The Only Places Worth Going
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
Years ago, embedded in the murky memories of the days before our children and before digital cameras, lives an episode in which Rebecca and I travelled to Anchorage, Alaska from Jackson, Mississippi, rode a train for a 100 miles further North, and backpacked for four days through the subarctic mountains of Denali National Park.
There are few trails through the park and few trees. Buses run on a schedule from the entrance at its edge in the East all the way to the aptly named Wonder Lake which frames 18,000 feet of the Denali monolith soaring above the tundra to the South. You must acquire a backcountry permit for a particular region but then you can hike and camp where you wish as long as your tent is out of sight of the road — a surprisingly difficult requirement when the road is in the valley and you’re hiking up a bare slope.
The memories of our short time there swell out of proportion with their duration: the bushwhacking uphill through mounds of wet tundra and brush the size (and shape) of bears, the 11pm sunset dappling the bare polychrome mountainsides to our North, the view into the Alaska range at the top of the ridge behind our second night’s camp, the fog bank obscuring our descent, the boar grizzly we saw from the bus crossing the road where we had entered a few days earlier, and stories from the rangers about how the cries of a baby in one of the park’s established campsites had attracted a pack of wolves. And the mosquitos. Mosquitos by the millions in biblical densities.
I also remember the tourists. The wildness of the park — its scale, it’s beauty, the sharp, fresh smells and abrupt weather changes — formed a startling backdrop to its visitor’s domesticity — their white canvas shoes or even flip flops, thin slacks, brightly-colored wind breakers, floppy hats, and cameras of every size and description clicking away endlessly.
Many of these tourists had started on their epic quests far away at a port in Seattle or Vancouver, fearlessly rolling their luggage onto the cruise ship for a voyage up the coast to Seward, where they would transfer to a sleeper train bound for a fine hotel at the edge of Denali from which they would take newer, cleaner buses with higher backs and wider windows running alongside the old, beat up, green park buses into the mountains. This journey of a thousand miles might have taken only a few hundred steps.
Sometimes both park and tour buses would stop at the same points of interest and disgorge their passengers to point and shoot at the same views and peruse the same plaques recounting the struggles and triumphs of early explorers.
It was startling to me at the time, even with as little wilderness experience as I had, to realize how totally and implicitly these travellers relied on the guide rails of their established itinerary and the infrastructure undergirding it. Even at the verge of one of the wildest and most remote places on earth which for many of them was thousands of miles from home, they had ceded their right to discretionary action. In exchange for the predictability, safety, and guidance which the tour company offered, they had given up personal initiative and control. Instead of acting as the sovereign stewards of lives borrowed from God and from time, they had agreed instead to allow a brochure to be their king — at least for a week or two.
This might have all been for the best. I remember thinking that if any token representative of these tidy city dwellers had stepped off the pavement (which he never did), he would instantly be mauled by a bear, drown in a glacial stream, fall off a cliff, or succumb to some other peril of the Wild North.
At the time, Rebecca and I did not provide much of a contrast to the tourists. Perhaps not even as much as I then supposed. We had maps, some decent if overly heavy gear, an enormous bear canister full of food, and huge crampon-compatible, Norwegian-welt boots. Our chief distinction was not in our level of experience, preparation, or equipment, but in the childlike belief that the earth was made for us and to explore it as far as we were able was both a privilege and a birthright.
I say childlike because the children I have watched exploring the world for the first time seem to begin with this sense: that everywhere their legs and arms can take them is worth going, however forbidden or dangerous these destinations may be deemed by their elders.
As the years progress this birthright is slowly taken from us, replaced by a bubbling potage of norms and aphorisms: we learn not to crawl up on roofs or under houses, not to venture into our neighbor’s flower garden, not to cross the road except at certain times and at certain places, not to climb the railing at the zoo, not to go past security at the airport, and not to pass the buoys around the swim area. We begin to believe that anything worth seeing must be viewed while gripping a handrail. We begin to believe that where all people go are the only places worth going at all.
This is why Disney World has five times the number of annual visitors than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most visited national park by a wide margin.
I suppose at some point the external restrictions become a hedge around our thoughts and we begin to believe that we ought only go where ownership and authority allow and enable. We cede our sovereignty and its accompanying responsibility to The Experts in exchange for a measure of safety and predictability. The difference between the traveler on the package tour and the explorer of yesteryear is that the traveler does not, strictly speaking, interact with the wilderness but only with the structures which his prudent handlers have created to produce “an experience”. This, like the glossy pinup girl, produces a natural response to beauty which feels very much like love but lacks all love’s messy and dangerous accoutrements. It is a largely platonic relationship.
Just as the Epcot Center allows you to experience the cultures of the world (and their gift shops) without traveling, hearing another language, or being challenged by different ways of thought, so too a tour through Denali allows you to experience the Northern wilderness without being cold, wet, tired, sunburnt, bug-bitten or afraid. Along the way, you also avoid the trouble of inspiration, exhilaration, accomplishment, fulfilment, peace, and quiet satisfaction.
A trail into the woods or into the mountains in this context of trained restraint is like a thread which, if followed, begins to gradually unravel the fabric of artificial inhibition which we often allow to mark the limits of our interest. Some trails, to be sure, are merely part of the structure — leading you to the viewpoint before herding you back to the gift shop — but others are a quiet rebellion against it, winding miles and miles into wider and wider spaces, growing fainter and narrower by the step as the memories of past wanderers turn around toward home. Since moving to British Columbia, I have covered hundreds of miles and spent countless hours on trails of various descriptions, sometimes at a run, sometimes at a brisk walk, and sometimes two or three steps at a time between long pauses listening for the sound of game in the surrounding woods. It is wonderful to be able to move through such a splendid landscape so easily, gliding around and up rocky formations, following a keyhole through dense thickets, and watching the skyline change on the far horizon as I move along a ridge.
The trail is a place for solitude, but also a venue for deep and rambling conversations — those thoughts too gangly and unkempt for domestic use with no clear point of departure, little structure, and an imprecise purpose which we nevertheless feel the need to speak out loud. Amid the thorough pragmatism and planning in which we normally live, these mental and verbal wanderings might feel inappropriate, but a trail provides them the space to open, blossom, and sometimes coalesce into a shared understanding between two people of different persuasions. As a medium of discussion, a trail is the opposite of Twitter: no character limit, no audience, and thus no need to be sharp, precise, and hurtful, no need to reply in kind, and above all no need to get the last word.
For all these reasons and many more, the trails leading us outside and into wild places are important. They form an approachable frontier between our modern lives (in which we often function as gears within an abstract society, a business, a tax jurisdiction, or a malfunctioning piece of technology) and the natural world in which we function as servants of God and of the people surrounding us. The latter serves as a reminder that even when struggling with print settings on the copier, we are meant to act with the sovereignty of a steward rather than the insecurity of a slave.
The trail is an intermediary, but it is sometimes even better to wander past it.
No trail is as unlike a trail as a trail is unlike a sidewalk — perhaps more so. It’s a little hard to describe unless you’ve spent a good deal of time past the end of the line, but I think you can get an idea from simply considering your state of affairs when you’re walking a trail and considering how that condition would change if you stepped a few feet to the left or right.
To begin with, the terrain would change drastically and that changes everything. On a trail, your speed is more or less determined by the elevation change — going uphill is slow and going downhill is fast. Without a trail, uphill still means slow, but other than that constant, all bets are off: Going downhill might be even slower trying to find a gap through a cliff band on a steep slope without sliding off it. Flatland might feel like mountain climbing crawling over endless blown down trees. Mud, marsh and — in the far north — wet tundra and tussocks can feel (as a friend of mine described it) like walking over a thick wet carpet covering a field of basketballs. Traveling across the side of a hill that’s covered in wet talus (large rocks) is more like wrestling than walking.
And sometimes, of course, you are also going uphill, scrambling over boulders, bushwhacking up over blowdown, and traversing combinations of terrain that appear purpose-built to impede progress — like the steep, craggy hillsides I found on large sections of a route from Sugar Lake to Mount Fosthall that were covered in dense, twisted subalpine spruce, requiring what I coined at the time “scramblewhacking”.
Secondly, without a trail you must be much more careful about estimating time and distance even though your estimates will fall within a wider margin of error. On the trail, you might wonder how long it will take to get to the campsite, the lake, or the trail junction. It can seem like forever, but if you know the distance, your relatively consistent speed allows you to estimate after a mile or two how much longer you’ll have to walk.
Off trail, because speed is slower and so much more variable due to terrain, it can be almost impossible to estimate time using distance. Furthermore — and more consequentially — since you’re not following an established route, you sometimes don’t know the exact distance either. It could be five miles to achieve a certain point by one route but twelve miles by another and the longer route might well be faster — or it could take five times as long. In some cases, a direct route on a map may require a route on the ground that looks like a 7.9 on the richter scale. These two variables together — speed of travel and distance of travel — can make hiking off trail feel like Atlanta at rush hour: you know if you keep going you’ll get there eventually, but eventually might be a long way off.
Thirdly, when you step sideways off the trail, your navigational gauges must all recalibrate. On the trail, you navigate at the junctions and perhaps occasionally along the way to gauge progress. In-between, you can engage in conversation, look at the scenery, and let your mind wander. The path dictates where your next step should be. It’s possible to follow a trail for miles without really thinking about where it’s taking you. If it turns North, South, East, or West, you just turn with it and expect that it knows best.
Off trail travel requires a dramatically different level of navigational awareness. Without a path, you have to choose at each step what route will best take you through a given landscape. On rare occasions, this is easy, such as when you’re strolling over a vast, arid alpine plateau toward a known destination in the distance. Most of the time, however, routefinding off trail requires astute observation of the surrounding landscape:
Are you increasing or decreasing in elevation and do you want to?
Is it best to go through the brush or through the boulder field?
Is it best to follow the contour around the peak or go over?
Are there any game trails the might lead you up and over the pass or through the thick timber?
Is the terrain leading you up or down and should you fight it?
Have you gotten turned around?
Are you following a dead end route — down or up to a cliff face or right into a thicket?
Sometimes all of these types of questions can whiz through your head in quick succession over the course of just a few minutes. If you’re in a group, you can sometimes check out and let someone else lead, but if you’re by yourself, you have to be constantly taking in the details of your position and your surroundings and making consequential decisions. Add to this the discovery of fresh grizzly scat as you sidehill through brushy alder and you have a level of situational awareness that is almost impossible to create or maintain amid everyday life.
When you are following a trail, you’re moving slow enough to soak in a landscape in a way you never would at 60 miles an hour. But when you’re off trail, you study the landscape with precision and rapt attention. You’re interested not only in the beauty of the terrain but how it relates to you and interacts with you. Failure to study carefully could mean long detours, dead ends, getting lost, getting stuck, or even life or death.
The above description focuses on the additional hardships of stepping off the path, but the rewards are just as substantial.
The most obvious one is that once you become comfortable with navigating without a trail, you can go anywhere from anywhere else. The entire landscape becomes accessible. It’s like you stepped into a museum and all the artifacts had been taken out from behind the plexiglass and you’re now free to try on the suites of armour, crawl up the Triceratops skeleton, and feel the brushstrokes on the Mona Lisa. Or you visited the zoo and found that the cages had been removed, allowing you to go right up to whatever animal you wished along with requiring you to avoid one or two of them.
Suddenly, every part of your environment becomes a tangible consideration — you might not go there, but you could, and if you did, you’d choose this or that route. You’re free to go where you please as long as you’re willing to embrace the implications of your choices. You’re in charge, not the trail, and that responsibility bestows power along with its burdens.
It makes you feel like a resident of the wilderness rather than an illegal alien or — worse yet — a tourist. You no longer have a chaperone. There’s no longer a handrail or signs or bridges. You’re now the curator of your own experience, for better and for worse. The feeling of residency brings with it fears and anxieties along with confidence. This should not surprise us. Every other full time resident of the wild — from songbirds to grizzly bears — carries with it an awareness of danger whether that danger takes the form of a predator, the weather, or too little prey.
The lack of curation off the trail makes the experience deeper, not merely broader. The heightened awareness required for navigation allows you to engage with your surroundings in a way you never would if failing to do so did not have such vast implications. In the same way that it’s impossible to listen as raptly to the college professor as to the pretty girl you’re beginning to like, or to the news broadcaster on September 10th, 2001 as to the same anchor on September 11th, it’s impossible to pay as close attention to the features of your environment when they are merely beautiful as when each beautiful feature is personally consequential.
You’re now free to explore the mountain in the distance, and the mountain now engages your every faculty.
Coming back home from an extended time wandering in the backcountry always, for me, brings with it feelings of relief and disappointment. Relief that my mind and body can now relax since all of the essentials are now provided for me. Disappointment that now instead of essentials, I must attend to details of secondary and tertiary importance — the toilet which runs, the insurance renewal, and the more mundane aspects of work.
I do, however, feel there is a residual benefit to spending time exploring. It doesn’t make the paperwork go away, but somehow the memory of intense mental focus, physical effort, personal autonomy, and childlike dependence make the complications of modern life easier to endure.
“My life is not on this form”, I say quietly to myself, and finish coloring between the lines.