Here’s the prompt: “what do public lands mean to you?”
Here’s the reply:
Someone’s got to say it. Sometimes a venture out into our public lands leads to a whole lot of misery. There are ticks, mosquitos, mountain lions, and bears out there. Oh my. Things go bump in the night, and when you are a twelve-year old and Dad decides to leave you in a tent while he hikes to a different lake to fish, and suddenly it gets dark outside, the situation can become all-out, flashlight-bearspray-pocketknife wielding panic.
And then you get older, and it doesn’t get better. You may find yourself miles from camp, midway up a nameless peak, with Jack Frost doing his best to steal your nose, fingers, and toes. Or you can be walking through a high-grass trail in rainy Katmai National Park, and suddenly a ten-foot tall brown bear stands up 15 yards away from you, eliciting a most unwelcome bowel movement on your part (okay, so I am making up the bowel movement, but you get the idea).
It can be worse in yet another way: sometimes it can be flat out boring. The fishing can die in the middle of the day, the salty snacks can all run out, and you may find yourself half-mindedly poking a flickering fire with a stick, miles and miles and miles away from a flickering screen filling your brain with infotainment.
It makes you contemplate that existentialist question: “what am I doing here?” But the question is stripped of any broad metaphysical interpretation. It isn’t a contemplation of existence or your place in the universe. Instead, you are simply asking what are you doing here—because right now, standing under a ponderosa pine and getting sap in your hair during this midsummer, midafternoon hailstorm is a pretty miserable experience.
Take, for example, an ill-fated hunting trip I went on over ten years ago. My dad had pulled me out of school for a week to go elk hunting. After a night feasting around a fire, one of our friends just had to go and shoot a cow elk far in the backcountry. The previous night’s feast had gone horribly awry with the introduction of someone’s seafood salad, and most us were suffering from a bout of food poisoning that next day. I had abstained from that dish, and was therefore the most capable of running errands up and down the ridge. I hiked a few miles and a few thousand feet up and down from camp to the kill site three times that day. My father was not as lucky with the seafood, and while sick helped clean the downed elk, tucked deep in a finger gulch below the ridge. It was cold, and the afternoon eventually turned into night. It was a rare year where we had friends with horses to help, but they did not arrive until two in the morning. Until then we had to wait. We sat there hungry, shivering, and exhausted. All I could think of was how much I wanted a Mountain Dew.
Eventually the horses arrived. We strapped the elk over the backs of the horses, and our friends proceeded to lead them up the steep slope. We were at 9,000 feet of elevation, far from any light pollution with temperatures in the teens. The stars looked like pinheads of light that I could reach out and pluck from the sky. The horses—with the men leading them—were silhouetted against this background of stars, with the big dipper behind them. The slope was steep and rocky, and the horses’ shoes created showers of sparks on the rocks.
It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
We made it up to the ridge and followed the horses down. Although I could feel the blisters on my heel, I couldn’t feel my toes. My legs were cramping. And when we finally got back to camp, someone had drunk the last Mountain Dew.
So why are you here, in our public lands? Why am I here? What do they mean to me? I won’t spout quotes from Thoreau, Leopold, or Abbey at you (although I suggest reading all of them, they have far more profound insights than I can give). I could say that outdoor humor writer Patrick F. McManus likely got it right when he titled his first collection “A Fine and Pleasant Misery,” but that also misses the mark for me. I could wax poetic and patriotic about our collective American identity with wild places, S’mores, and flags; but after a while that really starts to feel disingenuous.
Maybe that’s the key word: genuine. As the Google eloquently defines it: “truly what something is said to be, authentic.”
When going out in the woods ends up sucking, it genuinely ends up sucking. When out of something miserable comes something beautiful, it is something genuinely beautiful. Our public lands are the only place I have ever found that kind of genuine beauty. And out of all the oddball, miserable experiences, I have found other genuine moments. I’ve discovered who I am in the most genuine sense; out There, nobody knows or cares if I made it to the top of that unnamed mountain, or if the fish I caught was 20 inches or 6 inches. But I can care. I can be honest with myself. I can return from our public lands and tell stories and have memories of stars and sparks and Mountain Dew. And who is anyone without their stories? Sure, there are the tales of misery and woe, but there can be nothing good without the bad. For every fall day soured by soaked feet in a marsh, there is a spring day with a Western Meadowlark singing its song. For every summer day choking on forest fire smoke, there is a powder day that means classes might have to wait. In our public lands, everything is there: the good, the bad, the boring, and the beautiful. And because they are our lands, we can all share in the stories—you and me.
So to answer that question about what public lands mean to me, I would have to genuinely reply: “everything.”