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Just another whiner in the wilderness

Essay by Rebecca Clarren

Outdoor Recreation – January 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

I PROBABLY WATCHED The Sound of Music nearly 50 times before I was 10. I liked everything about it — all those brothers and sisters, the outfits made from old curtains and especially the escape scene where the von Trapp family flees the Nazis by hiking across the border.

So while hiking this past weekend in the North Cascades Mountains, I became secretly thrilled when my brother suggested that if this war against terrorism endangers our family, we could make our escape from Washington over the mountains and into Canada — a la the von Trapps. My mind raced: we would pack those old photographs of my great-grandmother in Mexico, some oatmeal and our cat and head north under a cloak of secrecy. It was perfect.

From the butte where I stood, I could see north to Canada, just a few days’ walk away. Then, I looked south. Winding their way up the trail was a group of 43 people. I counted. All outfitted in red and blue Gore-Tex raincoats, the ascending hikers looked like an army of ants.

This had suddenly become a good spot for a union meeting or a peace rally, not my clandestine escape route. I was enraged: Who were these yuppies with their North Face packs and their cross-country ski poles? Didn’t they know that this was my place, my secret trail? How did they find out about it anyway? The trail is two and half-hours from Seattle and far from the throngs of Californians who have invaded my native city.

After a few minutes my anger dissolved into embarrassment; my reaction was, after all, a cliché. Working for a publication that writes about Western land use issues, I’ve read reams of essays by writers lamenting the loss of their sacred place to everyone from hikers to bikers. It’s a story told so frequently that it’s practically an archetype of fill-in-the-blank journalism. But instead of a boy meets girl scenario, it’s girl loves place, more people move to the area and also love the place, girl hates these people and doesn’t love the place as much.

I’ve always wanted to tell those writers whining about their lost sense of wildness in the wilderness to hush up. Now it was me, whining with the best of them.

Theoretically, I support the idea of more people recreating on the public lands. Obesity is a problem in America; the more people exercising the better for them. More seriously, when more people care about a place, the better chance it has of protection from mining and logging and subdivisions. And with America at war, we need all the solace we can glean from the outdoors. At least, that’s what I used to say. Now that it’s my place and my escape route that’s been discovered, I’m having a harder time sticking by those lofty positions.

I UNDERSTAND THAT those of us who grew up in urban areas claim these remote places for our own in part because they’re far more exciting than the local Starbucks, climbing wall, or skateboard park. It’s the idea that an entire swath of land is like that fort under the dining room table or the tree house in the backyard — only vast and untamed, potentially dangerous. It’s the knowledge that I only have to share acres of blueberry bushes with grizzly bears. It’s the consolation that if I choose to scream at sullen gray skies, the only witness is a hulk of ancient granite.

If you suddenly see a swarm of other recreationists, of course, it’s more difficult to believe you’ve gotten away from it all. But the truth is, we never have a right to claim these spaces as ours in the first place. The beauty of the public lands is that they belong to all of us, and it is the very nature of their communal ownership that allows wilderness to remain wild. With that in mind, I plan to share this corner of the north Cascades as graciously as I can.

Anyway, I’m looking for a new trail now. Maybe I’ll head east a little bit and find a different route to Canada. If I find it, I’ll keep the trailhead secret. And if it happens to be your special spot, well, I hope you’ll be willing to share.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( She works for the paper and lives in Paonia, Colorado.