We’ve just spent ten days at our little house in Torrey, Utah—the longest stretch we’ve ever had here. I love the monsoon season, but this July has gone far beyond the normal afternoon thundershowers, with mornings dawning gray, lots of electrical storms, and, even on clear days, cloud build-ups starting at breakfast. I’ve had a fine time photographing—and here is my luckiest (after much persistence) shot.
In my last entry, I posted an exchange about access to wilderness. My respondent was concerned about wilderness (big “W” congressionally designated wilderness) excluding anyone but the hard-bodied young. That’s not what we’ve seen in our series of day hikes here. On the main trails in Capitol Reef National Park, we’ve seen families, cohorts of multigenerational French tourists, young couples, and middle-aged folk. In Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument and neighboring wilderness study areas, we haven’t seen many people, but those we have seen have been hikers like us, around sixty, slow and steady.
In a fine forthcoming book (Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks, University of California Press, 2010), Bill Tweed ponders the future of the national parks as he walks the John Muir Trail. He notes the same phenomenon: most of the through-hikers are middle-aged. Young people make quick dashes into the wilderness—trail-running, sport-climbing, and mountain biking. Long contemplative walks don’t seem to have much appeal to millennials bred on the zing of whiz-bang technology 24/7.
My wife, Joanne, and our cousin, Carol (visiting from Maine), go to exercise classes, take walks, ride bikes. I go to a yoga class and do as many errands as possible by bicycle. We walk the dogs. We are fit but not in training, thin but certainly not on ascetic diets. Nothing special in the way of physical specimens, really. But we should be able to keep walking into the canyons for many more years.
Bill Tweed speculates that our generation has a distinctive history: coming of age at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, swept into wilderness travel as REI and EMS stores turned up in major cities. Backpacking was cool and adventurous.
My 19-year-old son, Jake, joined us in Torrey for a couple of days, with a friend. The two young men quickly grow restless with our four- to ten-mile day hikes. They want more excitement. Jake rediscovers Steve Allen’s canyoneering guidebooks on our bookshelf and gets intrigued with the notion of multi-day technical backpacks into the most remote canyons on the Colorado Plateau. I know that Steve Allen and his buddies see no people at all on these trips.
Jake will try one of these trips, I’m sure. He could become a real devotee of remote canyoneering. Does this corroborate what my antagonist in the San Juan Record thought, that the wilderness is only for the young and strong? Clearly not, given all those weathered and gray-haired hikers we keep seeing.
I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari for my book group’s next meeting. I haven’t read him in years. The last time I tried, I found him grumpy and sour. Now, maybe I’m more philosophical about his refusal to romanticize. It’s a terrific book, written when Theroux returned to Africa more than thirty years after teaching as a young man in Uganda to travel from Cairo to Capetown. He is turning sixty, and he is acutely aware of that:
“What all older people know, what had taken me almost sixty years to learn is that an aged face is misleading. I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, and they are insulted to be regarded as feeble. They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy. Don’t be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and skepticism. The older traveler knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Years are not an affliction. Old age is strength.”
Yup, it’s all of us strong old people marching down the trail!
Theroux also nails how I feel about my work mixed in with my life:
“When I told Africans where I had come from and how slowly I had traveled, they said, “So you must be retired.”
“No, no, no,” I said overreacting, because I despised the word and equated it with surrender. “I’m traveling. I’m working.”
That wasn’t it, either: not business, not pleasure, not work, not retirement, but the process of life, how I chose to pass the time.”
How I choose to pass the time tomorrow relates to all of this pondering. I’m going to the “listening session” for the Obama Administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative here in Salt Lake City. I hope to be able to state some opinions that filter through to the Department of Interior about these stunning public lands of ours. I’ll let you know how it goes.