An Incident on Mount Adams

Note: Some of you know that I like to do short backpack trips. I always stuff a journal in my pack, to record anything interesting that might occur. Maybe it’s a naïve hope, but I’d like to one day turn my experiences into a book. Anyway, last year I did a short hike on the Appalachian Trail in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What follows is an incident that happened on one of the peaks, Mount Adams. If you feel inclined, let me know your thoughts. Your feedback improves my writing and motivates me to get closer to that elusive book.

The hikers become thicker as I near the base of Mount Adams. Most of them hike in groups. Occasionally, I move to the side of the trail to let them pass. Sometimes they glance up and acknowledge me. Other times they continue to converse with their companions, keeping their eyes on the ground.

Everyone’s different. Even at work, or at the gym, or in the park, some individuals never make eye contact. But at least out here on the trail, they’re not clutching their smartphones as a baby clutches a bottle.

Soon, I arrive at a large, open field. Off to the right are several worn footpaths leading to a rocky summit: Mount Adams. President John Adams always seems overshadowed by larger-than-life Washington and Jefferson, so I commit myself to climbing the summit in honor of our second president. Like Adams the man, the peak is small, but it’s majestic. A number of other hikers also scramble to the top. There’s no worn path, just a jumble of grey boulders to negotiate however one chooses. Unlike at Mount Jefferson, where I left my pack at the summit base, I haul my pack up Adams, which makes for a slow climb. But pretty soon, I’m at the top, surrounded by a mass of day hikers.

For the first time in a while, there are no clouds, and I’m treated to a panoramic view. The view isn’t as stunning as at South Twin Mountain a few days ago, but I also don’t have to deal with that day’s heat or exhaustion. Since it’s still early in the day, I linger here longer than normal. The Labor Day crowd makes for a buzzing social scene.

Back on the Appalachian Trail, at a large cairn signaling the mountain’s location, there was a bustling crowd of kids and adults. I figured it was maybe a church or civic group. Not long after summiting Adams, several of them make their way to the top. Immediately, I notice something a little different about them. The kids all have dark tans and very long hair. They wander by themselves, without adult supervision, and chatter excitedly. One of them, long-haired and lithe, looks neither boy nor girl.

Then a man bounces over the edge of a boulder, standing with his hands on his hips, scanning the crowd on the top. He’s wiry and healthy-looking, with a sandy brown ponytail that’s streaked with grey, and he has a beaming smile. I can’t tell his age. He could be in his late thirties, but with his greyish ponytail, he could instead be twenty years older.

“What an amazing view!” he exclaims with extroverted zest. “And all these amazing hikers!” I see him shoot me a quick, white-toothed glance.

He scurries around the rocks, taking in all the views. I sit on a rock in silence, observing two large dogs panting nearby. But my ears are open. Before long, the ponytail guy is carrying on a conversation with two young men. I overhear him say “Plymouth” and “Blue Bell Bakery,” or something. They chat for about five minutes, interrupted by the man’s gasps of amazement at the views. At the end of the conversation, I hear him extend an invitation to the two men to visit the bakery.

This is one of those times when I feel isolated. Like I don’t belong. I get this way occasionally. I’m not a shy person, in most situations. But in other situations, I have a difficult time opening up. It’s probably a combination of the loner in me, some bullying as a kid that made me wary of people, plus the social anxiety I’ve dealt with most of my life. These three people, after only five minutes, act like they’re old friends. Yet I can know someone for five years and still feel like a stranger.

I observe this ponytail guy like he’s a celebrity or something. He looks good, and there’s a magnetism about him. His wispy ponytail and extroverted manner remind me of certain freespirited hippies I knew back in school. They always seemed comfortable with themselves, and never took things too seriously. While I’ve always been drawn to these types, envious of them, I’m also always a little intimidated. For lack of a better word, they exhibit a “karma” that I don’t have, and probably never will.

Eventually, I zigzag my way down Mount Adams. The descent seems longer than the ascent. Which boulder should I choose to step on? This one. No… this crested rock is a good fit for my boot.

The two dogs and their owners quickly pass me by. So do the two young men. Ponytail guy is already at the cairn with his large group. I don’t see the kids anywhere.

I reach flat ground and angle toward the AT. But I deliberately taper my angle so I can pass by the cairn. I’m still curious about ponytail and his group. Maybe I can pick up some clues from their conversation.

As I get closer, I shoot a few glances out of the corner of my eye, hoping that I won’t appear nosey. But ponytail guy catches me looking.

“You’ve got a big pack there!” he shouts at me. “Where are you headed?”

I veer toward him. “Headed for Osgood Tentsite tonight,” I answer shyly. “Then my car tomorrow, and back home to Ohio.”

He asks me a few more questions, and before long, we’re into a free-flowing conversation. We talk about the White Mountains, Mount Washington, the scenery, the details of our respective hikes, and the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He and his group are doing a several-day hike. Then I see the long-haired kids. They drift in and out of the group. If their parents are here, I’m unable to determine who they are. The kids seem to belong to no one, and everyone.

Then I ask him his name.

“Shemet,” he says with a smile.

“Sh…Shemet?” I ask.

“Yes, Shemet.” Then he tells me it’s an old Hebrew name that he adopted a while ago. Suddenly, a young teenage girl approaches us.

“This is my daughter, Mehenomet.” Mehenomet tilts her head and smiles.

Hmm.

Shemet tells me that all the members of his group have adopted Hebrew names (despite the fact that they’re probably all Gentiles). He then tells me he used to work as a park ranger. He hints about certain unsavory activities he engaged in when he was younger. (“Didn’t we all!” I assure him). He and his wife divorced, and he eventually joined the group he’s with today. But he doesn’t give me the group’s name, or its purpose or affiliation.

I ask Shemet why he’s no longer a park ranger. It’s a career which I thought about pursuing when I was younger, and which I’ve always considered meaningful and fulfilling.

“I had no meaning or fulfillment,” he says. “I got tired of rattling on about birds and animals and lakes. There’s a bird, here’s a lake,” he says mockingly. “I didn’t want to serve nature anymore. I wanted to serve people!” he says enthusiastically, as if people and nature weren’t inseparable, and park rangers didn’t serve both wildlife and people.

His rock-headed revelation hits me like a right hook to the jaw. So much for that blissful “karma” I thought about on top of Mount Adams. His coolness quotient drops as precipitously as the mountain. But I guess I’d set myself up for this shock. I had it coming.

We continue to chat, but I slowly inch my way toward the trail. Then, a swarthy, dark-haired man approaches and introduces himself. It’s another Old Testament-type name. He hands me a pamphlet and tells me to read it at my leisure. I thank him, wave goodbye to Shemet and Mehenomet, turn northward on the trail… and feel like a leash has been removed.

I slip the pamphlet into a pocket on my pack, promising myself to at least glance at it later. After I return home, I do. The title is “The Twelve Tribes.” Just below the title is a watercolored illustration of long-haired stick people, children and adults. They’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. I read the bubbly, upbeat words inside the pamphlet. Later, I visit the internet and read more about The Twelve Tribes.

I try to be open-minded about things. And you can’t make snap judgements from a pamphlet, and certainly not the internet. But like so many other “clubs” that rely on dogma and a fixed set of beliefs and practices, what I learn about The Twelve Tribes convinces me it’s not for me, and it’s further proof of Shemet’s scrambled thinking.

Shakespeare undoubtedly had a pithy observation about all of this. In lieu of his words, I’ll go with someone more contemporary, like singer John Prine:

“It’s a big old goofy world.”

 

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Skiing with the Aliens

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“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

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Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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100th Blog Post

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I started longitudes to try to sell copies of my book (“Bluejackets in the Blubber Room”). Well, the blubber book sales tanked, but the blabbering blog has taken a life of its own.

Someone said that blogs… (the word “blog” is short for “web-log”)… have an average lifespan of 2 1/2 years. Longitudes is now over 4 years young. So I’m actually beating the odds, which is rare for me.

To recognize the insignificant occasion of my 100th post, I’m attaching links to six of my older essays. These essays either got a lot of response, or are special to me… or both.

Since I’m honoring myself, I’d like to thank everyone who’s “liked” my stuff or offered comments: Tad, Mary K, Brian, Neil, Frank, Phil, Rich, Leah, Thom, Dennis, Cindy, Dean, and everyone else who drops in for coffee.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, so it’s a huge thrill to know someone has read and been affected by something I’ve written. Some of my thoughts may have struck a nerve on occasion. While I think it’s important to express opinion, and while I may not respect certain views, I nevertheless try to respect the reader (it’s an alien concept in these days of instant communication, but it is possible). Anyway, I hope I’ve never offended anyone. If I have, I apologize.

So here are six blasts from the past… just click the titles. Thanks again, everyone!

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It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Leaving (Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown)

I wrote this travelogue after visiting Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. I used the present tense because I wanted the reader to feel like he or she was on the journey.

The underlying theme is how one person’s hero can have little or no impact on someone else. Also, that it’s difficult or impossible to identify genius or from where it arises.

A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

I sent this essay to a National Public Radio (NPR) show hoping they’d publish it. Too much competition, I guess. So I submitted it to longitudes, and it was accepted! It’s about our family dog, Brownie, a rambunctious Australian Shepherd who didn’t exactly endear himself to outsiders, but was totally devoted to the family. His sudden death brought a lot of tears, but he gave us many good memories. The top photo was taken just before he died.

America and Guns

The Sandy Hook tragedy hit me hard, as it did most everyone else. How can something so horrifying happen? The answers are very complex. But to deny that one of the factors is firearms, and America’s refusal to address why it leads the world in per capita gun violence is, to me, ridiculous.

Remembering Biff

After I write something I usually forget about it. But I keep returning to this essay. It’s a tribute to a friend from childhood that I’d lost track of for many years. Then I suddenly learned about him. He’d taken Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West, doing things I’d always wanted to do (“living the dream,” as the cliché goes), but for which I never had the courage or ability. Then his life was tragically cut short.

Visiting the past has opened a few doors for me. Such is the case with learning about Biff. He reminds me that life is momentary, and we need to (try to) live it to the max while we have it… as Biff evidently did.

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking Glass

This is about an Appalachian Trail hike I took, and it got more feedback than probably any other post (which isn’t saying much!). I guess it’s because people enjoy reading about adventure and unusual experiences. This hike wasn’t all that adventurous or unusual, but maybe folks found a certain vicarious thrill. A lot of the “likes” and “follows” came from people who have their own travel-related blogs. After writing this, I realized that there are many vibrant people around the globe who are in constant motion, immersing themselves in the outdoors and different cultures, places, and experiences.

The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things

I created a sub-category called “50 Years” to highlight people or events on their 50th anniversary (and also because the decade of the 1960s fascinates me). I’m also real big on conservation issues, and these things came together with this Earth Day essay recognizing 50 years since the signing of America’s Wilderness Act. The title is a pun on an old Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things.”

At one time, there was a lot of wilderness but only a few people. Now, it’s just the opposite, and this paradigm is too often taken for granted. I believe it’s crucial to protect as many wild places as possible, for our spiritual well-being in addition to the well-being of other species.

This essay didn’t get a lot of views (I have an annoying tendency to sound like I’m preaching – see above). But that’s okay. Maybe Henry Thoreau and John Muir gave it a nod of approval, which is reward enough.

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A Wrong Turn: The Haunting Disappearance of Inchworm

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On Monday morning, July 22, 2013, a woman named Geraldine Largay vanished while hiking the Appalachian Trail in southern Maine.

To this day, the details of her disappearance are a mystery.

Largay, whose trail nickname was “Inchworm” due to her slow hiking pace, was an intrepid 66-year-old grandmother from Tennessee.  She was also a veteran backpacker. She and a friend had started their hike at the AT halfway point at Harpers Ferry, WV.  But her friend had a family issue arise and had to bow out in New Hampshire.  She tried to talk Gerry into also quitting, but Largay insisted on continuing solo to the endpoint of Mt. Katahdin in eastern Maine. Her husband had driven their car and was periodically rendezvousing with her at road crossings.

The Maine section of the AT is known for having long stretches of isolated, rugged, and densely forested country.Print

On the night of July 22, Largay shared a lean-to just east of Saddleback Mountain with five other hikers. The following morning, one of them took her photograph. The photo shows a lean, muscular woman with a beaming smile almost as big as her backpack.

Largay was to meet her husband at a road crossing the next day. She was looking forward to a hearty meal and a soft bed. But she never arrived.

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After George Largay reported his wife missing late on July 24, the story spread like a brush fire. Hundreds of volunteers and search and rescue workers fanned out to search for her. The Largay family posted a large reward. But for over two years, there was no trace of Inchworm. Authorities were baffled. Although they publicly denied foul play, this was only because they had no tangible evidence. It was as if Largay had been swallowed by the earth.

Then, on October 14, 2015, an environmental impact researcher found human remains inside a tent in a thicket of woods near an overgrown logging road. The site was only a half mile from the AT. It was a hundred yards inside a restricted area of forest owned by the U.S. Navy. The navy uses this area for P.O.W. simulation training (and, according to the alternative Maine publication The Bollard, some of this training involves torture).

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(photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

Medical analysts eventually confirmed that… yes… the remains were that of Inchworm. Police say there was no evidence of crime (but after two years in the forest, how much evidence would there be!). Her death was officially ruled as “inanition.” It’s a rarely used term that means “a state of being empty.” Empty of food… or, perhaps, empty of will.

How could a woman totally disappear for over two years despite the largest manhunt in Maine history??

I ask this question because it makes no sense why Maine authorities could not rescue her in time, and her family should have to suffer so long without knowing anything. Their grief at her disappearance was bad enough without having a huge question mark hovering over it.

But I guess I’m also asking for selfish reasons. One is, I hate to admit it, morbid curiosity. But the other is that I plan to soon hike the White Mountains in New Hampshire, very close to where Inchworm disappeared. If (heaven forbid) something happens to me, I would want my family to immediately know the whys and the wherefores.   One of the appeals of solo hiking in the mountains is the challenge. Although not considered an “extreme” sport, there is an element of danger. But at the same time, I don’t want my family being interviewed by “Inside Edition.”

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Gerry Largay disappeared on a sunny day only three miles from the lean-to where she was last seen. The Maine Warden Service now believes she descended Poplar Ridge, crossed Orbeton Stream, then strayed from the main trail on either an old railroad road or logging path.

The AT guide that I own calls either the railroad road or logging path a “Woods road.”  It’s at the 1982.3 mile mark (northbound) on the AT.  The guide also has an instruction to follow this road a short distance east.  It’s not uncommon for the trail to coincide with a road like this.  But the Woods road soon veers north.  It’s possible Inchworm wasn’t paying attention, missed the sign to continue east on the AT, and followed the Woods road north a great distance.  Then when she realized there were no white diamonds painted on the trees, instead of backtracking she panicked and headed into the brush in hopes of a shortcut.  When a person does this in the unforgiving Maine woods, unless he or she is proficient with a compass, well…

The following day, Tuesday, July 23, it poured rain all day.

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Old railroad road that Inchworm may have mistakenly taken (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

If it’s true Gerry got lost, God knows the terrors she experienced while awaiting the end. She undoubtedly heard the helicopters whirring overhead. Maybe she also heard distant bloodhounds. Hopefully her final hours were peaceful.

But there are many gnawing unknowns. The Appalachian Trail is well-marked, and Inchworm was an experienced hiker, having trod the southern half of the AT and most of the northern half.  If she chose the wrong trail at some point, why didn’t she backtrack?  Didn’t she have a GPS, or compass and map to use once she got lost? Why did she pitch her tent in such a thick, inaccessible patch of forest? Didn’t she have enough food and water to last for at least several days, more than enough time to relocate the main trail? Didn’t she have dry matches to create a smoke fire? Was she able to write a last message? Have authorities kept this under wraps? Why didn’t they gain permission to search the military grounds?

Another mystery: at the beginning of the investigation, police reported a strange phone call to the Stratton Motel, where George Largay was staying. The receptionist claimed an unidentified person called saying that Gerry was delayed and would be arriving late. This call came on Wednesday, when only her husband knew she was missing.

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And there was a police report of a man leaving threatening messages in AT shelter logbooks in Wyman Township, directly adjacent to where Largay disappeared. The police report was dated July 6… only twelve days before Largay went missing.

But most annoying is why the Maine Warden Service was unable to locate her in time. Largay’s remains were only thirty yards from the logging path. It beggars the imagination why search parties weren’t instructed to flare out from this path.

Mysteries have intrigued us for centuries. But some mysteries are more unsettling than others. Such is the case with Inchworm’s disappearance.  From all accounts, she was a wonderful person.  What happened just makes no sense.

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Location of Gerry Largay’s final campsite. The white cross was placed by her family (photo courtesy Hutch Brown and “The Bollard”)

 

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner (Part 2)

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I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.

Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.

Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.

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Summit of Blackrock Mountain

I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.

It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.

At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.

Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.

I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.

I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.

“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).

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Ursus americanus

There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.

I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.

I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.

I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight

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I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?

I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.

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Valley view from Big Meadows

As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.

Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.

So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??

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Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places “where things work like they’re supposed to work.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.

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At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).

Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).

I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.

“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”

I laughed.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”

I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.

“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”

boo-boo4

On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

yogi_sign

“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

black bear

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.

grizz

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.

____________________________

I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(end of Part 1)

boo-boo

“Journey”: A Wolf Too Famous to Kill

OR-7

His official name is OR-7. No, he’s not a robot from the latest installment of “Star Wars.” But he is a star.

OR-7 is the first gray wolf to be sighted in California since 1924 (when the last wolf in that state was shot). He crossed the border from southern Oregon on December 28, 2011, having traveled over 1,000 miles from a small pack in northeastern Oregon.

Since then he’s returned to the Cascades of southwestern Oregon and mated with a black female, who has given birth to at least three pups (this family is now referred to as the “Rogue Pack”). And just a few days ago, another wandering wolf was photographed by a trail camera west of Keno, Oregon (GPS tracking showed that OR-7 was far away at the time).

Not long after OR-7 was sighted, a conservation group, Oregon Wild, held an art contest challenging children to come up with a more interesting name for the wolf (OR-7 was used by biologists because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in the state of Oregon). The winning name was “Journey.” Fans of Journey track his wandering activity, and a documentary was recently made of him.  His fan club hopes that this celebrity will engender awareness of wolf conservation, and they refer to him as “the wolf too famous to kill.”

pups

Two of Journey’s pups, peeking from den

I can’t think of a reason why anyone would want to kill a gray wolf. Aside from the fact that Canis lupus is an intelligent and majestic creature, a cousin to “man’s best friend,” and a symbol of North American wilderness, wolves are just not the bloodthirsty creatures that populate so many fables, storybooks, and films. Yes, they’re carnivorous. But they pose little risk to humans. They do pose a threat to livestock, but only when wild prey has been depleted.

The history of wolves in America is not unlike the history of Native Americans. Originally, the mammal occupied most of continental America north of the Florida keys, including all of the eastern U.S. As human settlement and agriculture expanded between the 18th and 20th centuries, wolves followed their own “Trail of Tears” and gradually dispersed northward and westward. As hunters brought the American bison to near-extinction, wolves lost a major food source and also disappeared from the prairies. By 1960, guns and poison had eradicated the gray wolf from all of the U.S. except Alaska and parts of northern Minnesota.

Then they began a slow comeback. Bounties for wolf carcasses ended in 1947. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act gave them protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Then in 1995, amidst a flurry of publicity, 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Remote capture photo of one of Journey's pups

Remote capture photo of one of Journey’s pups

Some of these wolves eventually migrated to northeastern Oregon, and three separate packs were soon confirmed there: Walla Walla, Wenaha, and Imnaha (Journey’s original pack).  There are now nine packs in Oregon with an estimated 60-something wolves.  Wildlife biologists tend to key in on whether a pack has breeding pairs, which determine the pack’s long-term viability.

Oregon Wild believes that much of Journey’s success in relocating and mating is attributed to his utilization of Oregon’s wild and roadless areas, where both roads and development are prohibited. This was a direct result of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, initiated during the Clinton administration.

Map of Journey's journey

Map of Journey’s journey

Despite the recent good news about Journey and other wolves in the U.S., their comeback attempts are fraught with difficulty. In 2003, due to political pressure from hunters and the livestock industry, wolves were reclassified from Endangered to Threatened (a weaker designation).  In 2005, the Bush administration diluted the original Roadless Rule and capitulated to livestock lobbyists, allowing states to determine their own roadless areas (Bush’s actions were eventually overturned by the courts). And Alaska has its own way to decimate wolves: in that state, wolves can be legally shot from helicopters during hunting season.

Unfortunately, despite public pressure and polling that indicates vast support for wolf reintroduction, there are still vocal minorities who would rather treat wolves, as the National Resources Defense Council phrases it, “like vermin rather than an endangered species.”

If wolves like Journey, his mate and pups, the lone wolf near Keno, and other reintroduced wolves are to survive and proliferate, it’s important that Americans speak out in their defense.  As thrilling as the story of a celebrity wolf is, we should be reframing “a wolf too famous to kill” as “the mammal too magnificent to murder.”  As Oregon Wild notes, “the extermination of wolves is one of our greatest environmental tragedies. But their return represents an opportunity at redemption.”

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

Here are a few links where you can learn more about OR-7 and make your voice heard (the first link will take you to an article featuring a SoundCloud button where you can actually hear the howl of Journey’s father, OR-4).

http://www.oregonwild.org/wildlife/wolves/the-journey-of-or7

http://www.or7themovie.com/#!watch-movie/czpx

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dnagami/good_news_for_wolves_californi.html

Forever Green: Voices for the Wilderness Act

50 years

tree silhouette

Fifty years ago Wednesday the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. The act gave a legal definition to the term “wilderness:”

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.

Nine million acres of public land were initially designated as wilderness. The act is one of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in American history, because it concerns land and water already designated as national park, forest, or wildlife refuge, and forever protects these wild areas from damage due to logging, grazing, mineral extraction, road-building, construction – or any human manipulation, good or bad. The act essentially says “Enjoy these places and life forms, but don’t alter them.”  Keep Them Wild.

Last spring I touched on this anniversary in a couple blog posts (The Rain, the Trees, and Other Things and Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight). Not everybody is as ardent about conservation as I am. I’ll just offer some pertinent quotes from a few friends of American wilderness. Voices, more impassioned and eloquent than mine, that helped bring the Wilderness Act to fruition and are intent on making it work. Like Ed Abbey says, we need more voices like them.

yellowstone

 

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

– Gary Snyder

 

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

– Wallace Stegner

 

“Without enough wilderness America will change. Democracy, with its myriad personalities and increasing sophistication, must be fibred and vitalized by regular contact with outdoor growths — animals, trees, sun warmth and free skies — or it will dwindle and pale.”

– Walt Whitman

grizz

 

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

– John Muir

 

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

– Ansel Adams

 

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.”

– Rachel Carson

desert

 

“There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there.”

– Bill McKibben

 

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

– Aldo Leopold

 

“Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?”

– Robert Redford

 

“We humans are a funny species. We can’t look death in the eye, yet we accept the environmental degradation and poisoning that breeds cancer… Something isn’t working.”

– Walkin’ Jim Stoltz

 

“The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.”

– Edward Abbey

 

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

– Wendell Berry

 

coral

 

“There is just one hope for repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every inch on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom and preservation of the wilderness.”

– Bob Marshall

 

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are, in fact, plans to protect man.”

– Stewart Udall

 

“All good things are wild and free.”

– Henry David Thoreau

 

“If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”

– Lyndon Johnson

 

HAPPY 50th ANNIVERSARY TO THE WILDERNESS ACT!

sky

The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

yosemite

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones… God has cared for these trees… but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

– John Muir, from Our National Parks (1901)

In Austin, Texas there’s a Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) called the Treaty Oak. Its branches stretch 127 feet across and it is believed to be over 500 years old. The tree was sacred to the Comanche and Tonkawa tribes. According to folklore, Texas icons Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston paid respects here. In 1989, a vandal dumped buckets of herbicide around the base of the Treaty Oak. Two-thirds of this monumental tree is now dead.

In Trinidad, California a mighty redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) known as the Crannell Creek Giant stood for an estimated 3,000-plus years. Until a few decades ago, it was the largest living tree known to man, estimated at over 400 feet tall. But in the mid-1940s it was cut down by a logging company.

In Birmingham, Michigan, a patch of woods stood at the corner of Cranbrook Road and Lincoln Street… just across from Seaholm High School. In 1968-‘69, my friends and I box trapped small animals there. Some of these traps we built from scraps of particle board and coat hanger wire. Seaholm Woods was one of the few wild enclaves near our suburban Detroit neighborhood. We formed a “Safari Club” and spent countless hours scrambling through the hardwoods, feeling the scrape of briars on our skin, and peering into a small murky swamp abundant with strange, hidden creatures. But like so many other wooded glens in the ‘burbs, Seaholm Woods fell victim to a housing development. The raccoons, foxes, opossums, crows, grackles, and bullfrogs have long since disappeared.general-sherman

Tree and rock, bird and mammal, swale and swamp. Wild places provide nourishment to the soul. Fraught with hidden activity and complexity, the rainforests, alpine meadows, deserts and rivers also give us tranquility and space. Whether we realize it or not, wildness is an essential antidote to industrialization, commercial and residential sprawl, and an increasingly mobile and high-tech culture that seems to be dragging us further away from not only each other, but also the earth.

Long-distance hiker/folksinger/wilderness activist Walkin’ Jim Stoltz was once asked by the “Wall Street Journal” how he defined the term “wilderness.” Stoltz thought for a moment. He then offered this: “Wilderness is a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.” I can’t think of a more appropriate definition.

But the term “wilderness” also has a legal definition, at least in the U.S. It was interpreted by Congress 50 years ago, on September 3, 1964. Although it took eight years to happen, eventually the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System and declared that:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized 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.wolf

The Wilderness Act is one of the most significant environmental achievements in the U.S., just as important as the national park system. It designated nine million acres for protection from commercial and recreational use. This has since expanded to about 108 million acres, managed (and sometimes mismanaged) by four agencies: The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Designated U.S. wilderness areas contain 157 ecosystems with extensive flora and fauna, including such endangered or threatened species as whales, wolves, polar and grizzly bears, caribou, and numerous migratory birds. The ecosystems encompass national parks and forests, grasslands, wetlands, trails, wild and scenic rivers, monuments and cultural sites.

The 50-year-old Wilderness Act may not have saved the Treaty Oak or my own Seaholm Woods. Had it been around in the 1940s, though, it certainly would have prevented the murder of the Crannell Creek Giant.

But, as significant as the Act is, there are still millions of acres of mountain, forest, glacier, and other fragile eco-habitat without protection; magnificent public lands that are susceptible to drilling, mining, logging, over-grazing, damming, and road-building. And the money-changers won’t rest. If they can’t turn a profit by gouging the planet one way, they’ll find another.

So, if you’ve had the stamina to read this far, and value the concept of “wilderness,” try to make a difference. Sign a petition, make a donation, plant a tree, invest in a rain barrel. Trade in your gas hog for a fuel-efficient car. Avoid synthetic lawn chemicals. Cast a green vote.

America is blessed with some of the most awe-inspiring biodiversity on the planet. We all share the bounties of this ecological Eden: tree huggers, free-market junkies, Democrats, Republicans, top 1% and lower 99%. In the long run, it’s about our own physical and mental well-being, but it’s also about the other 21,714 vertebrates and plants in America who share our “home.”

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

centennials

Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

abbey 1

In 1956 and 1957, a young, iconoclastic writer with a GI Bill education and an FBI dossier found employment as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in remote and desolate southeast Utah.  While working there, he lived alone in a trailer.  He met and conversed with tourists and a few rangers and ranchers, but he was alone for most of the time.  His solitude allowed him to do a lot of observing and thinking.  Ten years later he published a book about his time at Arches, entitled “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.”

I just finished reading the book.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as evocative and hard-hitting.  So I’m devoting this post to “Desert Solitaire” and the philosophy of Edward Abbey, who died 25 years ago Friday at age 62.

Wilderness is a necessary part of civilization and it is the primary responsibility of the national park system to preserve intact and undiminished what little still remains.

Abbey’s writings contributed to modern radical environmentalism; he was a spiritual father to both Earth First! and Greenpeace.  But he was around long before the word “environmentalist” even existed.  Blunt in his opinions, a man whose pen was both poetic and fierce, and who raged against government, the military-industrial complex, unrestrained technology, industrial tourism, and agri-business, Abbey recognized as far back as the 1950s that America was rapidly losing large chunks of pristine wilderness areas… and that desert wilderness isn’t just barren wasteland, but it possesses its own unique vibrancy, mysticism, and spirituality.

Motionless and silent (the desert) evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed… Once caught by this golden lure, you become a prospector for life, condemned, doomed, exalted.

cartoon abbeyAbbey found grandeur everywhere he looked: in the “red-walled canyons” and “smoke-blue ranges” that stretched out hundreds of miles around him; in the constellations that provided a canopy at night; even in a lone juniper tree that grew outside his trailer.  He was one of the last humans to raft the Utah stretch of Colorado River before “bureaucrats” and “pencil-pushers” erected Glen Canyon Dam so that motorboats could buzz over what used to be ancient grottos, natural tunnels, emerald pools, and the pictographs and petroglyphs of mysterious, indigenous societies of long ago.

Half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it is an integral part.  When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geological oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.

solitaireAt the end of “Desert Solitaire,” Abbey talks about meeting a park visitor who accuses him of being opposed to civilization, science, and humanity (familiar accusations levied at those of us who feel wilderness should exist on its own terms, and not on man’s terms).

We were not communicating very well.  All night long we thrashed the matter out, burning up half a pinyon pine in the process… With his help I discovered I was not opposed to mankind, but only to man-centeredness, anthropocentricity, the opinion that the world exists solely for the sake of man; not to science, which means simply knowledge, but to science misapplied, to the worship of technique and technology; and not to civilization but to culture.

Regarding the difference between civilization and culture, Abbey offers some analogies:

Civilization is Jesus turning water into wine; culture is Christ walking on the waves;

Civilization is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; culture is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;

Civilization is the wild river; culture, 592,000 tons of cement.

(Ed. note: regarding the second quote above, longitudes does NOT endorse acts of terrorism against living things)

There are many sections of “Desert Solitaire” that left me with my mouth agape.   I was astonished at the John Muir-like care and detail that Abbey took when discussing desert flora and fauna; what he termed the “rare furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning,” and “weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted and twisted as they are tenacious.”

__________________________

After burning up those pine logs and parting with his tourist friend, Abbey says the man disappeared from Arches sometime before the following evening.  But he did leave “a forged signature in the registration book which wouldn’t have fooled anybody – J. Prometheus Birdsong.  He won’t be back.”

Then Abbey closes the chapter:

“But don’t get discouraged, comrades – Christ failed too.”

Although Abbey may have sent this tourist packing with tail tucked between legs, I wonder how quickly the guy returned to his job in the city – emboldened with blueprint dreams of monolithic dams and soulless asphalt thoroughfares.

Regrettably, comrades, many are the J. Prometheus Birdsongs in this world.

desert