I have been hiking for over fifty years. I was lucky enough to have friends and family living near wild places, so I could hike to exhaustion and sleep in a bed. New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Texas, Missouri, Southern Illinois—to name but a few.
I have learned that there is nothing in nature more dangerous than I am—nothing. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, bitten by a black widow and a brown recluse, struck at by rattlesnakes. But the scariest moment I ever experienced was in the Washington Cascades when a clearly deranged man stepped out from the woods and screamed, “You’re late!”
I didn’t know him, I knew this might be my moment to defend my life, and I suddenly knew I would kill him if I had to. Fortunately, the man slipped back into the woods. I was twenty miles from my car—my choice was to defend myself, or perish. I didn’t have to ponder that; my body took over, and I was a killer.
One dangerous animal, in fifty years. A man.
I have seen several dozen bears, watched as one black bear approached me on the Appalachian Trail and walked right by me. I have picked blueberries in the Sandwich Mountains of New Hampshire only to be joined by a standing black bear which emerged from the forest, stood, and harvested her own blueberries. I have stood next to a female moose, only a single tree separating us, my six-foot frame dwarfed by its seven-foot-high head. I have stood on a New Mexico hillside filled with western diamondback rattlesnake dens, listened to the symphony of rattling, peed myself. I have been a pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
I have eaten lunch with porcupines, pine siskins, crows, ravens, mice—and a feral cat on top of Black Mountain. I have laid on my back on a mountain top and watched peregrine falcons hover in the wind just above my face. With friends David and Linda, I’ve watched California condors with ten-foot wingspans glide right past me. Just one critter stalked me in fifty years: a gorgeous mountain lion that was crawling toward me on its belly, like a housecat. I sang opera, and the cat turned and ran away.
I’ve been nearly killed by being stung and paralyzed by cow parsnip, bitten by fire ants. I broke through the ice on the frozen Illinois River, standing chest deep the water, in twelve below zero weather. I fell over fifty feet off a cliff, catching a fir tree on the way down, landing on my back and breaking a lot of bones. I was mass stung by yellowjackets in the Murder Hole, in Virginia. I’m still alive.
I’ve seen: wilderness, mountains, waterfalls, wild rivers, marshes with male moose yelling for women, swamps, caves. I’ve scaled cliffs without ropes even though I’m terrified of heights. I’ve been blown off a cliff face by wind. My toes are frost bitten. I am arthritic and broken, but I keep on hiking.
I have found many thousands of fossils, thousands of Indian artifacts. My house is filled with arrowheads and tools some of which are over ten thousand years old.
Why am I writing this? Because I have been in the wilderness, a place that modern children do not go. And because they do not go, our government has actual plans to take over Teddy Roosevelt’s designated sacred landscapes. There is but one species on earth that is trying to obliterate all other living things. Us.
What is in the wilderness that everyone must experience? Beauty. Power. Color. Smell. Peace. And dare I, the atheist in the woodpile, say it—spirituality.
Your grandkids watching nature videos on their smart phones cannot possibly experience the overwhelming power of the living, breathing, breathtaking earth. There is no zoo which can replicate the way wild things actually move and birth and hunt and survive. There is no experience in your settled life that can match wildness, no human architecture which can come close to the carved-out spires of the planet, duplicate the roots and petals and branches and perfumes and tastes of Planet Earth.
How close are you locals and your children and grandchildren to wildness? Two hours to the Little Grand Canyon in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois, a wild place so stunningly beautiful that vacationing foreigners from around the world cross oceans to see it.
When I was a kid, camped with my grandpa Red Jones on the Platte River in Nebraska, Red woke me up at sunrise, put a finger to his lips so I wouldn’t wake anyone else, and signaled for me to step outside. And there, on the butte above us, was a female mountain lion warming in the first light. And my grandpa squatted and held me, and we were awestruck.
There is awe all around us.
But there won’t be—if your kids spend their days indoors and pretend to hike in a video game.
Our government is actively decommissioning national monuments, for oil and gas exploration. Our government is stealing your paths, mountains, forests for cash. If hiking is just a hobby for a few people like me, our government will take back and de-rock and de-mountain and de-animal and de-wilderness and “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” As I write, the mountains of West Virginia are being leveled for coal. How can you tear down a mountain?