Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thoughts on roads and the power of wilderness

What difference does a road make?

It's a question I found myself asking last weekend in Maine. I was staying with my mom at a backcountry lodge owned by Maine Huts & Trails, a relatively new non-profit organization working to create a 180-mile stretch of backcountry trail in western Maine with “huts” spread out every eight to 12 miles. The organization strongly promotes skiing between huts in the winter, modeled in part after the 10th Mountain Division ski-in huts in Colorado, except far less crowded and a bit classier.

The huts are no rustic backpackers' accommodations, but state-of-the-art, energy-efficient marvels that manage to be both ultra-modern and classic New England simultaneously. Each evening, after a family-style meal cooked with local, organic ingredients, the hut caretakers offer energy tours showcasing composting toilets, radiant heat powered by a high-tech wood boiler and massive solar panels. Afterward, if it's a clear, moonlit fall night as it was when I was there, you can take a canoe out on 20,500-acre Flagstaff Lake and hear nothing but loons and distant coyotes.

Despite the fact that we only had to hike two miles from our car to reach Flagstaff Lake Hut, it felt plenty wild. There were moose and loons and eagles, and a starry sky far from any light pollution. Yet we learned, after hiking in, that the ingredients for those delicious, locally-sourced meals (as well as the craft beers available for purchase) are brought to the lodge in a truck via a service road that connects smack with the “backcountry” hut.

Wilderness is a strange concept. For some people, it's a campground in a state park. For others, it's a trail-less, unmapped mountain range crawling with grizzlies. To the U.S. government, the 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area devoid of roads or human habitation.

Without roads. Opponents of dams, wind turbines and logging oppose the creation of roads through pristine habitat as much as they oppose the operations themselves, and proponents of wilderness tend to be solidly anti-road-building. Though the argument can be made that roads make wild places more accessible –- and that in today's nature-deprived culture we need all the “wild” we can get –- I tend to be more in favor of Edward Abbey's curmudgeonly attitude that keeping the wild places from being overrun with people is more important than making them accessible to anyone with a set of keys in their pocket.

I am admittedly a bit of a wilderness purist. A snob, my mom would say. After spending considerable time in the rugged backcountry of Idaho and Alaska, I don't consider it wilderness unless it meets a few of my own criteria. One is that there's got to be something out there that can kill me. Two, there must be no cell phone service and few people. And three, you've got to work hard to get there. That's the reward: you drive a long ways down a terrible road, hike until you're sweaty and unhappy, and then and only then are you allowed to lay down your pack and earn the indescribable feeling that you are alone and inconsequential in the wind and the wilderness and vastness of the earth.

I might be getting off-topic. Clearly, this was a deluxe lodge experience in Maine, and I had no delusions of what I was signing up for. I was going with my 60-year-old mother, afterall. I was happy to be spending time with her, and happy to be in a quiet, beautiful place, regardless of how “wild” it might actually be.

But even in moments of utter bliss, I found myself thinking about the not-too-distant road. In New England, unlike in the west, the land was settled and the roads built long before anyone entertained any notion of preserving an area dedicated solely to wilderness. The protected, wild places that were later carved out were created around existing infrastructure. It's therefore difficult to get far away from a road here the same way it is out west. And what does it matter? Flagstaff Lake smells, looks and sounds like a wild place.

But still, I insist to myself, it feels different. I cannot get over this one hang-up.

Later, before we hike out, my mom and I walk down to a small peninsula covered almost solely by a stand of gnarled, pure-white birches. We walk in silence over moonlit leaves, dry and smelling of autumn. Through the thin branches, the lake gleams in shades of silver. We stop at the edge of the water.

There is nothing spectacular here, none of the dramatic cliffs or expansive geography or surreal geology that outdoor enthusiasts love about the west. But there is nonetheless an ordinary, unassuming beauty that is just as powerful. It was too quiet to speak, there, and my mom and I stood apart, silently, until I realized she was very quietly crying.

My mom and her mother cry easily, while my dad's family is stoic and at times emotionless. I am blessed and cursed with both. Sometimes I turn on the latter to escape the former. But on this night, when my mother looked out at the lake and tears welled in her eyes, I understood that road or no road, wild places still speak to our souls. I felt tears drawing to my eyes as well. Sometimes there are no words needed. 

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