BACK OF BEYOND


(Appeared in Sky Island Alliance publication)

Wilderness … is real and this they do know; when the pressure becomes more than they can stand, somewhere back of beyond, where roads and steel and towns are still forgotten, they will find release.                                   Sigurd Olson (1938) 

You might have seen me at a gathering, standing alone in a corner, periodically looking outside, toward the mountains, wild country where I feel more comfortable than in a crowd of people. 

But if you approached me and began a conversation about wilderness, you’d see a dramatic transformation.  My eyes would light up and my voice rise, for I love the American backcountry.  I’m two-thirds through my odyssey to visit all 57 national parks.  These are our crown jewels, our most spectacular places, ranking just behind our experiment in liberty as our great contribution to the world.  As a veteran, I served America, but I serve her better by speaking up for these places, remnants of the frontier, often under appreciated and under attack. 

I might excitedly tell you about the wolf – a wolf! – in my campsite on Isle Royale, 12 feet away, ten trail miles from the nearest other person.  Or Alaska’s Brooks Range, containing the granite spires of the Arrigetch and large rivers with names like Kongakut, Killik, Koyukuk, Sheenjek and Alatna.  Traveling this country, by pack and paddle through vast valleys, home to caribou, Dall sheep and grizzly, is life-altering.  I’ve been next to a herd of elk at Wind Cave, and the next day seen bighorn in South Dakota’s Badlands.  Now a different individual from that guy in the corner, I tell of hearing loons in the Boundary Waters, drinking water directly from a lake and paddling solo by a moose, five days from town, during an October blizzard.  I’ve seen moisture laden wind hit cliffs on Big Bend’s South Rim, rise and condense, at eye level, the same orographic lift that produces clouds and rain in our Sky Islands.  I might recall the backcountry triad of wilderness, completely dark skies and total quiet, deep down on the Grand Canyon’s Tonto platform.  Or how early one morning on Mt. Kimball, I saw the shadow profile of the Catalinas etched out over Oro Valley.  I would be released from shyness as I spoke of the release I found back of beyond, still out there, still unspoiled. 

If you stuck around, I might wave my arms describing central Nebraska in March, mornings where tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes simultaneously took off from the Platte in a visual and auditory mélange that nearly defies description.  We still see this show because Americans with foresight preserved sixty miles of braided river the way it was before Manifest Destiny.  Our wild country:  America, still the beautiful. 

If you wondered how a loner could talk so much, I would reply it is because I have been fortunate enough to hear what the wild country out there, the back of beyond, had to say.

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