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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.

Then again, maybe this attraction to wilderness is genetic. Foreman, during his tenure with the Wilderness Society in the early 1970s, asked some cohorts what attracted them to wildlands preservation. “Sadly, we could discern no common strand that pulled wilderness freaks to the wild.” Some cited childhood or parental influences, others a vague connection to all things wild and free. Then one colleague jokingly suggested that maybe there is a “wilderness gene” that stretches back into our evolutionary history. If so, it’s a recessive gene that pops up only now and then. How else to explain the one redhead in a family of brunettes? Or Muir or Thoreau or Abbey?

Are we genetic misfits then? Perhaps. After all, we do speak our own language, with talk of gorp and switchbacks and mares’ tails and tree tunnels. We know that rivers sing, that land can tell tales, that silence can speak volumes about who we are. Nor do we mind getting dirt under our fingernails or using a hole in the ground to answer nature’s call.

So why do we backpack? In the end, the answer is all of the above. And none of the above. The answer is as unique and individual as each of us. For me, it harkens back to 1654 when a Pilgrim described the untamed New World as a place of “hideous Thickets” full of “Wolfes and Beares.” Simple truth is, I feel more at home in “Wolfe and Beare” territory than I do in the city. I’d rather bushwhack through a “hideous Thicket” than thrash through a mall on a Saturday afternoon.

In the wilds, I can be selfish and have mind-bending experiences that will forever be mine alone: solitude so utter and complete in South Dakota’s Badlands that I can hear wind sifting through a raven’s wing feathers; the midnight sky over Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, alive with liquid rainbows as the northern lights perform; the terrifyingly exhilarating “whoof” (moose? bear?) from dense trailside brush in Canada’s Kootenay National Park; staring in 20°F wonderment as an avalanche, bathed in moonlight, roars down a distant valley in Rocky Mountain National Park.

But that’s just me. I’m sure you have your own reasons for going Out There. I’m just as certain that when you peel off the fleece and polypro and unbuckle the hipbelt, you’ll find we’re kin in search of common ground, and that overrides differing views on things like politics or religion or pizza toppings. We share ties that bind, a big one being our inordinate strength of spirit. How else could we journey into places and conditions that leave us tender and vulnerable; where birth and rebirth, survival and death, and transformation are all daily events; where we witness firsthand nature’s heartbreakingly beautiful cycle of creation and destruction. To do so requires a special kind of person, someone willing to follow a seldom-used path, who likes to seek out the unpredictable.

That’s you. Welcome to the tribe.

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