Either as an endorsement for my unhesitance in telling my supervisors when they do things which are dumb, or as punishment for the same, I was recently nominated to be on a committee to make recommendations for improving employee recruitment and retention. It’s been an enlightening experience, in that many of the obvious issues are structural; until society moves to alter how insurance the state governments pay for it, children’s mental health (in the public sector) will never pay well. One of the themes my colleagues and I keep coming back to is just how lovely a place we all live.
None of the mountain ranges which surround Helena are especially high, steep, or from afar imposing. None of them enjoy much renown, even amongst locals. Indeed, I’d guess that 9 of 10 in a sidewalk survey would struggle to name more than 2 of the 6-8 distinct ranges within a hours drive. It’s a chicken or egg question as to whether this anonymity is a result of or the cause of the many faint trails and small, uncrowded trailheads which surround us. In either case, I’ve never lived in a place where so many interesting places met the ultimate modern criteria, having nothing of substance in evidence about them on the internet. The scope of possibility for my favorite kind of exploration, that where both literal and epistemic footprints are absent, grows with every outing.
There is a massive paradox at the core of last weeks post, which I saved for a separate time and place. The contradiction, and the question it poses, are that important, and easily in evidence in the Prickly Pear Valley.
In the internet age, nothing is as effective a preservative as anonymity. Most folks will ignore the evidence in daily view 30 miles away, and allow the weight of conventional wisdom to keep a place with “no hikes worth mentioning” truly wild. Wild in the sense of having trails with disappear utterly crossing meadows, having signs whose letters are all but weathered back into the wood grain, where animals just do expect to see humans. To whit, the three black bears (in two separate incidents) I thoroughly scared when they finally saw me, and the mule deer which kept snorting and circling to ascertain just what I was.
I’ve become quite convinced of this strategy, and as of late been here mostly content to drop very vague hints and let people find places the honest way, by looking at a map and wondering what might be right there. But there are shortcomings to this approach. One is when traffic gains momentum organically, and the opportunity to steer norms of behavior are lost. This is what prompted me to publish the Crown Packrafting Guide last year, and what has me worried about the hush-hush nature of mountain biking in many of the local enclaves. When Forest Service travel plans come due for revision every quarter century, it might be too late to bring a place out of the shadows, and absent a constituency anonymity may change irrevocably before many even know what was there. A place is logged, a mine goes in and changes drainage patterns, or trails get closed.
Many folks would say the same about closing roads to trucks and ATVs in the same areas, and under current use patterns they’d probably be right. More miles in big western wildernesses over the years have given me an ever more complicated and conflicted idea of what wildness means, functionally. Places like the Thorofare, supposedly furthest from roads in the lower 48, gets more visitation in three months across the transition from summer to autumn as many dead end logging roads in the Yaak and Idaho panhandle get in a decade. Supposedly roadless places like the Salmon River and Grand Canyons get hammered along the river corridor, but these impacts seem to be more substantive aesthetically than ecologically.
There are still places which can mostly be hidden from human knowledge, even in a world with satellite photographs on demand. But that seems to come with a political cost, potential, perhaps inevitable.
My ordinary task, in getting to know new places, would be to pick good routes and good opportunities, to best crystallize those first memories, which will in their outlines never be surpassed. Beyond that, a mental map builds outwards, following ease across the land before knitting gaps together with the dusty threads of experience. Now the haze of potential, both within and beyond my life, crowds all of that. It’s a proper transformation for a place where I intend to spend decades, but as ever the shape of responsibility is intimidating.