Instead of mountain men we are cursed with a plague of diggers, drillers, borers, grubbers; of asphalt spreaders, dam builders, overgrazers, clear-cutters, and strip miners whose object seems to be to make our mountains match our men – making molehills out of mountains for a race of rodents – for the rat race. (Edward Abbey, Down the River with Henry Thoreau)
Imagine two people spending their nights alone in the wilderness. One is only barely asleep, aware of every noise and certain that in the thick soup are bears and mountain lions. He will awake at the slightest noise, holding perfectly still until he resolves its puzzle in his mind. Wind caused a pine cone to drop on the tent? Deer passing through? A ragged coyote looking for an easy meal? Each noise creates a moment of panic. The woods at night are dangerous. They need to be so. If we remove the danger, we remove the most important thing that wilderness offers: Wild. It is a journey into the soul.
Our second man is a coward. He’s in the woods out of necessity, hunting for game. That’s not a problem. We’re omnivores, after all. The problem is that he feels a need to have a gun at his side to help him sleep. He doesn’t own his fear. He has not yet let his inner child have a vision quest.
I had a night of terror many years ago. A friend and I were deep in the Beartooths up on Lake Plateau. I was drawn to backpacking with him even as all our other friends had given up, purchased motor boats and headed for the prairie potholes. I cannot say why I was drawn to do that. The work was hard and rewards a sparse few. Stripped of luxury, camp coffee is like chocolate. After a few miles under the weight of a pack the woods are not glamorous, I am not enchanted. My body hurts. I ask myself why I am there.
Wandering around that evening looking for wood for the fire I stumbled on a deep, rich, shiny and black pile of scat. It was laden with berries. It was so large that it could only have been placed there by ursus horribilis, the night stalker. It was recent, perhaps less than an hour old. It was going to be a long, long night.
My friend Jupa, long since passed, said it could just as easily be a big black bear as a griz. That did not comfort me. He crawled in his sleeping bag that night and within a few minutes was soundly asleep. I lay there alone, hearing every noise. I was even afraid to fall asleep, perhaps thinking that Freddy of the forest would kill me in a dream. If I slept at all that night, it was the kind of sleep that offers no rest.
After that night I was never again afraid to sleep in the woods. The fears I face were primeval, part of our common heritage. The woods are dark and deep and mysterious. The animals mind their own so long as we do, and let us be. But that fear exists in most people. Swede, our cinderblock cousin, offered up a video in the comments down below this post. In it, a dunderhead blowhard offered this wisdom: Wilderness has no value. He wants to make it useful by harvesting the trees, making roads and recreating on his sorry fat ass atop an ATV.
Such people can neither be reasoned with or reached. I can only wander into their nightmare forests for a few moments before I became agitated. These are our problem, these people who know no value. They sleep with that gun by their side because they have not confronted their fear. They want to destroy what scares them. In so doing, they destroy a part of our heritage that cannot be replaced except by our vacating the place.
We hold on to what little wilderness remains not because we love trees more than people. I prefer the civilized life over living in a tent. I live in a wooden house and drive a car. But I multi-task. Enjoying civilization and people, I also treasure fear and places so wild that they scare most people away. The grizzly bear cannot live in tamed woods. Make a road, he’ll make an exit. We cannot live side-by-side. One must go.
It is not fear that matters, but rather confronting fear. To do that, we need to visit a place where we can be scared.