Pacific Northwest Trail, Mont. • What’s a person to do in a crazy summer when our president endorses a candidate who claims the world is controlled by a “global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles,” when federal agents club a Navy veteran protesting peacefully, when the government delays postal services to impede voting (and thereby kills chicks sent in the mail)?
Take a hike.
For wilderness therapy, I came here to Montana to escape the hubbub and embrace the mountains, to sip from creeks, to sleep under the stars, to negotiate with honest interlocutors, like grizzly bears.
Over seven years, my daughter, Caroline, and I hiked the entire 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, running from Mexico to Canada on the West coast. So with that trail behind us, we’ve started another adventure — hiking the newest of America’s grand trails.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed legislation creating the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail — known informally as the Pacific Northwest Trail. It runs from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, hugging the Canadian border, but it sometimes exists more on paper than on the ground.
Some 1,200 miles long, the Pacific Northwest Trail was cobbled together from existing trails and forest roads, so every now and then you get to the end of a trail and the guidebook tells you: Bushwhack seven miles until you get to the next trail.
That’s what happened to us on a Montana mountain called Northwest Peak. We forged our own trail and cowboy camped that night on a high (and freezing) ridge above timberline — soothed at night by a spectacular sunset to our west, and awoken by an even more vivid palette of reds to the east.
We then hiked and crawled over boulders along a knife edge of a ridge, thousand-foot drops on each side. It was terrifying and exhilarating to see a pebble skitter from your feet and plunge down — forever. It was some of the toughest hiking I’ve ever done on any trail (partly because there wasn’t a trail), and also some of the most glorious. This is why the Pacific Northwest Trail is often called “America’s wildest trail.”
I backpack every summer because it’s wonderful family time, when none of us can be distracted by phones, emails or screens, when we share the camaraderie of blisters and bugs — and awe. My wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and Caroline’s boyfriend, Adam Ellis Harper, joined the journey this year.
The wilderness is restorative for the soul. Hikers are enveloped by silence, and there is time to think: It is the opposite of Twitter.
(Grizzly bears may be the Montana equivalent of Twitter trolls, but we carried bear bells to deter them and bear spray to subdue them into civility; it is less acceptable to administer bear spray on noxious beasts of the internet.)
In the wilderness, one appreciates just how vast America’s public spaces are. Some 28% of our country is owned by the federal government — by you and me — and we hiked for days at a time from Montana into Idaho without seeing any road, building or person.
When Woody Guthrie sang “This Land is Your Land,” he could have been speaking literally about America’s 640 million acres of federal lands. While the top 1% in the United States now enjoy greater net worth than the bottom 90%, these shared public lands offer an antidote to that inequity.
Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people of all time, with wealth accumulating recently at a rate of more than $300 million per day, but there are typically no fees and you have as much access as he does to this public wilderness. The sublime vistas and icy rains (we encountered both) are, in the wild, oblivious to wealth and privilege, humbling everyone.
The wilderness reminds us that we humans are temporary custodians of lands held in trust for future generations. Wild places accentuate geological time, reassuring us that present crises will pass — but also impressing upon us the need to address long-term assaults that would be irreversible.
That includes what Outside Magazine has called “Donald Trump’s War on Public Lands,” shrinking protections and handing them over to oil or coal companies.
An even greater threat to wilderness comes from climate change, resulting in forest fires and vast stretches of woods devoured by bark beetles. California has already seen more acres burned this year than in all of 2019.
There are few ways in which our actions today will affect our planet 10,000 years from now, long after names like Trump have faded into oblivion, but our carbon emissions will do so.
So I return from the wilderness refreshed as well as aching; I may lose toenails but my soul is healed. And I saw the significance of that political fray I was escaping. Trees that were alive when Lewis and Clark journeyed west were scarred by 4-inch grizzly claws, but they were even more threatened by Washington politicians who ignore the science of climate.
The wilderness awes us, freezes us, teaches us; it reminds us of forces and values larger than ourselves. Let the wild spaces inspire our efforts in this election cycle by underscoring what is at stake not only in the next four years but also over the next four millenniums.