It's the first day of September, and I'm near the top of the high pass just south of home, on the road to Yellowstone. It's 33 degrees and snowing. Snowing fiercely, in fact - big sheets of hard flakes snapping back and forth in the wind. Of course whatever falls will melt away soon enough; autumn, after all, has plenty of warm breath still in its chest. Even so, standing here in this little blizzard I'm reminded how satisfying it is to have big sweeps of land like this that close down for much of the year, soon to be shut fast until the end of May to all but a few handfuls of hardy skiers.
In the New York Times this week was an op-ed titled Aw, Wilderness, in which writer Ted Stroll laments federal agencies not expanding access to wilderness, arguing that the ban on "mechanical transport" was never meant to stop people "from using light mechanical assistance [such as mountain biking and wind-powered skiing] that leaves no lasting trace." In addition, he scolds the Forest Service for not being more faithful at erecting signs in the backcountry, claiming it a major safety issue.
With regard to his first point, as much as I love to mountain bike, the truth is that it's not uncommon on shared trails to have ill-timed meetings on blind corners with horses (this is especially dangerous), not to mention surprise run-ins with day hikers and backpackers. But my objections go beyond that. The term "mechanical assistance" means devices created to propel us more effortlessly and/or more quickly across the landscape. Very handy, very fun. Yet both that lessening of effort, as well as the quickening of speed, have absolutely nothing to with the ninety year-long long flowering of heritage, ecology and desire that in 1964 gave birth to the Wilderness Act.
As for the issue of signage, across the thousands of miles of trails I've hiked there have certainly been times when I was frustrated by a missing or neglected sign. But wilderness was never supposed to be about having someone else keep me found. In most dictionaries the word "wilderness" has as one of its meanings "something bewildering," such as a landscape overwhelmingly vast. And let's face it. Signs can't get us even an inch closer to feelings like that.