A Last (Relatively) Wild Place

I’ve been listening to Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Hearing his descriptions of the desert remind me of the not insignificant amount of time I’ve spent in southeast Utah: Moab, Castle Valley, Arches, Glen Canyon. The best dream I ever had was set in the desert. I was flying around the rust and orange colored sandstone towers. While in a trailer in Castle Valley (in real life), after watching Waking Life for the first time, I had another top five dream during which I discovered and climbed in a hidden unknown boulder field. Adventure. Freedom. The desert. Wilderness.

But I don’t live anywhere near anything even remotely desert-like now, and having my own kids makes me want to stick close to home. But there is wilderness. Quite close: the Linville Gorge.

The first time I climbed near there was as a teenager. I thought I was real cool, skipping the homecoming dance to go climb at Looking Glass Rock. As if I had a date or something! But I didn’t climb at any of the crags of Linville Gorge until 2008.

As I hiked in to Shortoff Mountain, a crag on the southern end of the gorge, I was surprised to see wilderness signs. I was still snooty about the West being tremendously more spectacular in terms of natural beauty and wide open spaces. Under the spell of bigger is grander. Appalachia at that time always seemed second best compared to Utah or Colorado.

But I have had some magical moments there over the years with close friends and family. It feels remote and isolated. The climbs are relatively long, up to 700 feet. At Shortoff, in particular, I’ve never seen more than two other groups of climbers. Table Mountain and the Amphitheater are more popular, but they’re easier to access.

So it was with great irritation and anger that I realized Linville had been revealed as a kind of last wild place by a major outdoor magazine (that will not garner any further promo from this post). The anger was propelled by a strange sound. After a particularly magical full day of climbing there in October 2017, as my partners and I were hiking back to the parking lot, we heard it. I thought it was a two stroke motorcycle engine from far away (like beyond the border of the wilderness). But no. It was a DRONE.

Talk about harshing a mellow. Along with the amazingly annoying sound of some amateur idiot capturing video of my hike for a few likes on Facebook, we saw crowds of preppy dressed college age children who were, apparently, partying? Their tiny speakers were blasting, of all things, mariachi music. There were places that had piles of webbing, evidence of slack liners. (May they soon find their sport severely limited thanks to the messes they leave behind). Noise pollution, visual pollution, and the specter of social media performance hanging over my pure outdoor experience like a loose cornice.

What would Ed Abbey say? He might remark on the commodification of outdoor experience. Or maybe despoilment by folks interested in getting a cool picture rather than a deep relationship with the mountains. He might ask whether or not we have to promote the use of the outdoors in order to preserve public land.

And promotion is in effect. I’m just as guilty: soon after I got home I posted a few pictures to Instagram and wrote a short piece intended for publication in my alma mater’s climbing journal. (It wasn’t published but you can read it here). The person with the drone likely posted footage or pics that are unique in angle. But in general I worry about the demystification of outdoor spaces.

Drone footage is cool, no doubt. Just look at Renan Ozturk’s Instagram feed. And I love that folks without access to some incredible places such as those with physical handicaps and financial hardship can get a front row seat to the spectacularness of the world we live in. I don’t doubt it could encourage a conservation ethic in certain viewers.

But what is lost? Aldo Leopoldo once said, “To what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” Where is the mystery and wonder if the world’s most secret beauties are revealed? How does understanding of the sacred change when everywhere is equally (visually) accessible?

I admit these questions are theoretical. I know that even after I thoroughly search high and low on the Internet in preparation for an adventure I still have great potential for revelation of unexpected joy and wonder (and screwing up royally): I’ve had it happen at Linville despite the existence of Mountainproject.com, a site that supplies tons of information on climbs and everything that you might encounter on them. But what’s different since Ed Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire* is that a glut of information and images are constantly available as the outdoorsy person’s default. And that can change the orientation people have to the world they live in.

And I’m going to be the cranky old(er) man fussing about it all. And I’m going to scroll quickly past any social media video that seems like it was captured with a drone.

*Other weaknesses of Ed Abbey are well written about in other places: here is a recent example. Other critiques would accurately (and importantly) acknowledge that all this recreation takes place on stolen land.

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