbey]