By Tristan Wall
I have always had a strong connection to the outdoors and a longing for life outside of man’s constructed world. Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, with nearly 4 miles of trails at my disposal for free literally in my backyard, I often yearned to live in the woods as far away from people as possible. Much like Sam Gribley, I yearned for freedom outside away from the modern world. I was unaware until the beginning of my adult life, that areas such as this existed in masses outside of hidden trails by the highway, or a few acres of forest on the fringes of suburbia.
In North Carolina, Wilderness is more of a slang term or an adjective than a legitimate concept, let alone legal designation. It carried more of a sense of a temporary state of being rather than be indicative of a perpetual legal designation given to an area of land. Though there are a good deal of Wilderness areas back home, their accerage and size are dwarfed by the landmass of the state as a whole and the other notable attractions across the state such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Outer Banks.
In mid-December, I had the privilege of accompanying my supervisor, Will and the two Cibola rangers, Brennan and Walker on a brief trip to The Apache Kid Wilderness Area. After driving nearly 2 hours south on I-25, and another 2-3 hours on old, dilapidated, crumbling, rock filled back roads, we reached our campsite which laid within the boundaries of the Cibola National Forest, and just outside of Apache Kid. It was immediately clear that the campsite had experienced seldom use within many years. We set up “The Beast” to be our lodging and kitchen, made a fire, and called it a night. The next day was when the term “Wilderness” really became emboldened in a whole new way for me.
When I first started learning more about Wilderness areas and the 5 qualities which these areas must meet and be held to, solitude was one that was evident in Apache Kid from the beginning of our hike on Thursday morning. There wasn’t a single soul in sight, no highway noise, no waiting for a runner to shout, “on your left!” and no footprints before the inevitable imprint of our own on the dirt.
Will and I were going to be mapping Milo Canyon, and by looking at the map ahead of time, we saw the trail running right down the middle of the canyon for almost the entirety of its 4 mile length. Walker told us to stick to the North side of the canyon if we lost the trail, in anticipation that the trail had been unused for many years. We started off hugging the north side of Milo Canyon but quickly ended up on the southern side of the stream running through, because we thought the trail switched over. Long story short, this got us halfway up a mountain, on the wrong side of the canyon, sticking to game trails and our map to find our way back down. Though initially frustrated at the fact that we had either just completely lost the trail, or been given one that no longer existed, upon reflecting more on our off the beaten path trek for the 1st half of the day, I am so thankful we got lost.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his 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” -The Wilderness Act of 1964
I am used to hiking and camping and always seeing other groups of people, seeing campgrounds and fire rings frequently along trails, and always being within a reasonable cell signal range. Though raised in Southern Appalachia, with trails literally in my backyard, I grew up falling asleep to the coal and wood chip train going by every night, with the sound of I-40 and I-26 always humming in the background. I would often take a trail through the woods to walk to the 7/11 to grab a slushie after school. Even from the top of Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River, the sweeping blue and green mountains still have the clear indentation of the highway running through. While we were busy trailblazing the mountain on the southern side of Milo Canyon, using only a map and what we could see in front of us to plot our course back down in a safe manner, I became immensely appreciative of the environment we were in and the world around us. I instantly realized the magnitude of importance these areas carry with them. With no one around, no mechanized contraptions to help us, we were required to show the utmost respect to the terrain and the land. A respect seldom recognized or practiced anymore. Respect stemming from appreciation of natural power and beauty, rather than a want to dominate, harness, or control that power, and exploit the land around us. A respect indicating that we are from and belong to the earth. I was humbled to be in such a remote, wild, and natural place, and while I was at first thrilled that land is still appreciated in this manner and is set aside to be cared for in such a way, I also began to ponder why this wasn’t the standard for how we treat the world, and when the standard was set to one of exploitation and extraction.
Wilderness not only is useful for outdoor and primitive recreation, but more importantly it reminds us of the way we ought to hold our lands and the manner in which they are to be protected. The remote peace experienced in Wilderness returns us back to a primal state which has been suppressed by the machinations of society and industrial development for centuries. Even only going for a simple day hike through this wild place expanded my thoughts and perceptions of the earth in a way I never expected. I can’t wait to go back. I wonder what I will learn next time.