To commemorate the anniversary of the Wilderness Act and to reflect on the significance of wild lands in our overly mechanized and technology-driven lives, I spent three days at the National Wilderness Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last October. My Missoula friend Jimmy Grant and I co-presented on the relationship between mountain running and wilderness. I’d like to share the text of my talk:
If you poll mountain runners on what lures them to the trail, I wager the majority will express a love for the outdoors and wild lands. They will likely speak of their experiences in the backcountry and affinity for conservation. All this makes sense. Trail runners understand that we need open spaces and healthy wild lands to do what we do. We need to safeguard access to the trails that we use every day.
But we also recognize on a deeper level the intrinsic connection between mountain running and wilderness. It’s worth reflecting on that relationship.
When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, officially designating America’s wild forested areas as wilderness, it deliberately defined wilderness as places “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” As we’ve heard over again at this conference, Howard Zahniser selected the term untrammeled deliberately: a trammel is a net used to catch birds and fish, so untrammeled, as he understood it, meant free, unbounded, unhampered, and unchecked. Mountain running is as suited to this wilderness definition than any other activity I know. The freedom of the runner is unmatched: she moves on her own two feet, carrying the bare minimum, free to scan the terrain in front of her and to venture to places that might be more difficult to reach if on a mule or carrying a large backpack. The runner’s encounter with wilderness is brief, as it should be, reflecting the idea that wilderness welcomes our arrival but is also grateful for our departure.
At the time the Wilderness Act passed in the mid-60s, mountain running was not the popular form of activity that it is today. The widespread popularity of running in the mountains, canyons, deserts, and forests of the nation’s wild lands post-dates the Wilderness Act.
That said, the rise and popularity of mountain running is not an aberration. “Runner” is an apt descriptor of our species. We are told that humans were “born to run,” that through most of our history we outran prey using our long legs and wily brains to outlast nearly every other animal. And we know intuitively that we are not mere foreigners in wilderness. Wilderness to us is not just an abstract concept for our species: it is, rather, profoundly familiar. Our species was born in and thrived in the wild for generations.
While Aldo Leopold, in A Sand County Almanac, makes no mention of wilderness running, he does say that “wilderness areas are, first of all, a means of perpetuating, in sport form, the more primitive skills in pioneering travel and subsistence.” He specifically mentions canoe travel and the pack train. Is running, too, a primitive activity that we ought wish to keep alive? Again quoting Leopold: “I shall not debate it. Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old.”
Getting out in wilderness is undeniably an impulse deep in our bones, our inner core. Consider how modern life is changing us as a species, severing our relationship to the natural world. Now we are conditioned to see nature as a conquest or personal playground, not as our natal home. In his classic text The Tree John Fowles worries that we see ourselves as masters of neatly organizing nature. We divide and categorize according to how it serves us or meets our needs and expectations. We act as though we are isolated and independent, separate from and above the natural processes that govern other species.
And when we do get outside, we strive to control all the variables. I am certainly guilty when running in wilderness of obsessing over temperature, gear, route, and the strength of my legs. And I’m not alone—many runners I know approach the sport methodically. We map our routes, carefully craft plans for weekend excursions, count the number of gels needed to move our bodies up and over mountains. We compare times and study data from GPS watches.
Running does suit the analytical—our earliest ancestors developed large frontal lobes after years of thinking while running to catch prey. To order, classify, and understand what we see, touch, and feel is human. But when I am too analytical in my approach, when I attempt to organize to the point of self-obsession, when I remove all risk—then I find my experience wanting. Running in wilderness ought to be—and in my experience often is—an act of surrender, of letting go, to the embrace of the natural world.
Mountain runners run for many reasons—to compete, train, stay fit, lose weight, socialize, “get out” in nature, de-stress. I run for some of these and may admit as much. But when out on the trail, in that meditative trance, I inevitably return to the primary reason I run. It is a transport to my inner being.
Many a mountain runner has experienced the peaceful gliding on a trail, mind and body in perfect sync with earth underfoot. Breathing becomes rhythmic—beating to nature’s pulse—and the mind eases into a meditative reverie. Runners may be inclined to believe we’ve tapped into something primal here. We would be right to so assume. Running reconnects us to what is deeply ingrained in our species: the rhythms and mystery of the natural world and our interdependence with it.
For me, it provides a bridge between the modern, comfortable life and the wild and sometimes fearsome world that still pulses in my body. It is my practice, my ritual. The experience can be uncomfortable—even outright painful—exposed as I am to the elements and the weakness of my body. But as I go with intentionality, allured by the landscape, I position myself to surrender to what unfolds. I have at times listened to mountain runners speak of their trail experiences in reverent tones: of the scenery’s sublimity, the heart-stopping mountain vistas, the revelations that come, unbidden, in those quiet moments when the mind ceases its prattle and opens to the deeper stirrings of soul. These moments are otherworldly, even religious. It is here that we feel a presence larger than our little selves.
Some critics of running in wilderness may contend that runners move too quickly, hardly savoring the subtleties of the landscape. Running in that sense is not like the more slow and deliberate activities of hiking or backpacking or canoeing or pack training. But that the sensory experience of running differs from those other forms of wilderness activity ought not to delegitimize it. Running can be a profoundly powerful experience. We think by feeling. We smile, let out a yelp, revel in the breeze and the heat bearing down. This is what it feels like to be alive. The reservoir of knowledge lies deep within the shadows of subconscious if we but bravely burrow deep enough to uncover it.
Not too many weeks ago I ran Lone Peak, one of the more rugged peaks along the Wasatch range. Granite protrudes like a sentinel, affording a bit of scrambling near the summit. Broken pieces of the mountain rock lay strewn everywhere—hardly the soft single track trail that mountain runners generally cherish. Wilderness along the Wasatch Front, where I now live, affords a rugged, solitary, wild experience as well as any place I have known. Here is a place, within minutes of a major city, where one can go to get away if not from the sight at least from the sound of civilization. I’ve hiked Lone Peak before, but running it with only a handheld water bottle and my little schnauzer at my side was an experience I shall not forget.
These experiences keep me—and many runners I know—coming back to the wild, to those places unfamiliar yet familiar, to our beginnings, our yearnings . . . our home. Most mountain runners I meet recognize experientially what all humans must “know” intuitively (but perhaps have forgotten)—that we must return to wild lands for renewal. While we might not remain there, we must make time to return. We perceive the value of wilderness, of Edward Abbey’s idea “that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.”