The La Sal Mountains embrace myriad intrusions. They are no virgin wilderness. And yet the miles of roads, the crumbling cabins, the abandoned mines and tailings piles, the herds of ravenous cattle, the dams, ditches and diversions, the arborglyphs, terraced hillsides and chaining sites – all of this is held with a certain resigned grace.
This small, laccolithic range – itself an intrusion into surrounding desertscapes – is somehow expansive enough to hold it all. It speaks of the past in a vernacular of scattered ruin and carries its present in a satchel of tightly woven roads and fences. The La Sals are a known and over-worked entity; yet, thanks to this, the mountains – away from campgrounds and newly designated trail hubs – are often left alone.
Though I will always find sign of dreamers and explorers past and present up there, I will also always find solitude and quiet. Such is the paradox of historically worked ground: It is there that one finds the peace of wilderness away from the wilderness-seekers.
Wilderness is a weighty word across the West. It carries a large duffel full of accumulated and conflicting sentiment: arresting access or yielding to nature, locking up or safeguarding, indefensible constraints or the generosity of restraint. Its proponents have painted it as salvation – both economic and ecologic (which is usually an untenable combination) – and opponents frame it as our fiscal demise, as if entire civilizations will crumble and fade in the face of the fortified wilds.
The debate has long since become untethered from the landscapes in question. The conflicting claims are now volleyed across the thick ether of emotion, literally ungrounded, finding home in newspapers and legislative houses, harsh rhetoric and retaliation. And yet, the topographies in question persist, beyond the fray and fears.
My feelings on wilderness are complicated. I believe in the concept of the Wilderness Act, with its soulful and hopeful poetry: “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I believe it was a work of generosity and courage in 1964, the year this legislation was enacted. But that is an era far removed from this one.
The passage of a half-century requires evolution and innovation in our thinking. I believe our expanding population has since produced dreamers capable of standing in the liminal space, the interface between the engineered and the untouched – dreamers capable of envisioning a new means of honoring the very thing that wished us into existence.
Somewhere, I believe, lay the seeds of a new means of relating to wildness.
In the La Sals – not afforded any special status on the map – I have never met another hiker atop Tuk, Mellenthin, Manns or any of the other prominent peaks. Away from the roads and recently schemed mountain bike routes, I find the solitude and solace that the Wilderness Act intended to defend.
My recent experience of designated wilderness is this: backpacking in the Maroon Bells, reaching Trail Rider Pass at 12,400 feet, finding over 30 hikers there ahead of me, the air filled with conversation, clicking cameras, scent of sunscreen.
Another wilderness experience: Red Mountain, a newly protected desert gem near St. George, now sports “wilderness protective fencing” along the northern entrance route, creating an overly fortified corridor into the wild. Where I once veered off trail to harvest pinion nuts, I now find stout barbed wire warning me away.
Is this what the Wilderness Act intended? In managing for wilderness – and promoting it – are we forcing wildness to seek refuge elsewhere?
In “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold wrote, “All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”
The dilemma is this: How do we embrace and honor our surroundings simultaneously?
Is it possible for a new preservation ethic to emerge in the ever-narrowing gaps between our expanding footprints? And will this new ethic hold space and spontaneity as ends in themselves rather than a means to economic growth or fulfillment of political agendas? These are difficult propositions in an era when progress and worth are measured in terms of profits and ease.
While unsure of the solutions, I have my experience: Maps do not point to true wilderness. A place is not wild simply because we manage it as such. And, at times, I have found more wildness – slinking bobcat, coyote cry, sage scent, star-bright sky – in sight of oil rigs and roads than within wilderness boundaries.
To say so, I know, is sacrilege. To say so is to concede all too important points in the wilderness debate. But to say so is also to acknowledge that wildness is unpredictably everywhere – from the La Sals to the backyard tomato jungle. It is, by definition, unmanaged and unmanageable. It is beyond our politics, our maps, and even our best intentions.
Jen Jackson is a writer and business owner in Moab.
ByBy Jen Jackson