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Musings on Wilderness

WILDERNESS: a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings (2) :  an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community.

-Merriam Webster

I am romantically, spiritually and functionally attracted to wilderness areas. It’s the humbling, realize-your-insignificance sensation, as well as the unspeakable beauty that one experiences in nature that draws me. I often need it to reset and destress from daily life. As a child, I always ran away to blanket forts as my refuge. As I grew, I started climbing trees in order to hide. I found secret hiding places in nature for my solace and peace. Backpacking awakened my true love for wilderness areas and the desire to not see other people or any human development for days at a time. The more I went into the wilderness, the more it became a crucial component to my happiness and has shaped my life plans, friends, and aspirations. It is very important to me and something I will defend and protect.

The ironic thing is that by definition, wilderness does not involve humans. Therefore, as a human enjoying wilderness, I am changing the definition of the place with my presence. I passionately feel the need to protect these places from human intervention, yet I also want the privilege of experiencing them. It’s a sensation of wanting to keep these places an inclusive secret, my own personal refuge. I am worried that other people will tarnish them, overcrowd them. I worry they won’t appreciate them like I do. In reality, I cannot judge how other people experience wilderness or assume that anyone’s experience is less authentic than my own. There are infinite ways to experience wilderness, and one can have a wilderness experience in any place, whether it’s the untouched woods of Alaska or your own backyard.

I have been reading about the explosion of tourism in Iceland and how American tourists outnumbered the amount of Icelandic residents last year (read here). I worry about the effect on the wild and untouched regions of the country. Having visited Iceland this past June, I feel like a hypocrite. I am reluctant to promote a trip to the country for fear of saturating it with tourists, but I can’t help but get excited 13450045_10206763709716302_6848553557237607422_nwhen I talk about it. I had wonderful experiences there and I want others to have the same. The major pull of a destination like Iceland is the untouched, wild, natural beauty of the country. But does this place cease to be wild when saturated with voyeurs? Shouldn’t the beauty of these wild lands be shared and experienced?

Brendan, the author of the blog “semi-rad”, states in his blog, “Hate Crowds? You are Crowds”, that : “We can argue all day about what causes crowds, or how it should be harder to get to certain wild places, but I think it’s worth pointing out that if you’re complaining about a crowd when you’re in one, you’re part of the crowd.” (read here)

Brendan makes his point quite clearly: if you hate people being in wilderness places, don’t go there. I have begun to avoid most National Parks and over-developed areas in order to avoid crowds. I am not suggesting that these are bad places, but they do not appeal to me. For example, when I went to the Grand Canyon, I felt a deep sadness for how overdeveloped and crowded the place was to a point where I had regretted my visit. I had seen canyons of comparable beauty that I had hiked many miles to see with a small group and that experience was more remarkable to me. But if you went to the Grand Canyon and were blown away by its beauty, that’s excellent. Keep visiting these places. It’s all about finding your own wilderness experience. As long as you find that solace and refuge, or whatever you seek, then that’s all that matters.

The great thing is that, especially in the United States, there are still vast expanses of relatively wild areas to explore. In fact, the US h479104_10150770257047238_1906390155_oas more than 106 million acres of federal public lands legally set aside under the Wilderness Act.

The Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964, created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness 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 Act further defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” (read here)

So while I may feel sad when I think about the popularization of places like Iceland and the Grand Canyon, I take solace in knowing that there are many, many unexplored places for me to find refuge. I find comfort knowing that these beautiful places are being experienced by people.

For me, I’ll keep reading and idolizing Muir and Abbey and hide away in my multi-acre wilderness expanses. I’ll work on my pretensions and I won’t keep every place a secret. Just a couple of places.

– Kayla McKinney