One of the paradoxes of urban America is that millions of people speak reverently about wilderness but are much less eager to venture into it and risk real bites from actual mosquitoes.
I’ve been musing about this while backpacking with family on the Pacific Northwest Trail, sometimes known as “America’s wildest trail,” on the Canada-U.S. border in Washington state. It’s stunning, mountainous country, right at timberline in the Pasayten Wilderness — yet we have it pretty much to ourselves (along with the bears, lynxes and mountain goats).
Perhaps I’m running away from home, for this is a dispiriting time in America: A former president has not only been indicted four times but may actually also be reelected, our life expectancy is among the worst in the rich world, and large majorities of adults polled say our country is on the wrong track.
Yet there’s something still spectacularly right about the United States: our wild spaces. Some 40% of America is public land — a credit to our forebears — and we haven’t screwed that up yet (although climate change-related fires endanger it).
I’m hiking with my daughter and her boyfriend, and it’s cathartic. We get up in the morning with the sun, drink from creeks, rest on logs, eat from our packs when hungry. And at dusk, we find some flat ground, roll out a ground sheet, unfurl pads and sleeping bags and then fall asleep under the stars to the melody of owl hoots.
For me, wilderness backpacking is a profoundly healing experience. It restores my soul.
If much of modern life is exemplified by what we do on our screens — firing off intemperate and shallow salvos on the platform X, formerly known as Twitter — then wilderness offers an antidote. It is deep. It is enduring. It is soothing. The antonym of X is wilderness.
The best parenting I ever did was on the trails. Beginning when she was 14, my daughter and I hiked the entire 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, over six years. In that brief window in which she was strong enough and I was not yet decrepit, together we sweated, bathed in rivers, lost toenails, dodged 14 rattlesnakes and a cougar, and were drenched in freezing rains. No better way to share companionship!
It’s a spiritual experience to hike through the cathedral of wilderness, whether alone or with a family member or friend; the mountains and rivers generate a quasi-religious awe and put us humans in our place. I understand Baruch Spinoza best not in the library but in the mountains.
That is not to diminish the significance of humans; on the contrary, wilderness is an example of the importance of public policy. The architects of our land policies were leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot (the first head of the U.S. Forest Service), who were personally wealthy and could afford their own country estates but deeply believed that working-class Americans should also have access to nature. Hence the drive for public lands.
When Congress rebelled at their conservation efforts and in 1907 made it harder to create new national forests, Roosevelt and Pinchot hurriedly preserved an additional 16 million acres — so-called midnight forests, because they were created just before the deadline.
We’re all beneficiaries of their vision, for wild places provide a rare zone of equality in an unequal nation. There are few places in America where a billionaire and a welder are on equal footing, but a wilderness trail is one; no one can pull rank on you, except a large bear.
As I see it, the purpose of our extraordinary American inheritance of public lands is to go out in them, to experience that healing power of nature. Yet perhaps three-quarters of Americans don’t set foot on national forest trails at all.
Many children in particular seem to suffer from what writer Richard Louv has called “nature-deficit disorder.” That’s the alienation from the natural world that arises when kids no longer tramp through the mud chasing tadpoles and garter snakes.
Perhaps we parents are overprotective, fearing that mud might be quicksand or that garter snakes might be rattlesnakes. And modern life feels increasingly sedentary and pampered: On a baking summer day, kids no longer cool off in a swimming hole, but rather stay inside air-conditioned rooms playing video games, oblivious to their deprivation.
When young Americans don’t interact with the outdoors, something is lost for all of us — including a visceral appreciation of what wilderness is. In our dreams, it may be romantic and Disney-like; in reality, you’re always too hot or too cold, all trails are mostly uphill, and that brown lump you just kicked is a wasp nest. All true, but that reality is bewitching.
So my advice: Go take a hike, and bring the kids.
Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist.
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