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Jan 23 2014

What is Wilderness?

A University of Montana student goes back to basics in the Bitterroot Range

Featured, Voices of NexGen

What is wilderness? Is it a parcel of land with tangible boundaries and management principles prescribed by a forest manager or legislator’s pen? Or could it be a state of mind? Is wilderness the place we go within ourselves to remember who we are and where we came from? A place where the chains of responsibilities are unshackled from our ankles and we are allowed to refocus our attention on the gentle flow of forward motion. Forward.  Along the trail. Up the mountain. Towards a greater sense of self.

I pondered this very question while gazing into a soggy campfire’s waning flames during a University of Montana Wilderness Association trip a few weeks ago. We huddled on the shore of Baker Lake, below mighty Trapper Peak in the Bitterroot Range. Our cars were parked just two miles below our camping spot, and if our cell phones were turned on then the incessant ‘ping’ of incoming messages could probably still reach us. But our proximity to civilization was masked by our immediate surroundings.

Snow fell heavy and wet around us, transforming the mossy mat of forest floor into a sponge that saturated our feet with each step we took. The wind blew hard, sending a few flakes under the lip of my hood where they would immediately melt and drip down my back. The flames of our fire swung wildly back and forth, as if Merlin himself was perched atop Trapper directing them with all the vigor he could muster. Like a perilous game of musical chairs we arranged and rearranged ourselves around the fire ring, trying in vain to escape the thick smoke that came pouring out of the soaked timber and dead needles.  Eventually the fire faded and the weather chased us into our tent, where the warmth of a sleeping bag provided little consolation against a wind that flattened our tents, threatening to snap the aluminum poles. 

Come morning, we cautiously unzipped our front doors, careful not to disturb the hundreds of beads of water that clung steadfast to the nylon shell. Fruitlessly, we tried to start a fire.  We stood in a tight circle around a few steaming branches, the mountains around us obscured by low-hanging clouds. We began to think of our cars waiting for us and the long, winding mountain road down to the valley floor. We thought of the snow that was piling higher and higher in the tire ruts with every minute. We thought of the pancakes and hash browns and coffee that waited for us in Hamilton. We sighed and headed back down the trail hastily.

One by one, our caravan of three turned off Highway 93 into the parking lot of the Coffee Cup Cafe. With my hands wrapped around a heavy diner cup of strong black coffee and bacon on my plate—still sizzling from the griddle—I surveyed the smiling faces around the table. Engrossed in conversations and digging into their meals, everyone was basking in the jubilant bliss that comes only from time spent in the backcountry—no matter how fleeting.

We didn’t get to the summit of Trapper. We didn’t even make it to the official wilderness boundary, but adventure still found us. Heavy snow fell from the sky. Wind battered our tents. Sleet doused our morning fire. And the weather finally chased us back to our cars. 

But for those cold, wet, and windy hours in the mountains, we were transformed. We were no longer students walking numbly from home to classroom to work to library. Instead, we were human beings concerned primarily with our basic needs. Where will I sleep? When will I start dinner? Where can I find firewood to keep myself warm? The wilderness warrants this shift in focus from the mundane to the primal, and the experience of that transition is an invaluable gift.

The opportunity to go back to the basics, to leave the city behind and remind ourselves what it means to be human—simply human—is fundamental to our physical and mental health. And it can be found just a couple miles from the car, in and around the vast playgrounds of the Bob Marshall, Selway-Bitterroot, Anaconda-Pintler and countless other wilderness areas. 

Whatever the weather and no matter how long, it’s always worth the effort.  


- Molly Eimers is an intern with the Montana Wilderness Association at the University of Montana.