by Michael Engelhard
Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.
— Ortega y Gasset
As the old year fades from view, I am busy boxing up things for my move to Alaska. Sifting through detritus accumulated over the years, I try to decide what is essential, what is too heavy or bulky, what can be left behind. Stacks of discolored photos quickly distract me from my task. Lost in reveries I shuffle these mementos of a love affair with the Colorado Plateau, an affair that began more than two decades ago.
I was exploring the Southwest in 1982, as a tourist. Smitten with the sublime light, the uncluttered space, the convoluted canyons and silk-and-steel rivers, I decided to live there some day. Life had other plans, but I kept gravitating toward the red rock gardens, where Moab became a haven of sorts. Eventually, I moved there for good. Following my conviction that a perfectly sized town is one in which everything—including wilderness—lies within easy walking or biking distance, I settled in Moab on the tail end of the uranium-mining boom. I felt fortunate, as this muscular and reclusive landscape became not only my home but also my workplace. During summers, I spent more days on the Colorado and its tributaries than in town. My working outfit as a river guide consisted of sandals and shorts. Peoples’ faces often lit up with envy when I asked them to step into my “office,” the raft.
Too soon, I became aware that the Promised Land—like many other places these days—suffered from industrial encroachment and greed. The West’s troubled legacy revealed itself in cattle grazing the canyons inside a National Monument—“Escowlante.” Thumper trucks explored for oil, destroying delicate soils and vegetation bordering Canyonlands National Park. Politicians supported proposals to extract and process oil shale along the Green River’s marvelous Desolation Canyon. Commerce and people in garish outfits discovered my hideout, pronouncing Moab the Mountain Biking Capital of the West. For the longest time I denied living in a resort town, even when the annual Jeep Safari forced me and many other residents to flee town for a week to avoid traffic and the attendant mayhem.
In synch with rising visitor numbers, the wealthy started to buy second homes in town. Property prices and taxes rose accordingly, forever placing the dream of a little shack of my own beyond reach. The cost of some frou-frou coffee drinks soon began to equal half the hourly wage dirt bags and river rats like me made in service industry jobs—naturally without benefits. Moab lacked a shoe repair place, affordable health care and housing, a food co-op, noise control . . . Instead it sprouted real estate offices, T-shirt and “art” boutiques, motels and gas stations, jeep, bike, and boat rentals. Mountain and road bikers rubbed sweaty shoulders with hikers, climbers, jeepers, base jumpers, skydivers, kayakers, rafters, golfers, and vintage car lovers. They all rubbed my nerve endings raw. They drank dry the bars, clogged the river and canyons. The off season—welcomed by many locals as a change of pace and reminder of why they had chosen this town in the first place—shrank year by year, cropped at both ends by mountain unicycle festivals and other bogus events. It got harder and harder to escape unwanted company in the Best of Beyond. I often wished my domicile could be famous (if famous it must be) for record-breaking pumpkins or the nation’s oldest hay barn.
Revisiting a favorite haunt in the Escalante watershed the first time in ten years, I was appalled by the changes. Foot trails cut through crypto-biotic soil carpets, betraying people’s laziness, their need to shortcut across canyon meanders. They had not simply trampled single tracks but whole networks into each knobby surface. Some morons had clearly misread the BLM’s plea to leave behind nothing but footprints. At popular campsites, which appeared strangely denuded even for this arid country, wooden signs directed visitors to pit toilets installed—and hopefully emptied—by monument staff. The voices of nearby campers echoed around slickrock bends, undermining the privacy for which I had hoped. Aluminum pull-tabs and charcoal from illegal campfires had replaced the arrowhead fragments, potsherds, and centuries-old corncobs once safe in alcove vaults. On Cedar Mesa, cameras now eyed ruins and rock art, trying to catch vandals in the act. Elsewhere, fences guarded petroglyph panels, and walkways channeled tour groups.
Faced with these changes, I realized for the first time that too many hikers degrade a wild place as easily—and permanently—as do too many cows. While it seems obvious and convenient to point fingers at off-road vehicle drivers, any sentient biped will have to admit that he or she is part of the problem. Homo ambulans, too, leaves nothing but traces and often takes peace and quiet from the backcountry.
Even the Four Corners’ Navajo reservation, which long had been spared the worst excess—perhaps due to its “Third World feel” and user-unfriendly permit system—now suffers tourism’s side effects. A few canyons became accessible with guides only after a flash flood killed eleven visitors, possibly to avoid costly search-and-rescue missions or even more expensive liability suits; about a dozen more canyons were recently closed to all outsiders. Sadly, non-Navajos hiking without permits, harassing livestock, littering, and disturbing archaeological ruins brought on these closures.
For years, I was still content to take paying customers down rivers and canyons. But I slowly realized that many, if not most of them, were only after the glossy skin, not the meat and bones, or—heavens forbid—the soul of a place. They considered wilderness a sort of outdoor gym-cum-tanning salon, a thrill ride with a picnic on the side, pretty scenery to write home about, or perhaps worst of all, just another checkmark on their bucket list of “adventures.” I’ve since heard of people who try to visit all fifty-nine U.S. national parks in fifty-nine days. My suggestion to them: spend fifty-nine days in one park—Grand Canyon or Gates of the Arctic. You might truly learn something.
One Moab river company did not hire me because I was too outspoken in my “environmental convictions.” Vacationers did not want to hear about mining or overgrazing or hydroelectric dams. They wanted rapids. They wanted fun. They wanted gourmet food, horseshoe games, solar showers, and, if possible, sleeping cots on the riverbank or a little “canyon magic”—to hook up with a blonde river guide. The manager told me I would set a bad example for the younger guides and that his company was “pro-growth.” Later I heard that a luxury tourism conglomerate had swallowed the outfit. The former Moabite and critic of industrial tourism, Edward Abbey, named the spiritual price paid by those who depend on it for their livelihood: “They must learn the automatic smile.” I had a hard time with that, though it cost me some tips and the goodwill of my boss. I reached the low point of my guiding life during a Marlboro Adventure Team trip, an event for winners of a contest to promote smoking and rugged individualism in countries in which advertising for tobacco products was still legal. I prepared myself for trouble when I saw the trip leader remove the motor rig’s spare outboard from its box, which he then filled with ciggies and booze. The organizers wanted us to flip boats in the whitewater to provide the cameramen on shore with footage for commercials aired in South America. Between rapids, they asked the paddle raft guides to tie on to a motor rig that dragged boatloads of macho, hung-over, helmeted conquistadors to the next “cool” spot.
Worst of all, though, I sensed, no, I knew I was part of the problem. My writing about the Four Corners’ besieged landscapes seemed to make little positive difference; simply educating the public would never provide a cure. As my Coyote Gulch visit had shown, the lofty goal of educating backcountry users about wilderness ethics and etiquette is based upon optimism with regards to human nature. Defaced rock art, scorched campfire rings, torn-out Wilderness Study Area markers, and fouled waterholes in even the most remote quarter quickly put dampers on such enthusiasm. I could not rid myself of the feeling that, by publicizing this region, I ultimately contributed to its defilement and destruction.
An argument can be made that public lands need to be used recreationally to ensure their continued protection and funding, to keep them from rapacious developers or corrupt politicos. On the other hand, more than three million visitors per year might easily enjoy the Grand Canyon to death. There are no easy solutions to this dilemma.
Some of the boxes that will hold desert keepsakes still have old addresses on them; I think half of all my belongings must be in transit or storage at any given time. When I see the labels, more bittersweet memories come rushing in. I’m reliving the anticipation and reluctance I felt when shipping these boxes off. Disenchanted with academic life at the postgraduate level, unwilling to objectify cultures, and unable to secure grant money for my Ph.D. project, I’d dropped out of school. There were few guide openings at the time for someone with limited experience and a great deal of competition for them. Opportunity called elsewhere, seconded by the desert’s siren song—I’d been offered an outdoor instructor position in a youth program in Arizona. With my moorings already cut, I followed the current. The rest is river history.
I am aware that moving to Alaska—the destination for these packed boxes—is not a solution. The political climate in the Last Frontier State closely resembles that of the Beehive State. As a latter-day itinerant, I will become part of the problem there—it can’t be avoided. But approaching middle age, I feel that time is running out. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, I simply don’t wish to grow old without wild country to be old in.
While moving to Alaska in mid-winter seems unwise, I cannot think of a better place to start the New Year—or a new chapter in life. Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let summers be buggy. And let us hope we can keep some places wild.
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.
(photo credit: Melissa Guy)