Posted by: trevormeers | April 29, 2011

“Take 200 Square Miles Of This & Call Me Next Week”

Both my dad and a plaque in a sandwich shop brought this little parable to my attention recently, which seems like proof enough that it’s onto something: A vacationing businessman starts chatting up a local fisherman dangling his line off the edge of the dock and asks how the local spends his time. The fisherman says, “I wake up in my little cottage, have breakfast with my family, come down here and fish all day, talk with my friends, then go home and have dinner with the family and read a book before I go to bed.”

My friend Mike, who appreciates the wilderness tonic as much as anyone I know, stares into a Utah campfire.

Wheels turning in his head, the tourist says, “You know, if you worked a little harder and smarter, you could increase what you catch every day, then invest in a boat. If you worked really hard then, you’d start making enough to buy a few more boats and really start pumping out revenue. Before long, you’d have enough to retire early.”

The executive gazes wistfully out to sea. “Just think of it,” he says. “Retiring early so you could enjoy the simple life. Can you imagine succeeding like that?”

“Sure,” says the fisherman as he reels in his line for another cast. “I think I can imagine it.”

It’s a tricky thing, this American Dream. We showed up on this continent and went to work trading our comfort, youth and very lives for the opportunity to wrest what we considered a dream civilization from the wilderness. Today, our lives exceed by a couple of orders of magnitude what our pioneer forerunners envisioned as they gazed out at vast prairies and forests and said, “Someday, ma. Someday, there will be a country here where our great-grandkids won’t have to work so hard.”

Sure enough, we don’t (apologies to those of you still cutting your own firewood, growing your own food, sewing your own clothes, cooking everything from scratch and worrying constantly about rain/wind/snow/insect attacks). And now that we sit on the greatest store of leisure time in human history, we’ve chosen to devote most of it to watching TV, sending text messages and wondering why we just don’t quite feel satisfied.

Even in the 1950s, when the American Dream had the pedal to the floor, canoe guide and author Sigurd Olson noticed that his clients from the cities were frustrated, unhappy and vaguely repressed over the idea of no longer relying on their own abilities for simple survival. Hoping for a remedy, Olson wrote, they seek out the wilderness “once a month or once a year as a sick man might go to his physician.” Decades later, some Hollywood screenwriter connected the same dots by having Curly tell visiting dudes in City Slickers, “You spend 50 weeks a year gettin’ knots in yer rope, and you figure two weeks up here’ll untie ‘em for you.”

Sigurd and Curly both knew this is asking a lot of a getaway shoehorned between frantic checks of e-mail as the cell signal fades in and out of range. But it’s a dose of medicine I consider indispensable. To millions of Americans raised within the safe confines of pavement and 24-hour grocery stores, it seems more than a little archaic to worry that a soft existence leeches away something essential to our character. But smarter people then me have worried over what becomes of Americans who drift away from the strenuous life—and this was before anyone had even laid eyes on suburbs or shopping malls.

Teddy Roosevelt (who, had he been born a century later, probably would’ve been reigned in with ADD meds before he ever hit his stride) fretted that Americans were slipping into “flabbiness” and “slothful ease.” In his view, living close to nature promoted “that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.” Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted looked at urban life and said, “We grow more and more artificial day by day.” And that came (in 1881) from observing a world still without movies, TV, internet, recorded music or Kardashians.

Stacked rocks known as "cairns," the minimalist's version of trail signs.

And the fact is, there’s proof that the wilderness fix actually works. In the 1970s, a doctor at Oregon State Hospital took 51 chronic mental patients on a two-week wilderness trip, where they practiced backpacking, rock-climbing and rafting. Some of the patients had been institutionalized for a decade. But stoked with new self-confidence and respect, half the patients were able to leave the hospital after their adventure, and most of the others showed significant improvement. (For an in-depth look at all the evidence for the outdoors’ positive impact on people, see Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.)

I bring all this up now because I’m currently stuffing my backpack for a run to a place that’s 50 miles from the nearest electricity and running water. This befuddles people every time they hear about it. One person, upon hearing about a men’s group I was taking to the desert in the name of a little quiet Bible study and spiritual focus, asked, “Couldn’t you just do the same study in a conference room at home and save all that trouble?” You could. And you could also save a trip to the symphony by listening to Beethoven over the AM radio and door speakers of a ’72 Vega.

I recognize that my time in the wild is merely dabbling in the kiddie pool edition of The Wilderness Way. I follow maps made from airplanes and satellites, cook food packaged in a factory and stay dry inside coats made weatherproof with some lab-invented substance. I’m not ready to permanently trade hot showers and take-out Chinese for a loin cloth and hatchet. And if someone left a time machine in my driveway tomorrow, I wouldn’t go back full-time, mainly for family medical reasons explained in this post written during hard times last summer.

But none of that minimizes the remedial value of regular doses of wilderness. It is, in fact, the artful melding of civilization and backcountry that brings the most satisfaction. As Sigurd Olson wrote, “Only through my own personal contact with civilization had I learned to value the advantages of solitude.”

Toward the end of most trips into the wilderness, someone throws their backpack into the trailer and sighs, “Time to go back to the real world, I guess.” Sometimes it has been me. But the truth is, it’s these sojourns in the quiet places that I’m counting on to ensure I never lose focus on what’s actually real.



  1. Thanks Trevor….now I get to spend the rest of the evening thinking about you rolling thru the countryside while rockin’ a loin cloth and hatchet!

  2. You are wise beyond your years, Trevor! Something in us craves time to appreciate the work of our Creator. Another well written piece!

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