The Geography of Hope: The Incompatible Ideals of Wilderness and Industrialized Tourism

This essay is about wilderness character, geotagging/location sharing; and overcrowding/vandalizing of public lands. Many articles have been published denouncing location-sharing due to their overcrowding and vandalizing. This essay is a rebuttal to those opinion pieces which advise readers to “keep on geotagging” while suggesting that those who enjoy wilderness character are elitist. I welcome your comments and feedback.

Ivanpah-Panorama
It’s late May on the Mojave Desert. The air temperatures and weather this spring have been remarkably unseasonable. Palm Springs, California is normally sizzling this month but in a few days it will record its coolest May on record. It’s been an extraordinary spring: the wildflower explosions; the millions of butterflies and bees (oh, the Painted Ladies!); and the gazillion pounds of biota respond in kind to a bountiful winter. Strangely, there is no longer a drought. This place is alive. I’m alive – a very happy and content desert explorer.

I arrived at the foot of the range mid-afternoon to long shadows. This place has a National in its designation, but being far from services, gasoline, lodging, and notable icons in the world of social media, the cooing Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebes, and Phainopeplas and I have it all to ourselves. I plan to climb up high on the craggy ridge and traverse its length, returning to my truck from the opposite side of the ridge. I’m not sure what I’ll find along the way but I expect magic; it’s always there. The 360-degree views from the top are stunning; I can see an uncountable number of mountain ranges and into three different United states from my high vantage (there are five mountain ranges visible in the above image; the site for this journal). It’s breathtaking; I could cry. I should cry. The cackling White-throated Swifts and desert wind are the only people I see and sounds I hear (birds are my people). Except for my own, no human or vehicle is within miles of me. This is exactly why I am here. This might be terrifying for many, but this is my sanity and world peace. This urge is merely evolutionary and biological; I never suppressed it. I feel whole and alive.

A remarkable thing happened to the United States in late 1964. The passage of The Wilderness Act sought to assure that an “increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition”. The Act further defined “wilderness” as “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean….retaining its primeval character and influence, without….human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions….. [and] has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation”.

In summary, the 1964 Wilderness Act set aside protected lands to retain their primeval character and natural conditions (a rather abstract and lofty concept for a nation hellbent on “progress” and sacking money). Secondly, it recognized the need for human-untrammeled lands and solitude (for the mutual benefits of both wildlife and humans). Sadly, The Wilderness Act arrived too late for the central and eastern United States but it allowed for the protection of much of western U.S. wildlands (U.S. Wilderness MAP) which draws millions of visitors from around the world (unfortunately, not all with the best of intentions).

In 1960, the great novelist Wallace Stegner wrote the now-famous “Wilderness Letter” to urge for the passage of the forthcoming Wilderness Act. Stegner deemed wilderness “an intangible and spiritual resource” which can offer “spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe”. It’s impossible to define what these are and how they feel unless you’ve allowed yourself to have this experience. Stegner continued to assert that wilderness is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.

Readers are surely aware of the recent spate of nuisance and destructive human behavior on public lands. It’s not just here in the Unites States – it’s happening everywhere (public lands and private). Everything from graffiti/tagging to illegal fires to rock stacking/cairn building to toppling prominent rock formations to trashing fields of wildflowers to outright habitat destruction. We don’t yet have any conclusive studies but many of us attribute it to the explosion of social media, geotagging, location sharing, and a very particular photo sharing platform for which people have proved willing to risk and take their lives for self-portraits (“selfies” in their vernacular). Many of us have repeatedly argued against sharing locations to help protect them from the destructive ways of humans; the F.O.M.O. Generation rails back with “elitist” and “racist”.

Let’s set the record straight: wilderness character is impossible to preserve if everyone is present. It’s not about keeping away any particular age, gender, or color –  I want to preserve that intangible and spiritual resource. It’s long gone when one is surrounded by crowds, antics, and chatter. If you enjoy crowds and socializing, great! Please go where those qualities exist (recommendations provided upon request) but please don’t be upset with those who wish to retain the natural character of wild places.

It’s true: we cannot save these places from industrial destruction if no one knows them or loves them. But we also can’t save them from industrialized recreation if they’re equally shared by all 330 million Americans and a few million tourists from abroad. This isn’t elitism or racism – it’s reality. I welcome you to find and share my sacred spaces with me but please don’t be upset because I don’t provide a name, waypoints, or an e-guide. Gumption, legs, and burning desire will get you high on this desert ridge; geotags are for the elite.

“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved – as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds – because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.” Wallace Stegner

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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