This is not the Himalayas, but Yellowstone is still wild. Yes, land managers have monkeyed with the variables, but solid science is finally ascendent. Many citizens will never come here, yet they care enough to fight for such places. Which, for most of us, starts with sending a check to the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council or Audubon or any one of the hundreds of groups that defend wilderness, and ends with radically reducing our carbon footprints.
Hiking into the timbered Plateau Creek valley, I relearn what I knew as a boy: that wilderness is not a mythical place, nor a region of virginal exquisiteness as the Transcendentalists would have us believe. Rather, it is real, ecologically complex, necessarily human-managed geography where biodiversity matters more than money. Wilderness is in our backyard, and with the healing influence of minimal interference, it will endure.
Gaillard and I knock off miles faster than we expected and surprise ourselves by reaching camp at 2 p.m. In an hour, we have the tent up and a pile of wood. This is our fourth day of walking, as directly as we could, and we still haven’t reached the most remote spot in the Lower 48. But we’re close.
Gaillard looks at his watch, at the sky, then at me. We’re beat. We have less than four hours of daylight.
We quickly shove food, water, headlamps, GPS, and jackets in hip packs and strike out due north along the Two Ocean Plateau. A moose has broken trail for the first mile.
After crossing the plateau, we have to regain it again to reach the most remote spot. On a mission, we proceed with exuberance, and our muscles respond. On the northern aspects, we plunge up to our knees through crust. When the trail curls around to southern aspects, the track melts to a soft pine needle path and we practically trot.
According to my custom map, we should enter a mile-long clearing with two ponds. We hit it dead on. Gaillard is charging ahead; I’m looking at the map and the GPS, shouting “go north of the ponds,” then, “Okay, go straight.”
Gaillard kneels to examine tracks. “Pine marten,” he says.
Passing the last landmark, a pond half-skimmed with ice, we discover antlers sticking out of the water. Perhaps the elk died last winter. Perhaps a grizzly ate the carcass. No matter, whatever happened, it was as it should be. The antlers feel like some kind of symbol, the earth’s wishbone, a talisman.
Beyond the pond, using the GPS, we walk precisely to the most remote place. The middle of nowhere. As wild as wild gets in the Lower 48. A place that may become wilder in the next century.
We stop, stand still, and listen.
Sky. Forest. Snow. Silence.
The birds. The unseen insects and animals all around us. And hope.
Mark Jenkins’ s latest book is A Man’s Life: Dispatches from Dangerous Places.