When we first met, I didn’t know how much I would come to love you, how much you would mean to me. I was quite young, with a lot yet to learn. It was my first time backpacking, with my parents, my uncle Gerry, and our dog Angel. I only hold a few small details with me of that first encounter: the rewarding weariness of reaching our campsite, the smell of the forest, and the reflection of the mountains in the lake. My shoulders were sore from the stiff straps on Dad’s old pack. But glimpsing the hidden world of the backcountry, a whole new mode of existence sparked my curiosity. What adventures lay in store a few more miles down the trail, or in a few more nights around the campfire? As I grew older, I came without parents, just a few close friends. I read backpacking magazines and dreamed of the trails, the peaks, the pure freedom you seemed to offer. I still knew almost nothing about you. I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know.
Then I left home for school, and after a full year still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. A field-heavy, comprehensive program called Wilderness & Civilization, complete with 9-day backpacking trip for credit, sounded like a perfectly viable option. It just so happened that at the end, I’d have earned a minor in something called Wilderness Studies, whatever that might be. But my attraction to you, Wilderness, was what brought me to that program. You opened my eyes to my passion and purpose in life.
When I began to study ecology, I truly began to appreciate your beauty. The patterns of your wild spaces and the stories they tell transformed the earth in my eyes. A roaring creek clears a path for itself; delicate lilies burst through a snowbank; juicy huckleberries dangle over the trail. Each stretch of hillside contains a masterpiece. Through you, I learned to see the creativity of the land. The ‘forces of nature,’ as your Act termed them, are indeed forceful. But there is a discerning touch earned through eons of practice to a wild brushstroke. It was around this time that I noticed something else, Wilderness. It was how happy I was when I would visit you. And not just happy, but healthy, strong, and alive. You bring out the best in me. You bring out the best in my companions too. You bring us all closer together, and that is a gift for which I thank you. I really should say this more often, Wilderness, but you know I love you, right?
Of course, not too long ago, I found out that I could do more than just visit you occasionally, Wilderness. I could work with you, full time! And I could help others appreciate you, protect you, and keep you wild. In doing these things, you provided the opportunity for me to challenge myself in new ways. As a steward of Wilderness, I get to be a leader, an educator, a woodsman, and a conservationist. So that’s what I’m gonna do, Big W. I’m gonna keep working on those things, with your help of course.
When I tell people about you, Wilderness, I want them to see all that I see in you. You inspire and heal with your beauty. You protect the more than the human community of life. You give us clean air and water selflessly. You challenge and strengthen us. And not least of all, you stand as a promise, from we humans to the future generations of the earth: that humility and deference to wild nature are more than just an empty concept, but a practical, ethical value.
Anyway, I know you’ve got a birthday coming up, or something like that, so I just thought I’d send a little note your way letting you know how much I appreciate you. Happy 50th, Wilderness. You really are the best. Keep it Wild.