“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
-from “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver-
We come out here to escape distraction and obligation and the constant consuming life of the city. We are always in and out of buildings, traversing concrete streets and climbing stairs, not mountains. We come out here to really hear quiet, to see stars shimmering in the great dark bowl of sky, none of us crowded out by city glow. We come out here for conversations not distracted, to do what we are doing and nothing more. We come out here to watch a valley from the vantage point of a mountain pass and to witness the ripples in a lake as we swat at mosquitoes. We come out here for the chance to have conversations typically not given space or time in the city and the chance for conversations with oneself in beautiful solitude.
We ran into a group of rangers today on the trail- three men: two young, one older. Two of them pulled back and forth on a large saw, inch by inch, muscle by muscle, slicing the blade through years of growth that now lay still across the trail. They have chosen a profession of wild, of loneliness, of solitude, a profession of mountains. They have chosen these days we now experience: days really, truly, driven by the sun’s power. We all sleep when she sleeps, and are awake with her into the dusk of evening twilight.
The older of the three rangers came to check on us in our camp earlier this evening. He came to enforce a rule of tents no closer than 100 feet from a water source. “Oops,” we said, our tent most likely closer than 100 feet from the lake.
“That’s alright,” he replied. “That’s what the government wants.”
“Should we move it?”
“Well that wouldn’t be too fun now that you’re all set up, would it…? You know, if I were running wilderness management, I’d do things differently. I’d be more strict with these rules- establish designated camp sites in the right places, manage waste more carefully. But that eliminates the idea of wilderness, doesn’t it? Even me standing here talking to you violates the idea of wilderness.”And with that, he turned around and promptly disappeared around a tree.
My three hiking companions and I contemplate the idea of uncharted land while we climb up to a lake we’d heard talk of from the rangers, supposedly the most beautiful, solitary lake in the area. The trail was not marked on our map but our subtle clue was a cairn on the side of the trail, hashmarks in a tree spelling “Raz,” and a goat path ascending up a steep mountain slope. We climbed and climbed, wondering when people had been here last. Who were they? Did they do their part to leave no trace? We can only wonder.
And Raz was, indeed, what the rangers had told us: a solitary, pristine bowl of water lapping at the base of sheer granite cliffs. We were 1000 feet above the Lakes Basin where we’d pitched our tents the night before. We removed our clothes and jumped in, another daring act of freedom, gasping against restricted lungs as the glacial water shocked our system. We opened our eyes, rewarded by stark clarity. Tiny bubbles floated lazily from our mouths to the surface, the littlest fish brushed our fingers, and we felt the silkiness of the water against our skin. Freedom is bliss in the woods.
Every Fourth of July for the past few years, I’ve tried to get up and away. Stub Stewart State Park, the Timberline Trail, now the Wallowa Mountains. Freedom and patriotism doesn’t have to be what they tell us, you know. Freedom doesn’t have to be brats and flags and gunpowder. Yes…our country was founded on the guise of war and in the presence of great explosions. But that doesn’t have to dictate our celebrations. Maybe you think that escaping to the wilderness instead of watching fireworks is my own act of pacifism. And maybe it is. But America was also founded on the idea of the frontier and the beauty of wild places yet unknown. Maybe backpacking is really American freedom at its finest.
Eagle Cap Wilderness was established as a preservation area back in 1930, the land now totaling 359,991 acres of protected land. In 1982, Trail #1662 opened to the public. It zig zags up steep crags overlooking the Lostine River, straight through a lush valley, and ending at the Lakes Basin area, where Eagle Cap and Glacier Pass tower overhead. My parents were some of the first hikers to traverse that trail the fall of ’82. They recall that it was a hard winter preceding the hiking season, the trail not opening until late summer when the snows had finally melted out. Over 30 years later, we saw the same views. Took the same pictures even. Over thirty years later, we heard the same silence, saw the same stars. Over thirty years later, we were steeped in the same sense of solitude. “One is constantly reminded that nature operates on her own terms,” US Forest Service says, “with her own rhythms that may not match our structural lives.” We are certainly reminded, cell phones turned off and watches deep inside packs, every ounce of food we will eat contained in one place, our beds and walls and roofs and chairs strapped securely on our backs. We are certainly reminded of freedom and gratitude for the wild places that sustain us.
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