I don’t think I truly understood how unique our wild places are until I saw the New York City skyline jutting out from the horizon for the very first time.
From an early age, I remember listening to my mother recount the visceral reaction she had to her first glimpse of the Rocky Mountain Front. A Michigan transplant, she would express how difficult it was for her to believe that those abrupt peaks were real. How could something so incredible have been kept from her for this long? Over 30 years later, she still calls the Front her home in north central Montana. Growing up in their shadow, I took those mountains for granted. Weekend trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness were expected; I didn’t see them as anything particularly special. Those trips became less frequent as I became preoccupied with high school sports and playing cowboy on my friend’s ranch.
Later, in my early 20s, I worked as a trail dog in the Frank Church and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Areas. My crew and I were tasked with cutting out ancient Western Red Cedars that had fallen across the trail. The Western Red Cedar can grow 125 feet tall, and can live up to 1000 years. Imagine living in a place for 1000 years. For them, place isn’t something they find or seek out. Place is who they are. A thousand wicked winters and this tree chose the one I happened to wander in uninvited to crumble under its enormous weight for my partner and I to cross cut our way through. Taking out a beast of a tree leaves you with a certain respect. The rhythm you and your partner must keep for the crosscut to continue cutting smoothly, the smell of cedar sap filling your nostrils – the whole endeavor is spiritual and sensory. Ideally, there’s a hill (of which there are many along the Selway River) for you to kick down the section of tree you’ve just cut out. We would cheer with joy as timber met the river below. These whales of the forest, returning to the water with a satisfying splash.
My crew mostly came from far off places like Omaha, Milwaukee, and Chicago. They told me horrible, frightening tales of places that lacked topological diversity. Apparently the food was decent, but there wasn’t the same kind of deep escape into public lands when the private ones became too much. Still, I didn’t understand how my mother felt in those stories about mountains first coming into view. That is, until I took my first trip to New York City. As I descended towards the runway, the bright lights of the megalopolis spread endlessly beneath me. Here was a land dominated by humans. How did they do it? What feat of cooperation enabled this? I could barely get my crew to agree on how much cheese to pack for the chili-mac we’d share on our final night over the campfire. I couldn’t believe it was real.
We landed and the river of humanity washed over me, swimming from terminal to shuttle to train without a second to breathe. Intense new feelings of competition welled up inside of me. Resource scarcity. At my final stop I continued treading water out the doors and through the train station before coming up for air on the sidewalk. There, staring down on me, pulling me in was the bright glowing Moon in all of her fullness. For whatever reason this glowing celestial mass brought me back to earth. Her familiarity gave me just enough calm to find my bearings and forge on.
There was something about this new place that drew me in and ultimately led me to stay. There are places for peace and places for competition, for failure and success. For now, I find myself in this foreign place. A place I can’t believe is real, learning about its intricacies and strange beauties for the first time. Over here on the East Coast, it takes a lot more effort to find a spot without the sounds of some machine or the eyes of other people, but there are places. And those wild places will always call to me, no matter where I might be.
Henry Jorden is the Lincoln County Outreach Coordinator for the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. He is currently working remotely and attending the Columbia School of Social Work in New York City.