From the Journal. 7/4/15

We’re in camp now, the wind soughing (why do I keep running across this word?) through our stand of sparse and branchy lodgepoles. I can tip my head back and look at Peak 10,770’ which stands at the head of this incredible valley, and think without thinking all the new sights of this very full and wonderful trip. Yet I know I should take a minute and turn my attention back to the “real” challenge of the day: the transition back toward civilization.

We won’t see our car again until tomorrow afternoon but the transition is already well underway. It began, in my mind, about 150 feet below the summit of Monument this afternoon. As our unstoppably good luck would have it, we’d just found that the summit block was made of strong rock, welded-solid (it is, after all, the core of an ancient volcano), and a south gully provided us with a virtual staircase to the top. Which was nice, seeing as we were carrying our camps on our backs. Once I started up, however, I suddenly divined how soon the tone of our journey was going to change. An image jumped to mind of loud holidayers crowded on the summit. I thought how, if a kid decided to throw a rock off the top, it would almost inevitably end up richocheting down our chimney. This image spoke to a sort of danger that hadn’t been present on the rest of our trip. As it was, the concern was also completely unfounded, because when we did top out we had it all to ourselves for a leisurely lunch—and yet the change I worried about was real. Although we were still in the wilderness, there was a USFS register bolted to a summit boulder, in addition to an ammo can that said “DO NOT REMOVE. GEOCACHE” (it contained a broken plastic figurine, an empty chew can, a film cannister filled with some sort of sticky tar, an individually wrapped windshield cleansing rag… all the knicknacks that geocachers like to “trade,” because imagine how unrewarding a summit would be if you weren’t able to leave with some little worthless commodity), a long piece of rebar jutting like a flag pole, and, worst of all, roads snaking below. More roads than showed on our maps, and ATVs creeping around those roads, creating a constant buzz and filling a parking lot, with the occassional, un-mufflered BRRRAAAAH of acceleration. I tried to return to the solace from which we had just emerged—the horizon of wilderness that spread behind us in 270 degrees, encompassing everything except the cherry stem two-track ending 1,500’ below our feet. All those lovely passes, and forgotten ridge lines, and hanging basins, all that grizzly habitat. But suddenly it was difficult to hold on to it all—I had to forcibly try, and meanwhile, I could feel how it was sliding away from me.

Jen began reading from the summit register: “Conquerers of Monument Peak,” it began. I couldn’t hold back the sarcasm that followed. “Fuck you, cutthroad trout,” I responded. “Fuck you, whitebark pine. Man conquered this mountain. He drove four hours in a truck, and two hours on an ATV, just to do this three hour day-hike—he wasn’t even getting paid to do it! He drove six hours to walk for half that time, and then for one-eighth of one day of his vacation he voluntarily braved all these unholy elements that would dare to get in his way, and there was nothing any of you stupid animals could do to stop him. From now on, this mountain stands as a Monument to Man the Conquerer…” Jen continued from the register: “I made it to the top in 55 minutes.” “Well, I’m glad you didn’t waste any more time than you absolutely had to,” I replied. “Our god is the best god,” another had written. Giving up on our game, already having worked myself into a froth, I looked back at the scenery and felt my shoulders slump. The indescribable beauty of the place only made it worse. I wanted to go down. We stood up, stretched our shoulders. As a last minute thought, I removed the “Geocache” and stuffed it in the top of my pack. You’re not supposed to leave that crap in the wilderness.

We shuffled off the peak opposite the side we came up; down the beaten path, down toward the jeep trail. Here, where everybody walks, the tundra was eroded to mineral soil and bits of microtrash were stuck in the rocks. I kicked over cairns as I went. As we exited onto the broad skirts of the mountain I could see winding tire tracks from vehicles that had left the road and pushed their vehicles through the steep grass, seeing how far they could go, and in my head I began working through an old refrain. The one that says technology has outpaced the human sense of responsibility. Therefore, in spite of the fact that we can build complicated and impressive things, we do not possess the ability to employ that technology in productive ways. We are not responsible enough to have all that power. These off-roaders being the perfect example.

If your 9-5 leaves you antsy for action then it is up to you to figure out the best place it can go. It is not your right to just let it rip and subject whatever’s around to your sour boredom. Many people who turn to motors on the weekends are blinded to the simpler and easier ways of expressing the energy that their bodies have pent up—the engine they bring with them ends up doing the work for them, the work that their bodies are begging to expend. Driving a safe speed on a route established and maintained by the Forest Service is unlikely to exorcise any workaday demons, especially when you’re sitting on top of a sleek, expensive machine with several times more horsepower than you will ever need. Eventually, the need for action rears its ugly head, and the virgin land that surrounds the backcountry motorist, the prohibited, virgin land, is what they set their starving eyes upon.

In our modern, misdirected search for meaning, feelings of powerlessness and impotence are epidemic, and to fix them, we seek more consumer options in the cheapest forms of power available: the power of destruction; of engines and the concentrated fuels they consume. Off-roading companies claim to “understand the needs” of their clientele, who have had “enough talk” and may be badly in need of exercise. But instead of targeting the problems that are witching them, off-road vehicles offer a hollow form of entertainment that never quite scratches the itch. Diesel fuel is junk food for the will to power: it looks and sounds like you’re doing something important, just like your stomach goes wild for empty carbs, but instead you’re just sitting there, fucking things up. Meanwhile, off-roading “advocacy” groups and manufacturers encourage deep resentments among their customers for government regulations and social responsibility (“Fueled by haters.” “The Sierra Club Sucks.”), resentment that comes easily to people turned desparate in their search for something that feels like freedom. Appealing to human weakness helps companies make more money, there’s no doubt about that. Meanwhile, government employees (such as myself) are demonized as the egomaniacal enemies of freedom for getting in their way. Or, as I would portray the struggle, because we try to protect the commmons against all that would destroy them without regard for their history or future.

Because ATVs don’t do anything to address the underlying problems of powerlessness and distrust, and purposefully fall short of the roots of actual human dilemmas, the dissatisfactions become worse. Confused, helpless, those implicated in this power struggle are left to assume that whatever they’re doing they’re not doing hard enough, they need to take it further, and as the arms race progresses the schisms in our culture deepen. ‘You’re right to feel you’re being taken advantage of,’ I imagine myself telling an outlaw dirt biker, ‘but it isn’t by the people trying to protect this place.’ As if they’d have any idea what I was talking about.

I don’t think that such conflict is exactly intractable, except in the sense that impotent and powerless as we feel we demand some sort of battle to fight, and it seems fated that for now we will settle for fighting one another. The real conflict is too complicated to appeal to the purity of indignation. That is, the desire to fight isn’t patient enough to care who it’s fighting; it gets to the point where becoming the bad guy will do.

As all of this was steaming in my head (with more emotion and imagery than rhetoric) and we were almost to the FS road I watched a dirt bike suddenly swerve off the track into a giant meadow (which, of course, is illegal on public land). NO, a voice in my head roared. I unbuckled my pack and dropped it to the ground, I unclipped my camera and put it in my pocket. “I gotta do something,” I told Jen. “Do you want me to come?” she asked. “No. I’ll be right back,” I said (the last words of how many angry men?). I walked toward the dirt bike which quickly disappeared into the trees. As my legs pumped along I issued myself stern reminders. The absolute best thing you can do right now is stay calm. If you want to make him feel as shitty as you do, stay calm. If you want to relay a clear message and get him on your side, also stay calm. As it was, and predictably enough, I never got the chance; he didn’t just ride out and stop. He rode and then he kept riding—I didn’t know where he went. I walked back to Jen, reshouldered my pack, and we kept hiking.

When we got to the road we followed it a little ways and a blue jeep passed us. I flagged them to stop, and when they did, I asked if they’d take the Geocache out for me and throw it away. “It was in the wilderness,” I said, “it’s just full of junk.” They were more than willing, and had ideas for how they’d reuse the ammo can. “How long have you been out,” asked the girl in the backseat. “Five days,” we told her. “That’s awesome! And in such a beautiful place.” We nodded, and gave her tired smiles. “We just can’t believe you can drive here,” said the guy riding shotgun, and then they drove away.

It took me some time to free up my mind again but the blue jeep certainly helped. They were people I could’ve known, could’ve liked. Could’ve been driving with. We walked through a big meadow, the engine sounds faded, we swam in a frog pond where leeches stuck to me. Sometimes after days like this, when I realize how fragile the wilderness experience is, I am tempted to conclude that it is just an escapist fantasy that I am awfully privileged to indulge as much as I do. But then, as often as not I think then of the rest of the world, overrun with humans and machines, and it seems that the much greater and more dangerous escapist fantasy is that we can control things, and change them to our liking, and do as much as we have to do to get ahead, and burn all the energy we’re rich enough to pay for, and get away with it. The fragile wilderness stands in counterpoint.

***

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What does the future hold for this whitebark pine, germinating in the year 2015?

What will the climate be here, at 9,100′, in 2075, when this tree may be ready to bear cones of its own? Or in 3015, when a whitebark that got its start today, under ideal growing conditions, may at last succumb to old age?

If all these changes that we are implicit in feel fast to us, think of the remote mountainsides of Montana, where ancient forests collapse; meanwhile diesel enthusiasts of the valleys “roll coal” over Priuses in protest of the urbanized environmental conscience.

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