Wilderness and the Geography of Hope 

A personal essay on the importance of wilderness

A couple of summers ago, my good friend McCay and I hiked into a backcountry lake to spend the night, and we did all the things backpackers typically do. I remember dropping my pack heavily onto the ground at the end of a long day. We cooked on a stove smaller than a baseball. Our food was bland: McCay had something prepackaged and freeze dried; I ate mac and cheese out of a box. We gazed at stars, slept soundly on the ground and I distinctly remember watching McCay filter water out of the lake as the last light of day faded in the west.

Many of us have been on our fair share of backpack trips or hikes, and we all know how it goes. But in the morning, McCay and I awoke to one of those rare events that occur in the wilderness, one of those things that you stumble upon, fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

When we got out of our tents, right as the sun lifted over the eastern ridge, we glanced down at the lake and its surface looked solid, smooth as glass and every bit as clear. A half-inch layer of ice had formed across the whole lake overnight.

I understand that lakes freeze overnight all the time, but this was mid July and I'm sure the overnight temperature had barely dipped below 32 degrees, if at all. This was also 2011--the biggest snow season in years--and a solid pack of snow still rested on the north-facing slope above the inlet of the lake. I remember my feet stinging in the cold water when I soaked them the night before. This was not something you normally see in the heat of summer.

Kneeling down on the shore, I broke off a pane of ice and held it in my hand. It was perfectly clear, without a grain of sand or bit of murkiness. I then flung it along the ice on the surface of the lake and it slid for a few feet before shattering into dozens of shards, each piece making a tinkling sound as it skipped away.

We took turns sliding ice like shuffleboard pucks, watching their peaceful explosions. We must have done this for at least a half an hour, maybe even 45 minutes, at times giggling, at times awe-struck, taking the time to watch each other toss a slice of ice, pausing with anticipation even though we'd seen the same action repeated more than a dozen times already. I feel like we lost track of time. For a moment, we forgot about anything else that existed.

I think of that morning now while reading Wallace Stegner's The Wilderness Letter, a letter written in 1960 in defense of protecting wild lands in the West. Stegner argued that we will lose our identity as Americans if our wilderness is lost. He wrote that wilderness shaped our history and our character and that, "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed."

We inherently need the idea of wilderness, what Stegner calls the "geography of hope."

Stegner only hints at what is the most important part of what wilderness provides for us. Many people say they go there to live simply, to take it easy or get away from the hassle of regular life. Wilderness can cut deeper than that.

Fathers often talk about taking their children to a ballgame and how it feels to recapture a feeling of youth; but as much as an adult may feel like a kid again, they're still conscious of the fact that they are not.

I don't know if Stegner ever sat and acted like a kid with his good friend while sliding ice across the surface of a lake, but when I think back on that morning at the lake with McCay, the sun shining down through whitebark pines and reflecting off granite slabs, I can tap back into that happiness we felt. It has become a preserved sanctuary in my memory--a part of my own geography of hope.

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