On Wilderness #52essays2017 no. 19

When my great hero Edward Abbey lived with his family in Hoboken, NJ, he wrote that “we had all the wilderness we needed.” I think he was lying. Notably, he did not remain in Hoboken, NJ (nor with that wife and family — I think she was wife number two, but with five of them I get confused — he’s not my hero in all aspects of his life) but rather went back out west and settled in Utah and Arizona, disappearing often into the desert and coming back to town to write and teach.

I live in Iowa and I have nowhere near the wilderness I need. I can’t track down the source, but I once read that Iowa has less uncultivated land than any other state in the country, and I believe it’s true: everything here that isn’t a city got turned into farmland, most of it now firmly in the hands of Big Agriculture and Monsanto. Much of the country here is very pretty, but it’s not wild.

I have days (and this is clearly one of them) where I think leaving the West was the worst decision I ever made. When I first heard of Meeteetse, Wyoming, I was sitting in a library in Franklin Park, Illinois scrolling through librarian job ads. I looked up Meeteetse on Google maps and saw it there, a tiny speck of a town just miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, and I was sold. It didn’t matter that I was only halfway through library school: I was going to apply for that job. I was going to escape the smog and the traffic. I was going to ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze and the moon until I lost my senses, and that’s what I did.

I used to lie on my back at night and gaze up at the stars — on a clear night — and most of the nights are clear in the high desert — you could see the Milky Way from my yard. On weekends I’d pack up and head out for the National Forest. Drive thirty minutes, hike a few miles, and then you were in the Washakie Wilderness, 704,274 acres touching three counties where no motorized vehicles were allowed and you could hike for hours or days without seeing another human being. I’d see moose back in there, and bear tracks, and sometimes I’d feel bad for even the impressions my hiking boots made in the land, feeling I should leave it untrammeled for the creatures whose home it was.

That’s the strange thing about wilderness: people don’t really belong there. Humankind’s dominion over nature is so complete that it’s antithetical to our sense of ourselves to say there are places where we should not go, or visit only briefly, places that belong to bears and birds and wolves and lodgepole pines. And of course a lot of people don’t think that, often especially people who live near those places, who resent that people in New York and California have more say over what happens to the land they live by than they do.

People say the West begins at the 100th meridian, or where the rainfall drops to less than ten inches a year. I say it begins where there’s more federal land than there is private property. And it’s there that I face the great paradox of the wilderness: it was saved by people who’d never set foot in it and probably won’t. The people who voted for the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act mostly don’t come from places where there is wilderness or endangered species — there aren’t enough people in most of those places to provide for more than one or two House votes per state, and many of those votes, like many of the people they represent, resent federal wilderness protections. Somehow people convinced those men (and they were mostly men) to save land they’d likely never seen. I am forever grateful to them.

I started this essay by quoting Ed Abbey. I read Abbey long before I ever had a child or before the full brunt of what it means to be female, and especially a mother, came to bear down on me. I have a harder time with Abbey and many of my other heroes (Charles Bowden comes to mind, as does Jack Kerouac) now because their adventures were largely possible because they skipped out on the duties of parenthood, and they are celebrated for it in a way no woman ever would be.

A year or so ago I was trying to do an interview with the author of a wonderful book about Ed Abbey, but I abandoned it because I couldn’t make it stick together. I couldn’t get over my own resentment of someone who was still free to “crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus” until “traces of blood “ began to mark his trail. I don’t get to do that anymore, and it will be many years before I can again. All that is fodder for a very different essay, but I wanted to acknowledge it here as part of the thing I want and can’t have, due not only to geography but also to fate. In the meantime, I keep my topo maps on the top shelf, waiting for the day when it will be time to get them down again.

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