Wilderness at 50, at 500, at 1,000


A narrow path leads to McClure’s Beach and to the ocean beyond. I walk down a steep incline, the landscape painted winter brown in a season without rain. Still, the creek talks, as the Miwok would have said before and after Sir Francis Drake arrived along this coast at the end of the sixteenth century and found it thickly populated and thriving nicely on abundant seafood. Right here, the California coast and the vast Pacific, which isn’t one bit pacific, today feels like wilderness to me.

I’m reminded that I don’t have to drive to Yosemite or the Ansel Adams Wilderness or the Desolation Wilderness—the names themselves tell much of the story—to get away from the trappings of civilization. I also know that I can enjoy wilderness without having to attend any of the events planned for 2014 by the Sierra Club and other stellar environmental organizations under the rubric, “Wilderness 50.”

Ever since 1964, when the federal government passed the Wilderness Act and created the National Wilderness Preservation System, the nation and the state of California, too, have felt it imperative to conserve and preserve the environment. More wilderness acres are protected now than in 1964, though the planet itself is more messed up and more endangered than ever before.

The Point Reyes Peninsula where I’m walking today has been fought over for at least 50 years by farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and developers with leaflets, slogans, petitions and at meetings both public and private. No one begs me to sign anything today or to go online and register a complaint about the closure of the national seashore, which happened in October and left Point Reyes Station bereft of tourists, much to the consternation of local merchants. The wilderness can mean big business and with it big government to keep hikers on trails and away from herds of elk. Rules come inevitably with a National Wilderness Preservation System.

Today the wild blue Pacific speaks for itself. I reach out and touch the ancient rocks on the coast that are warm in the sun and cold in the shade. I notice the bright green watercress choking the stream, and take delight knowing that schools of herring run on the other side of the peninsula, in Tomales Bay, and attract otter, seals and pelicans that aren’t yet endangered species.

I’m pulled out of my wild reverie by just two words—“get depressed”—that are tossed out to a friend by a hiker in shorts and a T-shirt and that remind me that wilderness and its abbreviated sister, the wild, have the power to act as a tonic. They did for Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond in the age of the Gold Rush and the coming of the railroads that decimated much of the continent.

Today is a day meant for me to travel back to a time before ranchers arrived here and put up fences, before Thoreau, Drake and the Miwok, when all I might see would be sky, rocks, ocean and grains of sand. I believe they’ll be here even if and when human beings disappear from the face of the earth—whether slowly from pollution or in a sudden catastrophe. 

Oddly enough, the thought doesn’t depress me, but gives me hope for wilderness at 50, at 500, at 1,000 as I turn away from the ocean, climb up the steep hillside to the parking lot, to my car and to the road that will take me home. 


Jonah Raskin lives in Santa Rosa. He’s a Sunday hiker and backpacker.