[T]he love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us — if only we were worthy of it . . .. No, wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.
—Edward Abbey, American writer, Desert Solitaire
Today’s appreciation of wilderness represents one of the most remarkable intellectual revolutions in the history of human thought about land. . . . Wilderness has evolved from an earthly hell to a peaceful sanctuary where happy visitors can join John Muir and John Denver in drawing near to divinity. Such a perspective would have been absolutely incomprehensible to, for example, a Puritan in New England in the 1650s.
—Roderick Nash, National Geographic, November 1998
Philosophical Questions Addressed in This Article
What is a true (authentic, genuine, real, high quality) wilderness experience? How important is it to seek out such experiences, as I define them? How important is it to talk, analyze and write about these kinds of experiences? What is the best way to develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of wilderness?
Assuming most backcountry hikers, trekkers and backpackers deliberately seek out quality wilderness experiences, it is appropriate in this part of the book to explore this concept in some depth. In the process, I hope the reader will develop a clearer answer to the central question posed. A separate but related question, "Why Go Into the Wilderness (Backcountry, Highcountry)?" is the subject of another article on this website. Taken together, these two fundamental questions focus on the what and the why of this subject.
There are many ways of relating to and thinking about the concept of wilderness: travel in it, fully experience it, learn to enjoy and be comfortable in it, survive in it, live in it, contemplate and philosophize about it, write and talk about it, protect and preserve it, understand and appreciate it, and so on. In this article, the focus is mainly on this last item: developing an in-depth understanding of and a deeper appreciation for wilderness experiences.
True Wilderness Experiences: Thumbnail Sketches
The following perceptions and characterizations of wilderness experiences, in the form of thumbnail sketches, are presented for your consideration. These sketches come from many sources and are meant to cover the widest possible range.
Natural, Wild, Primitive State: A wilderness is an area uninhabited by humans that has been left in a mostly natural and wild state. Signs of human visitation are minimal. This is a place where human visitors practice a Leave No Trace (LNT) ethic and minimum impact camping. There are no roads. There is no mining or drilling. There is an absence of cabins and shelters. In the words of David Brower,
Wilderness is a place wherein the flow of life, in its myriad forms, has gone on since the beginning of life, essentially uninterrupted by man and his technology. It is a place where man respects what that life force built in the old eternity, and without man’s help—except in his willingness to come, see and not conquer.
Dr. George Wallace echoes the same philosophy in these words:
Wilderness areas are among the few places on earth where we have agreed to allow nature, for the most part, to operate on her own terms. Desirable behavior is more likely to occur if people understand how their actions affect the way nature operates.
Absence of Most Humans: In a true wilderness experience one goes for days seeing few, if any, other humans. Wilderness is an area unused by all but a few hardy souls because of its ruggedness or isolated location. A corollary of this characteristic is the experience of solitude, where the sounds and sights of human presence are minimal or non-existent.
[Plus 13 additional thumbnail sketches available in the complete article.]
The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 13 pages) available as a free download. Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.
What are true wilderness experiences? – Word Format
What are true wilderness experiences? – PDF Format
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
True Wilderness Experiences: Thumbnail Sketches
Reader Participation: Priority Wilderness Experiences
Author’s Priority Experiences
Reflecting on the Counsel of Ansel Adams
Additional Issues for Reflection