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Where is the Wilderness?

Wild River Wildernes, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
Wild River Wilderness, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

The world became alarmingly smaller when I discovered I had cell phone service in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness. You have mail!  I immediately regretted turning my phone on. That was two summers ago. When I’d first hiked this remote section of the Appalachian Trail a few years earlier, I’d been warned not to expect any cell phone service by the locals, except at a few highpoints near the Wilderness’ north end. But today, you can get cell service at many points and shelters all along this section of trail.

The Vanishing Wilderness

I go hiking and backpacking to get away from all of the interruptions that invade my everyday life. My routine is the same every day: walk, eat, sleep. There is no to-do list. No conference calls. No emails to answer. No errands to run.

Hiking in remote wilderness areas had always provided me with a degree of enforced isolation and solitude. But that wilderness is vanishing, certainly in the lower 48. Electronic communications and information can reach us anywhere we go. If there’s no cell phone, email, or texting services, I can still pull down GPS locations with my mobile phone from anywhere on the planet or send OK messages with to my wife with my SPOT3.

Slash remaining from cut-over land on mountainside, New Hampshire, circa 1910s.
Slash remaining from cut-over land on mountainside, New Hampshire

The Meaning of Wilderness

The meaning of the word “wilderness” is extremely difficult to pin down. I think of it as a virgin territory that has been untouched by man: where there are no trails, no roads, no signs, no nothing except the natural world. But that kind of wilderness has ceased to exist. Pollution, acid rain, and global warming have reached every corner of the earth and affected every ecosystem. The world we grew up will not be the same world that our children inherit.

One definition of wilderness occurs in the Wilderness Act of 1964 which gave the United States Congress the power of deciding where the wilderness is and which lands would receive federal protection as Wilderness Areas. In that bill, wilderness is defined as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

In the debates before the passage of the Wilderness Act, the U.S. Forest Service took the position that there were not any areas in the eastern United States that remained “untrammeled by man.” Congress debated the issue of adding areas that had been severely modified, including the great forests of New Hampshire’s White Mountains which had almost been completely clear-cut by lumber companies. They subsequently decided to include these lands despite the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, codifying their decision in the Eastern Wilderness Areas Act of 1975 (Public Law 93-622).

the Congress finds and declares that it is in the national interest that these and similar areas in the eastern half of the United States be promptly designated as wilderness…in order to preserve such areas as an enduring resource of wilderness which shall be managed to promote and perpetuate the wilderness character of the land and its specific values of solitude, physical and mental challenge, scientific study, inspiration, and primitive recreation for the benefit of all of the American people and future generations. 

While there are many different ways you can interpret Congress’ actions in 1975, including the use of wilderness as a political football, I find it fascinating that Congress set aside areas that were not “untrammeled by man” in an attempt to restore them to the their natural state. On hindsight, it was naive to believe that clear-cut forests could ever recover their original wilderness character after being so grievously disturbed. But the declaration that certain hard worn areas be designated as Wilderness Areas even when they were clearly not, demonstrates a view of wilderness as an idea or ideal rather than a reality.

Off Trail Hiking creates a feeling of Wilderness
Off trail hiking creates an intense feeling of wilderness

The Wilderness Within

Given the widespread impact that the industrial world has wrought on the earth, perhaps the only place where we can find true wilderness remains within ourselves. That’s the inescapable reality I’ve been forced to accept in my own quest to experience wilderness and its restorative solitude.

Sir Edmund Hillary is quoted as saying “it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”, which sums up the goal of the hiking and backpacking trips that I plan for myself. My goal is to continuously challenge myself physically and mentally, to conquer the doubts, fears, and physical limitations I perceive myself having as an middle-aged and aging man.

When I look at the hiking and backpacking trips I’ve gone on the past couple of years, it’s clear that the types of trips I take are designed accentuate an off-the-grid, wilderness style experience even though they occur in reasonably populated areas.

  • Off-trail hikes and bushwhacks create an intense wilderness experience by eliminating one’s ability to rely on signs, blazes, and trails to find your way and back. Once you step off trail and into the forest, you feel like you’ve travelled 200 years back in time.
  • Winter hikes and backpacks in the White Mountains are far more challenging and dangerous than three season hikes along the same routes. The lack of other winter hikers, the cloaking of natural features by snow and ice, the absence of easy rescue or aid, and the need for greater self-reliance, all contribute to make these trips wilderness experiences.
  • Medium distance backpacking trips that are 100-250 miles in length force me to decouple from my everyday existence, even if they’re on the Appalachian Trail, which is quite close to urban population centers. The act of being outdoors continuously for a week or more, turns these trips into more  primitive wilderness experiences.

I guess I’m hopeful that I can still experience a feeling of wilderness even as the physical wilderness around us disappears.

Where is the wilderness for you?

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38 comments

    • High praise from a kindred spirt. Thanks.

    • >Good post!

      Au Contraire … Great Post!

      But I would quibble with Phillip on finer points. Outside of polar regions I doubt there’s been any place untrammeled by man for many centuries. It’s a matter of degree. No doubt our trammeling has a heavier impact now and that it is more widespread.

      I agree that much of our wilderness system is largely artificial and restorative. But we need to start somewhere and the healing that has occurred .. however small … is preferable to unfettered advancing injury.

      I’m 100% on board with Phillip’s “wilderness within”. But again, that is a matter of degree. Read Eric Hansen’s “Stranger in the Forest”. Borneo’s interior was a foreign experience to him but was just another day in the woods for his guides who grew up in that environment. Even after months out of contact with the outside, when he felt at home there, he discovered that he was still in “wilderness” … an unforgiving place that must be taken on its terms, not his … and some of those terms had human involvement also.

      Here’s an example of wilderness within. Our scout troop used to have an off trail night hike activity in a less developed part of the summer camp property. Two candle lanterns and the night sky were the only light source. “Tree Eyes” (two 1/2 inch reflective dots attached to trees) as the only blazes. The area is bounded on all sides by trails wide enough that you cannot miss them and in daylight the area is very small and the oldest scouts learn how to use found material to point which direction the next eyes can be found. But to younger scouts at night it is as much a unending wilderness as the heart of the Amazon.

  1. Very important post, Philip. Thank you. John Muir would be proud to have you as his proponent for preserving and sanctifying the wilderness experience. We must continue to offer an alternative to our alienated, digitized life. Instead of looking into our palms to find distraction from ourselves, we can look up at the sky and canopy to find the spirit within us. That’s why you can find wilderness in your own back yard, as well as far into the woods, away from the maddening crowd.
    Congrats on your maturity as Wilderness Guide.

  2. We were just talking about this topic during our last trip out. Glad you brought it to light in this post.

  3. Nice post Philip. It was the same here in North Georgia. The forests were clear cut early 1900’s with massive soil erosion. Two of my favorite hiking routes along the Jacks and Conasauga Rivers still have remnants of the railroads that were built to haul out the logs. With protection, we have thriving forests again. I don’t get off-trail bushwack style often, but I do like to creek hike, hopping from boulder to boulder or whatever the situation calls for as I make my way down the creek. It is challenging and can be dangerous… one slip and a knock on the head or a broken leg is big trouble, but I prefer to go alone.

  4. I’ve been to many places that have been logged in the last century and while many of those areas are second growth forests, they are often so remote and wild that they truly are wilderness. Many of them don’t have the wilderness designation because they aren’t owned by the national government, but that doesn’t preclude them from the feeling of wild. I recently walked only about a mile from a road in a swamp in Florida and due to its nature as being a swamp, no one goes there often…it is quite easy to feel as if you are the only person on the planet in some of these places.

    As for cell service…that’s easy, keep the phone off.

    Unfortunately you can’t turn airplanes off and even they often fly over the quietest and remote locations.

    • Ah yes, airplanes. They do make the world feel smaller even when you look up at them.

    • There are a few indigenous cultures that have almost no contact with the outside world. I wonder what they think of the planes flying overhead.

      Of course, that reminds me of the hillbilly who saw his first hang glider and told his buddy about it, “Ah seen this giant bird bigger den anyting I ever saw befoe. It had swooped down and got a man in its claws but it shore dropped him quick when I shot at it!”

  5. After you’ve figured out where the “wilderness” is, will you see if you can find “backcountry” too?

    • I think they’re both near BFE.

    • Here’s a little story which I had in an earlier verison of this post, but which I removed to narrow the focus.

      I was talking to a US Forest Ranger recently and asked him jokingly where he thought the backcountry was in the White Mountain National Forest. The most remote point in the Whites is like 7 miles from a road, hardly what I imagine the backcountry to be. Like everyplace else in the Whites, it was clear cut by the lumber companies and shows it.

      He replied that the backcountry is any place you can’t get to by car. I was dumbstruck, to be honest, because this is a textbook Forest Service definition, mainly about where the forest’s backcountry rules apply. No way does the backcountry starts where the pavement ends, even if my wife insists that it does.

  6. Bum F* Egypt. Located just past Resume Speed, Florida, Hell’s Half Acre and the Absolute Middle of No Where.

  7. The wilderness is everywhere and nowhere. Mostly my wilderness is in my head. Figuring out more and more whats up there.

  8. i guess I just dont understand the post at all. author acting like he has no choice but to have his phone with him and turned on, with the ringer volume on high. leave your electronics at home.

    • The point, which you’ve missed, is that there few places left that are true wilderness given advances in modern communications, pollution, road building, and settlement. One way I re-create a wilderness experience in these non-wilderness areas is by making my outdoor trips much harder, dangerous, and difficult. It’s about creating a wilderness feeling, even though the landscape is not exactly pristine anymore.

    • Also, there is a HUGE difference between choosing to keep ones phone off and not being able to receive/make phone calls, and having no option to being out of touch with “real life.” This was brought home to me recently on a 5 hour flight from Texas. I abhor flying, but one of the few upsides is being completely cut off from eCommunication. This flight had free WiFi, even if you choose not to use it knowing that you can exerts pressure and brings the world that much closer.

  9. Where my Cell did not work, High Sierra’s above 10,000 ft. Parts of the Mojave Desert in So. Cal. parts of West Texas where I took a number of cross country trips and parts of the National Forest in New Mexico…It also depends on who you have your Service with. for example, I belong to a hunting club and we lease 1000 acres in southeast Georgia. My Cellphone was the ONLY one that worked or had more than 3 bars on it. So everyone used my phone but religiously recharged with the charger off my Radio. So it can depend on your provider as well. But I do find it amazing to be sitting on the top of a Mountain out in the middle of the National Forest and my daughter calls me to see how I am doing…….

  10. I tend to struggle with the concept of “wilderness” because some of my hiking places are called “wilderness areas” but as a forestry graduate, I see signs of man’s impact all around. So to avoid the struggle, I like to utilize the concept of “nature” instead, which to me does not imply no human impact, but rather conveys to me the beauty, both micro and macro, of outdoor spaces created by the Master’s hand.

  11. The old wilderness within concept and debate on what it is rages on. Who can say? For me, well we read of Alaska and the Yukon as the top wilderness in the USA , as well as the wildest. I expect it is wilderness – and places like that will humble, and leave you in awe as you realise the scale, remoteness and the risks you would face in those locations.

    Always having a sense of fear, looking over your shoulder and that “what if “would face you. If it’s a case of limp to the logging camp road and dial up a lift out on your phone – I would suggest it’s the backcountry and a wild place, not “wilderness”.

    Wilderness I would like to experience would contain apex predators, vast unfordable rivers, and the only trails are made by animals, not man. It would humble me and leave me in awe. That’s my definition.

  12. Loved the post. I understand the need to disconnect from society–in fact I think it would be healthier (for both people and the world) if everyone was required to do it at least once a year. Here in the western United States I guess we’re a little luckier. At this point, there are many places in the Sierras that have no cell service (too many steep canyons and not enough phones to make it worth it for the service providers.) I find the best wilderness experiences in the deserts though. Aside from mining in some of the canyons, a lot of the land has been untouched and so few people appreciate it you can find yourself alone in vast expanses, only the reptiles and cactus for company. It’s a humbling experience and one that can be life threatening if you haven’t acquainted yourself with desert travel.

  13. This is a fun website: http://remotefootprints.org/project-remote

    Pennsylvania was also clear cut a hundred years ago. Large tracts of forest have grown back, but we are now undoing that by clearing forest for hydraulic fracturing pads, roads, and pipelines. There is now widespread sound pollution in PA from the hydraulic fracturing compressor stations.

  14. I no longer bring a cell phone or a GPS for 3 season hikes, on or off trail. The only electronics are my head lamp. That goes a long way towards creating the illusion of being in the wilds. As you stated, winter backpacks are a different experience and I do bring GPS and PLB on those. Being alone in the woods at night in the winter always makes me feel like I am far from civilization. In the winter, I like to think of distances in terms of hours to travel rather than miles. You can be pretty close to the trail head but if it snowed overnight, you can be hours from your car.

  15. I found some! I live minutes from Acadia National Park one of the top visited parks inthe nation. I recently went off for a day hike to a favorite trail of mine. I was surprised to find that the first mile was rerouted to the other side of the creek it followed. Apparently restored to its original route. For me this was brand new territory very beautiful and right under my nose all of these years. I found edible mushrooms I had never found outside of Washington state. Leaving the trail to explore the creek bed I found visually hidden areas of stunning beauty. I imagine I could camp in this area without being seen. Most folks stick to the trails here. I felt I could be miles from the nearest pavement I probably could have picked up a cell signal if I had tried but the place possessed magic that I equate with wilderness.

  16. Guess I hit the wrong key and deleted my post. Anyway, I was out in the Talladega NF yesterday, not hiking but Road Hunting, with a Camera. I was looking for the first signs of the dwarf wild Iris which I believe is the most beautiful of all the Wildflowers outside of a few Wild Orchids on the top of Mount Darwin in the Eastern Sierra’s. I also saw three flocks of Turkeys and two groups of Does, and a couple of Chukkars. I drove over 25 miles of NF Dirt Roads and when a Wilderness Sign appeared I thought of this post and began to take serious note of which sections of the Forest were Considered and Marked Wilderness and which were not. Talladega is a “Cut Over” forest going back to the 1700’s. There are Gravestones there in the forest with the names of a lot of Children back in 1864 who died of Chorea from not having the Outhouse far enough away from their Water Source, a meandering friendly bubbly stream which runs wet all year long. The Areas I noticed that were dedicated as Wilderness seem to be the areas where Logging Operations would be the most difficult. Places where bringing in a tracked or wheeled vehicle would be next to impossible or very difficult and since they have rules regarding how close they can cut to a stream it made many areas impossible to cut. These areas also have large stands of native Trees still in place, Elms, Hickory’s, Sycamores, Red Maple, Oaks, but none thicker than maybe 2 feet making these trees are about 50 years old. I couldn’t find one to count the rings on but I’ll keep a lookout for one. The Forest Service rountinely does Undergrowth Burning in these areas to keep the Bugs down and non-native species at bay. The Pinhoti Trail winds its way through these areas as does a number of “Horse Only” or Esquine Only Trails. Now in the Logging areas, the land has been taken over by mostly fast growing Pines. In talking with a Law Enforcement Ranger about this he said they sort of treat it like a Farm. They bid out the different tree stands to loggers, in turn that money is used to subsidize operations within the National Forest or supplement Government funds.There are Three Campgrounds, 1 one Primiative, my favorite, then another near a lake for R.V.’s and Tents, and then one just for Horses, as well as more than 150 miles of trails. It also provides jobs for a few dozen people. They also do controlled burns and thinning of these logging areas as well. So what happens is these same logging areas are used over and over and over again, thereby leaving the Wilderness areas alone. What I fear is that some unscruplous Forest Service Management Employee will succumb to greed and sell off the hardwood in the Wilderness areas under the guise of needing to “thin” or protect the forest from some unseen bug. My own experience in Wilderness areas is that the forest itself does a good job of thinning and ridding itself of bugs, it is only in area’s where man interfer’s or thinks they know better than Mother Nature is when the trouble begins as evidenced by the Fires and destruction in California where the forests have been under the care of Intellectuals, Arm Chair experts, Tree Huggers, College Experts and Judges for some 40 years…And we all see the results of that….My impression after I left is, that if you want to know if a Forest is Healthy or not,,look for Squirrels, the more Squirrel nests I find in the trees, the healthier the forest is, not scientific but it works for me…

  17. Untrammeled is often confused with trampled or evidence of disturbance but it actually means not confined or limited. Wilderness is designated to be wild without being confined or limited by ‘man’. There is a prohibition on mechanized and motorized equipment and human infrastructure like cell towers and oil wells, roads and activities of a commercial nature. Also, the law prohibits timber harvesting in Wilderness.

  18. Nice post. “Wilderness” is not necessarily a physical location for me. Whatever provides me the ability to escape from busyness and be true to myself is what I define wilderness.

  19. This is your most important recent post. I have read you for years, and your outdoor “maturity” with emphasis on the experience not gear is really showing. Sectionhiker.com continues to become more and more valuable to me. Thank you for blogging.

  20. Fantastic, post, and great question. My feeling is that true wilderness may have indeed disappeared with the advent of satellite communications. After all, if other human contact and civilization is only seconds away, you could argue you’re not really in the wild.

    That said, I think that perceived wilderness can be just about anywhere. The degree to which you can experience perceived wilderness might just depend on your state of mind, and your ability to pretend. For example, while I prefer to be able to look from horizon to horizon and see no obvious signs of human impact, I can still experience wilderness in the middle of a Civil War battle ground by simply closing my eyes. If all I can hear are the songs of native birds and a gentle rustling of the grass from the wind, I find that I can be (momentarily) truly removed from civilization.

  21. Australia, that’s where it is mate, 2 hrs from Sydney and no phone reception for 3 days.

  22. The AMC not long ago had their magazine feature the “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine. I sent them the following story, which they politely ignored in the next letters-to-the-editor. In 1983, two of us were finishing the AT and one day my hiking partner was 15 minutes ahead of me and came to a road crossing in the 100 Mile Wilderness. A car arrived at the same time and offered him a beer. He gladly accepted and said his partner was coming along and could he possibly have another for me? He took the second beer and put it in the stream nearby to keep it cold. When I arrived, I enjoyed that beer and then lamented that we’d have to lug the glass bottles all the way to Abol Bridge. Just then another car came by, stopped, and I asked if he’d mind disposing of the two bottles for us. Sure! So, I ask, what kind of wilderness is it when one car gives you 2 beers and then a half hour later another comes along and carries out your empties?!

    • Much as I like “some” of the things the AMC does, buying and building a hut system in the 100 mile wilderness to replicate the White Mountain hut system is not one of them. You didn’t mention that in your comment, but building backcountry Marriots in the Wilderness for people from Boston is going to eliminate any remaining wilderness feeling up there.

  23. Hypothetically speaking, the only real solution to the lack of wilderness problem would be an event(s) capable and powerful enough to render our power grid, electronics, machines, etc. useless -OR- (ironically perhaps less likely) a nation that is willing to give up a cycle of self willingness to be a commodity to consumerism.

    Only then will a society, a species, chained to the idols of materialism be freed of a “dream” that at its core is so progressively artificial, so unfulfilling -the antithesis of life in fact- only then will we even begin to become aware of what true wilderness, true community, what, in essence, LIFE truly is.

    Since the first two options most likely won’t occur. Want a real wilderness experience in the meantime? Quit your job and become a homesteader in Alaska. Sell your hybrid and travel by horseback. Forgo college and learn animal husbandry. Trade your iPhone for a multi-tool. Harvest REAL “free range/organic” foods from the land instead of a taking a trip to your local Whole Foods replete with goods trucked in from thousands of miles away. Its not enough to just avoid Walmart, avoid Target, Costco, and any other volume retail outlet full of Chinese-made garbage. Go off the grid. Barter goods and trade services. Make, create and fix your own stuff…balance consuming with creation. Raise chickens. Smash your TV and get to know your neighbors. Learn navigation with compass and map. Read the classics. Always hike off-trail. Wake up. Live.

    Until then, keep pretending with the hypocritical, pseudo-environmentalist, pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-driving-a-Prius, “wilderness” seeking, bull-shit.

    – Former IT engineer guy current sustainable mini-farmer/hunter/gatherer/builder/life liver

  24. Thought provoking post..

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