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Aug 23 2013

Thoughts of a Wilderness Traveler

Prose from Wilderness Hero Frank Vitale

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Frank, Honeybunch, and Benny along the Rocky Mountain Front.

Amy Robinson
Northwest Montana Wilderness Campaign Director

It was one cold winter evening last December that I met Frank Vitale. We visited over a crackling fire and ate a delicious meal cooked by his wife, Ellen Horowitz. I quickly learned Frank is a farrier, a stockman, a historian and storyteller, a lover of the open-spaces of the Front Range, a pragmatist, and a passionate wilderness advocate. Frank shared stories of his early days as a resident of North Fork of the Flathead, and it became obvious that he is no stranger to living in the wildest of country, sandwiched between Glacier National Park and the Whitefish Range.

It is people like Frank that help ground our work, bringing our hearts back to center and our humanity back in-line. In one recent collaborative meeting as we discussed wilderness, Frank stood up and passionately shared a prose he wrote that directly spoke to his heart and spiritual connection to wilderness.

"It’s lost on me that some people feel wilderness locks them out and locks up the land.

I’ve spent the better part of my life traveling through wild country, both on foot and horseback. When I was younger I got angry with those who would oppose wilderness protection for the last of the wild country. But as I get older and a bit more gray around the muzzle, my perspective has changed. I sort of feel sorry and even feel a bit of pity for those who feel wilderness is a bad thing. Perhaps they are afraid, intimidated or just insecure to venture beyond their comfort zone.

For me, wilderness is the greatest freedom I’ve ever known. I’m not alone in these feelings. Just ask anyone who has spent time traveling in wild country. There’s a feeling that’s hard to describe—a sort of magic when I cross the line. It’s the key that unlocks the universe. Ian Tyson says it so well in song:

“It’s way out back and the back of beyond
Where the nights are dark as coal,
Where the circle stays unbroken,
Where the rocks begin to roll.”

The mules feel it too. The whole string’s cadence of hoof beats picks up; their ears stand erect and forward as if they can read “Wilderness Boundary” on the old Forest Service sign. I can breathe a whole lot easier.

In this fast, crazy world of computers, cell phones, gigabytes, megabytes, YouTube and all this cyberspace stuff, I have my doubts all this technology has really set us free. For me, the sound of well-shod hooves on the rocks, the creaking of saddle leather, the pungent smell of good honest mule sweat tempered with the sounds and smells of the wilderness—that’s freedom!

I’ll go as far as I need to go to make camp where there’s good water, good grass. I’ll turn the stock out, hobble a few so they don’t stray too far. I’ll hit the bedroll under the biggest, brightest mantel of stars you could ever put your eyes on. I’ll wake early; jingle the mules in; sip stout coffee while feedbags are flipped for the last of the grain.

While saddling up, the hard reality sinks in. We’re about at the end of this gig... Riding down through the Front Range I’m thinking... A hundred years ago, Charlie Russell wrote in his memoirs, Trails Plowed Under, "They ain’t making wild country anymore. We stole most of it from the Indians for a dollar a day. That was cowboy pay in them days.”

As the trail winds its way east through steep, narrow, limestone canyons the wind begins to pick up as it usually does in this country... Wait, I thought I heard some far-off distant singing; a chanting sound fading in and out with each passing gust... Must be my imagination... No, there it is again... Listen... A chill runs through me... Is it the spirits of the “old ones” who passed this way a long time ago?

I’m still riding and I’m still thinking... When I get too old to put my foot in the stirrup and swing into the saddle I’m going to make one request... Just wheel me up to the edge of the wilderness so I can look in one more time to a place and a time where I found true freedom."

We were all moved and the whole room, of 25 people, applauded. It brought tears to my eyes and my respect soared.

I did not understand that night in December just how I would come to admire Frank and the role he, and many others, would play in my work in the Whitefish Range. We’ve come to know one another more over the past few months, and I feel lucky to work with the finest of folk to protect our wildest places. It takes all of us working together, and Frank has been an inspiring wilderness hero, partner, and new friend.