FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY


“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” –Wilderness Act of 1964

I am alone at 9453 feet, on a mountain top the way I imagine it, a quarter acre, maybe half, no trees, drop offs up to 1000 feet on all sides.  Above me, swifts are catching insects, their swept wings making identification easy.  I am dehydrated after hiking up on a hot June day, the 32 ounce drink I had at the start long gone before I even reached Josephine Saddle at 7200 feet. I am more than a vertical mile above Green Valley and 5 miles from the trailhead.  A million people live in the area I can see, but not one of them is within three hours of me by trail, and that is the only way up here.

My thirst doesn’t matter; I am higher than any other person in southern Arizona, seeing a wonderful sunset I will never forget, the reds and oranges stunning.  It was worth hiking up from my Baldy Saddle campsite to the top.  I must leave soon, as it is starting to get dark, and some of the trail will not be safe in darkness.  I will awaken tomorrow, away from the rush hour traffic of a large city, in one of the wilderness areas of Arizona, the trailhead little more than an hour’s drive from my house.  Few ever see this place, the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, my favorite spot in southern Arizona, where I myself am a visitor and will not long remain.

I have camped here alone in a snowstorm, warm inside my sleeping bag, hearing the snow accumulate and then slide down the tent.  I have camped up here five times, a lot of work needed to haul a pack up the Old Baldy Trail, as it is known, but every bit of it worthwhile.  I have taken day hikes, once playing hooky from work for a few hours to come up in a snowstorm, returning to my job that afternoon, completely soaked, but absolutely happy and thrilled to be alive.  I have hiked up here and down the other side to Gardner Canyon, because I had never seen the Gardner Canyon trailhead.  I then turned around and came back up and over.  Wow, was I thirsty that day.  I came up the north side one day and stayed too long, hiking down in the dark with no flashlight, in old growth forest, never once cut, an owl’s sudden hoot making me almost jump off the trail.  That was a great hike.  They all are.  I know the trails like old friends.

From Baldy Saddle, reached from the west by 33 switchbacks, I see Green Valley and the Catalinas north of Tucson.  To the east, about 30 steps, I see Sonoita, Sierra Vista, and south into Mexico.  From the top, I see all of these by just rotating, as is the Earth.

It took much effort to get up here, but that makes wilderness special.  I am getting my reward tonight. I earned this view, through the thirst and soreness I endured. I don’t yet know that later tonight, I will hear a cougar close by.  I need wilderness.  I can’t explain it or put a dollar sign on it, but I need it.  Periodically, I reach a stage in my life where I know I need to get outside and hike somewhere.  It doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be away from people.  I can’t prove it, but I suspect others might become happier if they went into the wilderness, even a short distance, where they too would not long remain. I think mankind still needs wilderness, but perhaps the need has been allowed to atrophy too much.  I needed Mt. Wrightson tonight. Right now, I need to return to my campsite.  The swifts call, still catching bugs, as I start down the rocky trail, the last bit of red still visible in the west.

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