Last week I was hiking again in the Kaiser National Wilderness in an ongoing effort to visit most of the peaks and trails of the area, this time taking a ferry across Florence Lake and walking along the banks of the upper fork of the San Joaquin River for about seven or so miles, past the John Muir Ranch.
Once again I noticed the complete absence of vacationers in lakes and areas that were once commonly visited (I spent a week with my parents camping out at Florence in 1961 when there were more visitors than now). The roads are worse than they were 45 years ago, the camping facilities no better, and the government attitude far less welcoming. The result is an insidious public withdrawal from our wilderness heritage, and a sort of deliberate rusting of our facilities to discourage use.
But one is struck how vast the wild is and how beneficial it might be to contemporary youth to drop the video console and, for at least a weekend, hike, fish, and camp in the outdoorsâ€”if for no other reason than physical fitness and to develop a reverence for Americaâ€™s forests and outdoors.
The few types I met in the High Sierra this summer were mostly the elite from the California coast, many of them Sierra Club members and other self-appointed and well-intended custodians of the wild. But from talking with many of them, I gathered their idea of a national treasure was a rather remote untouched preserve, visited by educated and affluent magnificos such as themselves, who visited no more than once or twice a year, but championed its sanctuary status daily from a distance. Anwar is the ultimate expression of that attitude, in which it is far better apparently that a Russia despoil the Siberian wilderness to put its petrol on the world market than for us to reduce our need by, if only in part symbolically, developing our own oil carefully and sensibly.
There hikers had not much interest in making trails more accessible to the millions who live nearer the mountains, who do not have the capital or education or expertise to navigate easily our present national parks and wilderness. Nor did they care much about the store owners, pack companies, and guides who make a living making the wilderness accessible.
In this regard, I was fascinated by a four-wheel drive â€œroadâ€ of sorts from the backside of Florence to the Muir Ranch, about five miles of absolutely inaccessible granite, woods, and streams. And yet almost daily a small used military four-wheel drive transport truck (with several crawler gears and locked wheels) brings out trash from a few campers, packers, and guests, and then trucks back in supplies, at no more than one or two miles an hour and on unbelievable inclines.
I finally paused on the trail, resolved to meet the sort of person who could drive such a contraption, and was rewarded by seeing the driver. We talked for a bit, and he seemed the sort of ideal custodian of the forests, who was brave enough to tackle the road, wanted others to enjoy the environs, but was absolutely committed to its preservation.
Likewise, if one visits the coast of Alaska, as I did this week, the overwhelming sense is one of vast size, solitude and natural forces that dwarf manâ€”not environmental desecration. The point of all this is that we have a created a sort of natural religion for those who treat our wildernesses as churches rather than classrooms that can impart a much needed wisdom to an increasingly clueless generation.
The final irony? The best way for the Sierra Club to avoid becoming something like an esoteric cloister is to promote greater use of our parks: with public contact, comes reverence; while civic disdain is the companion of ignorance of and inexperience with nature.