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.
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.
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.