Wilderness Ranger Intern
European Wilderness Society - Austria
Bitterroot National Forest
The accessibility of Wilderness, or at least of parts of it, often made me forget that it is Wilderness I am currently in. Coming from Europe where protected Wilderness areas are rare, mostly smaller and often not easily accessible as they are remote, lack trails or can only be entered with a guide, it still amazes me that you can just drive to a trailhead and start hiking and will certainly cross the border to the Wilderness within a few miles. Most of the time, nothing noticable changes after crossing this man-made, artificial boarder, except for the amount of people you meet.
I visited several places that “felt” like Wilderness this summer but did not carry that label and on several occasions I was in designated Wilderness and was searching for where the Wildness in this place was left. In the back of my head I compared the Wilderness here, with what I know from Austria, where the Alps are one of the most developed and appreciated touristic assets of this tiny country. Big differences are, of course, the different kinds of developments, past and current, and the amount, as well as the spirit, of the people. Both are, to a different extent, excepted in order to protect Wilderness. But why do some places feel more wild than others? Not even considering the historic or legal differences in Wilderness in the United States or Europe. I can feel being surrounded by Wildness when I am just a mile from the trailhead and not when I am 9 miles deep out there. Maybe it’s the people that surrounded me all summer, either crew members or volunteers. There was, nearly, always somebody else there.
It took me all summer to answer this question and I might have found somewhat like an answer on my last hitch with the SBFC trail crew when I was far behind, trying to keep up to their fast pace up Huckleberry Butte. Or did Jack Ader, Wilderness Ranger in the West Fork, already put the answer to that question into my head when he asked us on our second hitch: Can you experience solitude with another person? My answer back then was, that I think you can, as there are different kinds of solitude. A solitude within you that I most often experience snowboarding by myself but being surrounded by other winter sport enthusiasts in a ski resort, and a solitude coming from your surroundings when there is really no one else but you. Now, after spending a whole summer in Wilderness and wild places, getting lost while bush wacking because I lost the GPS and when trying to find it also losing my crew, or singing loudly when walking over to the latrine in the dawn, I guess I have a better understanding of what kind of solitude Jack was talking about back then. And my answer now is that to truly experience solitude in Wilderness and what uncontrolled, self-willed and wild mean, you have to be alone, to embrace the solitude coming from your surroundings within you. Even if it’s just for the short, but dark, walk to the latrine.