I had just paid my nonrefundable deposit on a guided Mt. Rainier summit expedition and was watching Chasing Ice, a documentary about the retreat of glaciers across the globe, when my hypocrisy hit me like an avalanche. A self-styled environmentalist, I loved wilderness so much I was about to blast three tons of CO2 into the atmosphere to climb the Nisqually Glacier, before it melted. The whole thing seemed absurd.
For the past decade, I had chased wilderness as a destination, as a new locale to be checked off a bucket list and shared on social media. Paradoxically, the more I became aware of the severity of climate change, the further afield I went to find my fun. Since I grew most of my own vegetables on a 10-acre hobby farm, I didn’t figure that my trip to Central America to hike through the jungle was part of the problem. In fact, my stay at an eco-lodge in Costa Rica reassured me that I was part of the solution. Since I ate little meat and didn’t use paper towels, I didn’t see my 12 flights around Africa as any degradation of my green values. After all, I would be going on a walking safari. Like many members of the jet set bourgeoisie, I talked the talk about carbon footprints, but the reality was more like Carbon-Foot-In-Mouth.
I backed out of the Mt. Rainier trip. Like Confucius said about focusing on the snow on your own doorstep instead of on the snow on your neighbor’s roof, I realized that I would have to be internally consistent and stop chasing distant wilderness. Luckily, I live a half-hour from Shenandoah National Park, 40 percent of which is federally designated wilderness. So instead of driving right past the 200,000-acre park for flights out of Washington, DC, I decided I would focus on the wilds nearest my home.
Shenandoah National Park is home to more than 500 miles of trails. One of the hikes closest to my house starts from a remote parking lot on the west side of the park and loops together the Riprap and Wildcat Ridge Trails as well as a short section of the Appalachian Trail. It traverses along streams, climbs above cliffs, meanders through meadows, and twists through dense hardwood forests. This 10-mile loop is lovely, but my past self would have done it once, checked the box, and moved on to bigger challenges. Now, I love that trail, not in spite of its familiarity, but because of it.
I’ve hiked it at least 25 times. Following the same route over and over has become a profound experience, a kind of walking meditation that has allowed me to see wilderness in a different way. I notice much more than I used to. What looks like a stick that wasn’t there the day before could, in fact, be a poisonous copperhead basking in the first warm day of spring. I’ve spotted the normally elusive wild turkeys and even a barred owl. I slowed down enough to discover blueberries where, just a month earlier, I would have seen yet another nameless bush. The same old hike allowed me to finally recognize the pawpaw trees on the right day so I could snag some of the custard-like fruit before the Shenandoah’s other inhabitants discovered them. As my vision sharpened, my curiosity deepened.
My repetitive circuit hike revealed to me that I had always been trying to experience wilderness by going through it, not experiencing within it. The focus had always been to finish a lengthy hike, bag the peak, or blast through the rapids. While the remote wilderness had the thrill of the new, my local hike had something just as important – the intimacy of the well known. I have been on the trail in all seasons: in the winter, when I can see 50 miles from exposed ridgelines as the ten-degree wind blows; in spring, when I have to wade across frigid, overflowing streams; in summer, when I once happened upon a black bear dining on raspberry brambles; and in autumn, when I can hear the distant rumble of tourists on the nearby Skyline Drive speeding from one overlook to the next, taking pictures of the changing leaves.
I sit not far from the road, perched on my portable hammock, watching the leaves fall. I am within the same wilderness as the tourists, yet it’s an entirely different experience. They’re visiting an attraction, anxious to capture the scene with a snapshot before they speed on to the next overlook. Me – I’m as relaxed as I would be in the company of an old friend. I’m in a wilderness I can call home.
Now that I have a toddler, I have less time to make the drive to Shenandoah. Instead, I frequently walk a nameless, 1,400-acre parcel behind my house, a failed real estate development that is now owned by the state of Virginia. I wander around on trails that don’t connect, that lead to nowhere, that lead to nothing worth “sharing.” The trails lead inward, not toward any destination, but to new insights. Finding a few pounds of chanterelles in the woods or stumbling upon an abandoned farmhouse on a full moon hike is an adventure in its own right. Sure, it’s not standing on a glacier or seeing a wild lion while on foot, but it’s even more exciting to find something unexpected amid the ordinary.
My relationship with wilderness has changed. I’ve learned that – unlike the static selfies I took at exotic places around the world – real wilderness is in constant flux. “There’s nothing constant in the world,” Roman poet Ovid said in Metamorphoses, “all ebb and flow, and every shape that’s born bears in its womb the seeds of change.’’ I couldn’t really appreciate this ebb and flow when passing through the landscape with the detachment of a tourist intent on a taking a trophy photograph. I had to become a regular participant to appreciate how the mundane can come alive.
Perhaps a redefinition of terms is in order. Wilderness does not have to be something you visit; it is something you are part of and can consciously weave into the fabric of your daily life. It is a place over time, not just a static place in time. It can be as simple as allowing one of your garden beds to go fallow with wildflowers just to see what happens, to provide a bit of wildness for pollinators. Wilderness is not something you have to leave your house to value: If you have a microscope and some garden soil, you can find the wilderness right beneath your feet.
How we see wilderness matters because it influences how we value wilderness. Do we see it as something that only has value to the extent it provides us entertainment and “ecosystem services”? Or do we appreciate the complex relationships between thousands of species, something that has meaning beyond our crass utilitarian calculations and our parochial egos? Once we become humble participants within wilderness, wild places obtain independent meaning and intrinsic value. Once we recognize wilderness has a worth in and of itself it becomes, simply, invaluable.
Björn Philip Beer is a writer in Charlottesville, VA. Follow him: @BjornPhilipBeer.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.