For Ed Abbey a park, a forest, a stretch of private land that has been spared the ravages of unfettered capitalism is wilderness. It did not need a federal designation or an act of congress to qualify. Indeed for most of us, wilderness is like art – we may not know the definition, but we know it when we see it. In fact, we know it even when we don’t see it.
Ed said, “A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, power lines, and right-angle surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”
I have two old friends that have never spent much time in cities. They are not criminals, drug addicts, or in need of psychoanalysis. They are just two old men in their middle seventies who have worked hard in agricultural communities since they were boys. They are retired now and once in a while the one who lives high in the Black Hills with a younger woman, comes down to the prairie to visit the one who, for thirty years, has lived in a cabin on our ranch. They are good friends even though to stand outside the prairie cabin and listen to them talk you might have your doubts. They are both bullheaded, set in their ways, and hard of hearing. As I listened at the door, I would have sworn that they were having a fight: the voices were loud and the points of view seemed entrenched. They were trying to decide whether or not they should drive over to see Yellowstone National Park. As I leaned against the door, listening, I was at first amazed to learn that neither of them had experienced more than a glancing encounter with our first National Park: Yellowstone. This did not preclude claims of expertise and knowledge about the park. Gervase had had a brother who once lived in Livingston, Montana and Erney, who was laid low by a stroke a decade ago and spends much of his time in a reclining chair watching television, assured Gervase that he had, “watched every nature show ever filmed in Yellowstone at least twenty times.” As I listened, I became excited to learn that they were on the verge of setting a date for their first real visit to the park.
In the late seventies and early eighties I spent a good portion of each summer in Yellowstone. I was lucky enough to work with State and Park Service biologists releasing peregrine falcons in and around the park. I spent many days hiking along the rivers and high cliffs of the area. I slept a hundred nights under the Yellowstone sky. We were some of the first people into the park when the snow receded enough to move around and I knew that the mid-March date they were talking about was very early.
When I stepped through the cabin door, I was greeted with smiles and hellos. I hated to bring a cautionary message. “If you guys are going to Yellowstone, I’d check to see if the roads are open.” Instinctually we all looked out the window at the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where the little snow we had received in the winter was long gone. To defend myself, I said. “Those passes are a mile higher than here. I don’t want you two to freeze to death up there.”
But if Ed would have stepped through that door with me he might have said, “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sun burnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches – that is the right and privilege of any free American.”
In the end Gervase and Erney put their trip to Yellowstone off for a few weeks. They left at four o’clock in the morning (no big sacrifice at their age) and drove all day to the town of Cody, Wyoming – named for a man who enjoyed the real wilderness, then set the standard for ruining it. I am a decade younger that Erney or Gervase, so I was standing naked in my dark kitchen trying to remember how the coffee pot works when they crawled past the window in the high mileage, white, Ford Taurus that Erney inherited when his bachelor brother died. I stepped out onto the deck and raised a hand but they were staring straight ahead, toward the adventure they had dreamed about for over 60 years. I knew Gervase’s fertile imagination, and I had sat in Erney’s cabin as he watched the Yellowstone Nature Shows. I worried that the Yellowstone Park of 2012 would not meet their expectations but I sent them off with a tossed kiss and another waive.
Ed was always against touring parks in automobiles. “The automobile, which began as a transportation convenience, has become a bloody tyrant (50,000 lives a year), and it is the responsibility of the Park Service, as well as that of everyone else concerned with preserving both wilderness and civilization, to begin a campaign to resistance.” I lean toward agreeing with Ed, but these were my friends with a marvelous dream. Neither of them could walk far enough into real wilderness to satisfy Ed, so what the hell. I blew them another kiss and thought about all the times that I had accompanied them into our neighborhood wild lands to work or play. They might have been pilgrims to Yellowstone, but they were not pilgrims to an active, outdoor life.
The end of this story is anti-climatic but completely predictable. They have always been hunters and lay-naturalists so they knew that almost everything that happens in the great outdoors happens in the morning. They wanted to see elk, buffalo, mountain sheep, bears, wolves, and all the weird birds that are on the nature shows. They arrived in the dark – 4:45 in the morning – and the gate to Yellowstone was closed. By the time the gate opened at 8:00 there was a line of cars behind them that stretched down the mountain and out of sight around the first curve. They were only a hundred yards into the park when the first of that line of cars passed them. By the time the sun was up and the animals were thinking about going to bed, Erney and Gervase were behind a long line that stopped – in Ereny’s exact words – “Every time they saw a pile of buffalo shit.”
They followed cars around for a couple more days then headed home. But even though the dream did not quite materialize, within a week of their return they began to talk longingly about “the trip they took to Yellowstone”. Their belief in wilderness was still strong. They had seen a distant herd of elk, a bear track, what might have been a wolf. They saw the geysers, the cold trout water tumbling from all the high magical places where they would never go. They were pretty sure that just out of sight of the road there were all sorts of odd and wonderful sights. They came back from Yellowstone with a little spring in their step and I believe they are now both good for another 15 years. In their own way they experienced the wilderness. Their belief is stronger than ever. They know that wilderness is out there – somewhere. And even if, as in our case, you have real wilderness just across the river from where you live, it is an essential dream that something even wilder is out there. Ed would say that, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.”