The other day, my mom (who lives in Minnesota) declared that my dog could never move back to Minneapolis–or any city for that matter. I had recently mailed her some pictures of me and Mica from various hikes around Crested Butte and climbing near Cañon City.
“She just looks so happy surrounded by all that wilderness,” she said.
In many ways, my mom is right. In Crested Butte, most of Mica’s walks are off the leash (thanks in large part to Mr. Disciplinarian, P). On weekends she hangs out at the crag with us, and during the week she goes to the newspaper office with me or the job site with P. This week, the latter meant playing in a river all day and occasionally seeking out P. She bounced in place then, he told me, as if to say, “Come look what I found!”
(He obliged, more than once–he’s also Mr. Softie.)
But my mom’s use of the word wilderness caught me off guard. Sure, there were mountains and cliffs in those pictures, but I never thought of them as wilderness. In one picture, there were even houses in the background (granted, she hasn’t had cataract surgery yet; even to the clear sighted, they probably look like bushes).
Perhaps, I thought, I don’t use the word wilderness because I know what lies out of the frame. Like the road that P. and I took to get from the crag to that great Thai Place in Cañon City, or the entire town of Crested Butte at the foot of Crested Butte Mountain.
But then I remembered what it was like to visit Crested Butte for the first time. I poured over maps before hikes, fretting over how much water and food to bring and utterly convinced I was in the middle of no where. I carefully monitored my water intake so the elevation of 9,000 feet didn’t give me a migraine. I looked at the landscape, wowed by the peaks–mountains, everywhere, dominating the view.
I have tried many times since then to explain to Minnesotans that the relationship between people and the land is different in the West. In Minnesota, natural places are relegated to areas like state parks and wilderness zones. They’re places you must travel to–typically by car–and there are no buildings; they’ve been cordoned off, preserved.
In the West, there are wilderness areas and state parks, but there are also BLM lands, Forest Service lands and plenty of places you can pull off on the side of the road and start hiking simply because you feel like it. Wilderness is a landscape, not a human construct or a place set apart. It’s a stage where people like ranchers still make their lives, and access to that stage is seen as an inalienable right.
Even if you’re a teacher or a doctor or a writer, your life plays out on that stage. Those trails that felt so remote when I visited Crested Butte? I now bike them in an afternoon or an hour after work. I helped build a new one last spring. When I look at the mountains in wonder, I do it on my way to or from work or out my office window, where I do what everyone in a city does, too: meet deadlines and earn a paycheck.
This spring in particular, I look at the way the purple rock of the peaks is already visible–early snowmelt that also leaves our streams running low. I wonder what that will mean for ranchers or summer recreation.
I look upon a wild place, I know, where natural cycles still dominate. But my mom made me realize that I no longer look out my window and see wilderness as a place apart. I simply see my home.