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May 1998

A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

“Eyooww!” Jim bursts out of the waterfall’s spray with a screech like a mountain lion. “Man, that’s freezing!” It is 80°F; not yet noon. In the rising heat, the cool water of the falls along Holden Prong feels like pinpricks against our trail-sweaty bodies. He screams again and flails toward shore on the slippery rocks. The skin above the tan lines where his hiking shorts used to be is a rosy shade of pink.

I laugh out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Jim asks.

“Not your legs. OK, your legs too, but I was just imagining what ‘the Professor’ would think if he were watching from up on the trail.” Jim turns to look, half-expecting, I think, to find him standing there.

Serious-minded, bespectacled, stern, Aldo Leopold-known as “the Professor” to many of his students-was a brilliant man. He was a teacher, scientist, forester, co-founder of The Wilderness Society, and an author. His textbook on game management spawned an entire field of science. His book A Sand County Almanac has influenced the way generations of hikers and environmentalists look at the world. Almost single-handedly he pushed for the creation of the nation’s first designated wilderness area, sparking the movement toward today’s National Wilderness Preservation System. He was a man of thought and action, a man who left an indelible imprint on his time and the world around him. He was not a man given to splashing around in waterfalls.

Still, it is easy to imagine him on these trails. He spent 15 years in the Southwest with the Forest Service, later returning on hunting trips. On the surface, it seems exactly the kind of wild country Leopold loved-the peaks of the Black Range rolling through their shades of green and gray unbroken by roads, lights, smokestacks, or clearcuts. There are hints of box canyons, elk tracks in the mud, pine-robed summits shimmering with heat. When he wrote, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” he might have been thinking of this very place. In 1987, 100 years after his birth, this blank spot on the map of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest was named the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.

I have come here, along with Jim Gorman, Backpacker senior editor, on something of a pilgrimage. I’ve come to see if Aldo Leopold’s dreams have stood the test of time in the wilderness that bears his name. Fifty years after his death I’ve come to hike some of the same country that he did, to share the same vistas, to ponder the meaning of wilderness in its birthplace.

And I’ve come to do a little splashing in the pools of the waterfalls, that is if “the Professor” doesn’t mind too much.

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