An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

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Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

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The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

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With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

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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On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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??

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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.

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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??

(If you want to hear the rest of my bear encounter, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

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The Rain, the Trees and Other Things

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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!

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Edward Abbey: An Anarchist Who Fought the Good Fight

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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.”

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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.

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

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When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.

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The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.

plaque

Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Bob Dylan tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dylan.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dylan was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dylan enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.

(If you want to hear about the rest of my hike, and a whole lot more, please check out my book Evergreen Dreaming: Trail Tales of an Aging Hiker.)

 

Near Winding Stair Gap_1