Photo by Emily Sullivan (@emelex) in Chugach State Park, Alaska (Unceded Dena’ina lands)
This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2022 Trail Break issue.
We human beings have an extraordinary capacity for envisioning a better world. In the midst of a crushing heat wave, the air filled with exhaust, the noise of jackhammers and chainsaws, and the smoke of a half dozen wildfires, we can imagine drifting snow. We can imagine healthy watersheds teeming with wildlife. We can imagine birdsong, glaciers, stately whitebarks standing strong against a winter sky. We can imagine the long, switchbacking climb to the col, the view across countless unbroken ranges, the wind cold on our cheeks, that first sweet turn down into the gully. We can imagine half the Earth set aside for the ancient ways, a perfect counterbalance to our penchant for invention and mechanization.
And yet here we are: divided and cynical. Millions of us have become obsessed with a version of freedom so narrow and impoverished that it includes only ourselves, each of us like a packrat alone and wretched in his respective burrow, waiting for the thieves to come. One man wants to push his ski resort to the Wilderness boundary at the base of the Tetons. Another wants to build a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon. One wants to hold back the last drops of snowmelt to keep his houseboat afloat (seriously, check Blue Ribbon Coalition’s proposal for Lake Powell). Another will structure the cosmos around his gods-given right to drive his machine to the headwaters of every river.
Occasionally, when the threat is clear and simple, we stand up and say no. We save Red Lady, Bonanza Flat, Lookout Peak on the Stanislaus, maybe Moose Mountain, maybe Teton Canyon, maybe Bears Ears, maybe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Otherwise, to keep our sanity as the winters grow shorter and as the pines cede more and more territory to the desert, we tell ourselves these things are out of our control. What can we do about any of it anyway?
Not long ago I heard marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on the radio talking about the need for us to radically re-envision our future relationship with the natural world. “We know what we’re supposed to do,” she said, “in that same way that we know that things are out of balance, on a cellular level.” What holds us back, she argued, is essentially a failure of imagination. “We don’t spend enough time talking about the future we could have, engaging our imaginations and envisioning a world where we actually implement all these climate solutions we already have.”
If you’re holding this little magazine, reading these little words, you know exactly what that future looks like. You can see it and feel it. And you know where to find it. Right there is our greatest collective hope for a better world. Hang onto it. Share it with as many people as you can. There’s a lot of work to be done. But together, we can keep each other stoked and on track. Together, we can turn our best and wildest visions into a thriving planet we can all live and play and ski on.