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May 2001

Going Tribal

We know the strength that courses through flesh and bone when standing at a trailhead, ready to set out and practice our primitive art.

It was our first night out in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, a rugged, dense-brush patch of southwestern Oregon that’s spitting distance from the Pacific. Earl, who’d struggled all day with his over-stuffed, leather-strap rucksack, noticed with some disgust the purple stains and residue on my new boots, the result of stepping in too much berry-laden bruin sign on the narrow trail.

“Why do you do this?” he asked while rubbing his shoulders, his tone steeped in bewilderment. “This” was backpacking, which I’d persuaded him to try-just once, as it turned out. As we bedded down under the watchful eye of an owl, I offered the usual and obvious reasons: to get away and relax, to breathe clean, fresh air, to see wildlife and sunrises and sunsets, to fine-tune my backwoods skills. But the same can be said for dayhikers, hunters, fisherpersons, even birdwatchers and picnickers. Why do we backpack? Who are we who turn our backs on societal niceties and trudge off down earthen paths strewn with rocks and roots and mud and risk?

I’ve yet to find a definitive answer, but the search has yielded some interesting clues. Dave Foreman, for instance, author, former Wilderness Society staffer, hard-core environmentalist, and someone who’s dedicated his life to understanding and preserving wildlands, says we’re a “community linked by a sense of belonging not familiar to all.” Rather than basing our existence solely around technology, we instead occasionally “turn to craft and to being”-backwoods skills and experiencing the wilds, in other words.

“We recognize we are part of the natural ecosystem in which we dwell, even if only temporarily,” he continues. We enjoy “going back to the woods and a primitive state of mind. We seek old, traditional ways of organizing ourselves and our lives, turning away from hierarchy to tribalism.”

We are a tribe.

Webster’s defines “tribe” as “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.” Although in our case, it’s better to modify the definition by saying we’re uncommon characters whose common interest is our passion for places others consider no-man’s-land (see “No-Man’s-Land,” May 2001).

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot,” naturalist Aldo Leopold noted. We cannot, so we venture deep into the wilderness—”sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing,” Leopold offered in his Sand County Almanac. “I suppose some will wish to debate whether it is important to keep these primitive arts alive. I shall not debate it. Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old.”

We know it. We know the strength that courses through flesh and bone when standing at a trailhead, ready to set out and practice our primitive art. The anticipation and the wonderment about what’s around the bend still sends shudders down my spine.

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