Outdoor trips into the backcountry are special for a multitude of reasons. Some of those reasons are for things that are in the wilderness itself—like pristine vistas and contact with primeval nature. Other reasons to go to the wilderness are for what’s not in the backcountry. In the wilderness, the ubiquitous conveniences of modern life are stripped away, and we enjoy for a time a life more rugged and simplified. One of the most impactful conveniences that goes missing in the backcountry, for instance, is Wi-Fi and cell service for our smartphones and internet devices.
Now, in our everyday modern lives in civilization, we get accustomed to having this technology omnipresent, and internet access is only ever a few swipes and clicks away. This access to instant information has changed the way we live and relate to each other. For example, if we have a pondering or a debate with someone over a fact, we can easily whip out our phones and fact-check via the internet. Swipe, click. Information accessed. Case closed.
But in the backcountry, we don’t have this luxury…or, maybe this curse. Without ready access to the internet, countless intellectual debates of ours remain unanswered while on trail in the wilderness. And without on-screen entertainment to control our minds, we find plenty of time to banter with those around us. Quite naturally, a lot of questions will arise and small arguments will develop as to which certain facts are true or not from such conversational chitchat. On the trail, we find ourselves thrust back into the dark ages of when all we had available for the reference of knowledge was our own mere speculation on the subject.
But the speculation is often the funnest part, even more so than finding out the answer. Such speculation forms much of the conversation building among a group, especially in wilderness travel. Without a definite answer available immediately from the inter-webs, we are free to sit around and banter without fear of the subject being put to rest definitively and prematurely. The point, after all, is not to figure out what is the technical difference between a fruit and a vegetable, if water is wet or not, or if ‘funnest’ is actually a word. The point is to use these meandering conversations to build rapport with your fellows.
If you come across a burning question on your backcountry trip, you’ll just have to delay the satisfaction of finding out the answer until later. Delayed gratification in finding out an answer can really build the anticipation of finally knowing. Or, maybe you’ll just forget the question entirely by the time you emerge back into civilization. And just maybe, when you do find out the answer to that question you’ve been wondering about for so long, you will all of a sudden be flooded with nostalgia for the trip and all the conversations that occurred on it.
But then there is the realm of ponderings beyond what the internet can prove to be true or not. These ponderings arise on wilderness trips, but also in civilized life as well. We as a culture have become so accustomed to having our questions answered so quickly and easily by a quick Google search that we take knowing things with certainty for granted. But on some matters, the internet just has no say whatsoever. It remains silent, no matter how much you Google search. Some parts of life’s mysteries just have to remain unanswerable. This is myth. This is folklore. And this stuff is interesting. While on a wilderness trip, or in everyday life, the speculative conversation may turn towards the legendary side of things. This is where tall-tales really take off. Why doesn’t Camp Widjiwagan, for instance, travel to the Sturgeon Narrows anymore? Are they haunted, as some say, or just patrolled by unwelcoming locals? And is Nye Cabin really haunted? Have spooky things happened in that cabin, caused by the lingering ghost of old-timer Bud Nye? Or is it just your imagination? Either way, the internet remains silent.
As much as you’d search and search, the internet will provide no information on the matter. These fables are folklore only. Unprovable, but still growing more magical and mysterious by the speculative banter and hearsay surrounding them. They are the stuff of myth and legend. And I remain very happy that in some parts of life, there are places where the internet can’t touch.
There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed…. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild…. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
The explorer sets foot into deeply drifted snow. His foot sinks in drastically. Step after strenuous step, disappearing into the piled white drift. He has been breaking ground for miles. No human traffic has ever plodded this course before, it appears to him. No tracks lead the way, no trail is to be found. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer. The explorer pauses and glances behind him. A meandering line of post-hole marks reveal the way he has traveled. He has broken new ground, leaving tracks for future others to follow. But at this moment he is profoundly isolated, deeply embossed in the awareness of his lonesome situation. No human has trod here before. It is a spiritually awakening experience.
Except that this is not the real story of our explorer. The deep snow covers over the facts of the situation. Our intrepid voyager is not actually far from civilization, nor is he navigating somewhere no one else has been before. In reality, he is on a well-used path, a popular trail. His feelings of solitude and accomplishment are the result of the recent snowfall across the landscape, which has erased all marks of this path being a well-traveled route. Though he may not be as much of a trailblazer as he imagines himself to be, the sentiment which the situation has produced is what’s truly significant. He mythologizes his status as an explorer in his psyche.
Perceiving oneself as a trailblazer is an elevating experience, giving a sense of one’s own agency and accomplishment in navigating this world. Wilderness travel frequently produces this mentality in individuals. The wilderness, or even merely unmanicured nature, is a setting where the marks of modern civilization are absent, or at the very least harder to notice. To spend time out in the wilds is to put yourself into a situation where you are disjoined from your routine life, a place where the tracks of any forbearer’s presence goes unobserved. You go there to be pushed out of your normal element, to challenge yourself and come back a different person. You go there to break new ground.
The wildlands of America have tracks and trails abounding. Our wilderness is a well-traveled place. Yet millions of users visit these lands every year, and still leave them without revealing a trace as to their passing. Sharing a responsible use ethic of wild lands is what preserves the illusion of isolation and pioneering for future travelers. It is near impossible to say that you have encountered a place where no human has ever stepped foot before, and quite debatable if there remains any place on earth untouched by human presence. But whether you are the first to visit or the millionth, these wild places leave you with the feeling that you are perhaps the first. The wilderness setting invokes a sort of primeval satisfaction deep within you that you alone are independent, that you are indeed a trailblazer.
This is one of the feelings that keeps bringing me back to wild places. I am not the first to pass this way. I know that. But out in the backcountry, out in the forests, out on the rivers, out in the mountains, out in the deep snow it sure seems like I am the first.