Wilderness at 50: The Mountains Are Empty

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To celebrate, Orion will publish special articles in print and online, including a multi-part series of personal perspectives on wilderness, the first of which is below. Orion is a sponsor of the National Wilderness Conference, to be held from October 15 – 19 in New Mexico; learn more about the conference here.

I was born in 1964, the year the Wilderness Act was signed. As a result, maybe, I’ve always felt a sense of ownership, or at least association. I grew up near wilderness, balancing in canoe seats at five years old, carrying a backpack the immense distance of one mile. As a ranger, twenty-five-years old and under-fueled by a diet of Pop-Tarts and Snickers, I charged up trails looking hard for outlaws. I cleared the downfall of thick-waisted trees, chopping for hours with a double-bit axe. If there was another tent at the lake I came to at day’s end, I moved on to the next lake. I didn’t want to share.

I wanted wilderness all to myself, and I had earned it, I thought, by virtue of the trash I carried out, my backpack sometimes swelling to ninety pounds on the last day of a hitch. I hoped that people, with their propensity for littering and pooping indiscriminately, would stay away and quit messing things up. Wilderness was a twin sister I had to protect with a ranger’s shovel and ticket book, and I went to sleep enraged by the sight of trenches dug near tents and branches hacked off at eye-level, a sort of human browse line.

But that was years ago. Where I live now, the mountains are empty. The trails, unused, are covered over by tall grasses. Everyone stays home, enraptured by their gadgets, people my age declaring they’re too old to sleep on the ground.

This is what I thought I wanted—solitude—but it’s a bittersweet feeling. The fact is, I miss the people. I miss the conversations over the low roar of a Whisperlite stove, the maps pulled out mid-trail, the charge of possibility as strangers and I debated: Could we get over that pass? Cross that river?

As the people go, so, too, do the easy abilities of youth. At fifty, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to hoist heavy packs to the alpine basin. But I’ll continue to try, because in wilderness I’ve always found my better self. We’ve looked out for each other: me with a shovel and trash bag, wilderness with lessons I needed to learn. I hope now that, at fifty, wilderness can teach lessons about resilience and grace we’ll all need as we move into an uncertain future.

Mary Emerick first went backpacking at age five. Since then she has been a wilderness ranger, wildland firefighter, and recreation planner for the Forest Service from Alaska to Florida. She currently lives and writes from a log cabin in the Wallowa Mountains in Joseph, Oregon.


  1. Hi Mary,
    I found your personal blog touching:” The trails,unused, are covered over by tall grasses…’ It does, sadly, seem that the gulf between humans and the rest of the natural world continues to grow wider. But, it also has me thinking: is there a way that you can take your love of the mountains and your experience and bring it to those in their twenties or thirties, who may not be hiking there out of lack of knowledge or experience of the terrain? I guess reading all the perspectives in Orion magazine makes me also want to look for the opportunities to help others reconnect to “their better selves” within nature in any way I can. Thank you for your blog!

  2. I spend a lot of time in the mountains. Soon, I’ll be leaving for the WInd Rivers. I wonder if some areas are over-used while others are under-used due to word of mouth/exposure by the media. It remains to be seen what we will find, but I’ve heard that certain areas are very crowded.
    Overrun trails–is that a sign of less hikers or less government money to maintain trails?
    Part of me wishes for more people in the back country–more people means more support politically and financially. Part of me enjoys the solitude. It’s a knife edge that we walk. In the end, I would like to see more young people and more people of color finding themselves in the wilderness. Wilderness is the real world, too many of us think malls are the real world. Anyway, just rambling thoughts that your blog has brought up… Thank you for writing.

  3. Could be the best thing to ever happen to Wilderness…”Love it or leave it alone.” Or the worst thing, because if no one’s watching, Wilderness can be destroyed and stolen for profits. The Wilderness Act came about because of staunch supporters who were hikers, climbers, and people who spent the majority of their days in and around Wilderness. Without anything more than a bunch of city supporters who themselves don’t even visit much anymore, who will come to the defense of Wilderness the next time with the same vigor that Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold did before us?

  4. More young people outdoors near, but not
    inside wilderness, is a concept I put forth in my Ski Trails book(2008)especially the Edges chapter. Here in N. central WA, surrounded by Park and Wilderness, we’re doing our best to provide such edge opportunities with a trail system and lodging, from Hostel to 4 star, handy nearby. MVSTA -Methow Valley Sport Trails Association.

Commenting on this item is closed.