Wilderness: Access For All

Should we pave the wilderness and install escalators for the disabled? No, says a former backpacker.
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Should we pave the wilderness and install escalators for the disabled? No, says a former backpacker.

A river rock sits in the center of my palm, as round and smooth as the world. It is smaller than a robin's egg and a color I have no name for...so dark a green it's almost black. This stone is older than the river that pounded it smooth.

It came from the edge of the Colorado River, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

I found it 7 years ago on a 15-day backpacking trip. I did not know then that it would be the last time I picked up rocks at the bottom of the Grand, at least after hiking in to get there. I had no idea that this small stone would come to seem to me, on some sad days, like a letter saved from a friend who had since died.

But I'm not writing a eulogy to my former, able-bodied self. I'm writing in response to a letter to the editor I read in a newspaper, in which the writer said he "would feel better if more public lands were improved so people with limited time, money, or physical abilities could enjoy them."

I don't claim to speak for all environmentalists or for all those with physical impairments. As disabilities go, mine is comparatively minor. I have a back injury, I wear an orthopedic brace on one leg, and I use a cane. After 6 years of exercise and physical therapy, I get around fairly well. I've even begun to hike again for short distances. In many ways I'm lucky.

Still, I know I'll probably never again hoist a 40-pound pack or stride out into canyon country for 2 weeks of adventurous travel. In this respect, I wonder if I'm one of the people the letter writer argued has no "meaningful access" to many wild places. He suggests everything from escalators in the Grand Canyon to the opening up of wild areas to all-terrain vehicles.

I might take his concerns seriously if I knew he and others like him were hard at work installing wheelchair ramps and doing whatever is needed to give the disabled "meaningful access" to the places where we live. But I doubt he is.

I believe he also misses the point in this whole debate. A wild area is by definition a place that's hard to get to, remote, dangerous. It is a place not easily accessible.

There are those of us who cannot climb mountains but still love the sight of them on the horizon. We love the idea of mystery still left in the world, of places where only the creatures born there roam. What we receive from all this is something the letter writer doesn't understand.

Six years ago, when I entered the hospital, I took the Colorado River rock with me. The weight of it in my hand gave me strength. It reminded me that the river it came from still ran through my heart, that even in the hospital, my bones were as real and strong as Grand Canyon rock.

If I ever do strap on a backpack again and make my way down to the canyon bottom, I'll give this stone back to the river because I don't need it. The thing about this strange world is that none of us gets to have all that she wants, or see everything he dreams of seeing.

But these thoughts will not make sense to someone who regards environmentalists as "overpaid, greedy little white kids who refuse to share their toys." The person who made this statement will not understand my point until he learns to love the things he can't own, and realizes that the natural world was never a "toy" to begin with.

Diane Sylvain is an artist and writer who lives in Paonia, Colorado.