The Case for a Humanized Wilderness

           “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

                                                 – Henry David Thoreau

In May of this year, I embarked upon a backpacking trip in the mountains of Northern Argentina, along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a region famous for its sweeping desert landscapes and indigenous culture. During the trek I was as much captivated by the natural vistas as by the presence of civilization up in the high mountains: the subsistence pastoralists who tread upon the same footpaths carved out by their Incan ancestors. I enjoy hiking in natural environs as a means for adventure and meditation. The contrast between a rugged mountain ridge and the familiar urban conditions in which I’ve grown up is refreshing, and I always seem to stumble upon new insights during the hike back down. However, as a result of my interactions with the pastoralists up in the Quebrada, I cannot help but think something’s missing from my usual wild haunts up in, say, California’s Sierra Nevada… but what could it be? Continue reading

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The Sublime Alpine Experience: Reflecting on Adventures in Patagonia and Beyond

After over a year of uninterrupted living in a very flat country, I was finally able to slip down to the Argentine side of the vast austral wilderness of Patagonia for some hiking and rock climbing at the end of last year, which is to say I was reunited with my preferred geographical setting for exploration: the mountains.

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In Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, near Bariloche, Argentina. (Click to enlarge photos.)

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On Backcountry Cabins and Defining ‘Nature’

I’m an avid backpacker. I particularly enjoy the meditative aspects of solo treks, particularly into the mountains, where the challenging geography provides more opportunities for solitude and exciting adventures, and the onslaught of adrenaline and riddance of distractions nurtures an ascetic self-awareness. Most every time I venture out onto the trail, or cross-country, I’m able to construct another piece of my relationship with myself and the world around me. My most recent expedition involved a one-night stay at the backcountry Hidden Lake fire lookout in Washington’s North Cascades, built in 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service and now a backcountry destination and first-come-first-served residence thanks to the Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout. Needless to stay, the views were stunning from atop the 6,900′ peak, and well worth the steep snowfield climb where I learned to love my ice axe (especially when glissading down the slopes).

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The lookout. (Click to enlarge any picture.)

Much as I enjoy a primitive campsite, with the reminders of civilization contained within my backpack and tent, there is some comfort in backcountry cabins, beyond the obvious shelter amenities. Long have I fixated upon homes in isolated, scenic locales, such as those featured on one of my favorite websites, Cabin Porn. They provide the best of both worlds — the human and nonhuman seemingly fused together. Up at the lookout, I came to reflect on this further: the presence of something as simple as a 10′ x 10′ box seems to quell some degree of the even entirely welcome trepidation that comes with being separated from the familiar (other humans, technology, creature comforts, etc.). Not that I would’ve minded pitching my tent on a small rock slab, but how could a small piece of civilization bring such comfort? The backcountry cabin, yurt, or other domicile allows retention of a slice of civilized comfort, even if someone is miles away from other reminders of society. Such a combination of rustic repose and rugged peaks, with the sharp contrast of several hours of highway driving fresh in my mind, prompted me to contemplate the nature of our concept of “nature”…

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Bed at the Hidden Lake lookout.

A most scenic eating area.

A most scenic eating area.

Wilderness is not where we feel the most whole. Instead, it provides a ground for our figure, illuminating the contrasts between us and our geography, or us and what the obsessors of civilization would call nothingness. And in the wilderness, we may feel a nothingness amplified, not because there is a dearth of content ostensibly outside the realm of society, but because we become aware of a nothingness within us. As we escape the trappings of our fellow man — and machine — returning to some sort of primeval form, albeit equipped with nylon pants and waterproof maps, and a lonely primeval being at that, suddenly made aware of not only the world without us (more or less) but us without the world in which we spend our time most, and frames our consciousness: the highway, office hallways, and couches we call home and the people who make them both bearable and dreaded.

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