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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.
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.