Non-FictionWinter 2023

In and Out of the Wilderness — Nathaniel Van Yperen

I sat naked on a rock. The high mountain stream cut a rough channel, collecting in a pool above a small waterfall. I stared blankly at beads of water on my knee. Several hours in the Flathead National Forest had gotten me close to the Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary. We know ourselves in new ways going uphill under the burden of a fifty-pound pack. I felt like some crust had fallen away. Thunder rumbled, the wind picked up from the west, and the sky grew dark. I entered the water again.

Laid back in the cold, I thought about Bob Marshall’s conservation values: the physical, mental, and aesthetic dimensions of the wilderness. [1] I thought about how this solo trip was a choice to step away from societal safety nets. I wanted to trust and to risk myself at the same time. Yet I also knew that my presence there, at the edge of the wilderness, was itself problematic. I looked like most of the other environmental ethicists I knew or studied: white, male, straight, highly educated, middle-class, and suburban dwelling. Was my love of the wild pushing me into a wilderness of cliches? I came up gasping for air.

The first raindrops began to fall just as I pulled the last of my gear under the tarp. I reminded myself why I followed Marshall to the Montanan wilderness named for him. Marshall died some 60 years before I was born, but I counted him a friend. A forester, author, philanthropist, and co-founder of the Wilderness Society, Marshall’s conservation legacy was secure in history, but its relevance was regularly dismissed by philosophers as a well-intentioned but misguided anthropocentrism characteristic of the 1930s. His critics worried that we go to the wilderness for solitude, escape, connection, recreation—whateverwe go for ourselves. In other words, the wilderness is reduced to the medium and, often, the substance of our consumption. I asked myself: was I just proving their point on this solo trip? I knew Marshall’s 19th century defense of wilderness wasn’t enough, but I believed that we weren’t better off without him. I couldn’t shake the conviction that it wasn’t wrong to love the earth in species-specific ways. But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that parts of his defense undercut his own argument. I was on Bob’s team, but I wanted to pick a fight with him. Bob and I were going to have a friendly disagreement, out in the wilderness, born out of our shared love of the wild.

Water ran down the guy lines. Under the tarp, I recorded in my notebook a few encounters from the hike in. I noted the smiling young couple whose Rottweiler lunged and snapped its jaws a few inches from my forearm. I noted the dejected fly fisherman limping home after “blowing out his calf,” and the young ranger who laughed when I told him I began my day in New Jersey. I noted the woman squatting by a tree, and how we were decent and pretended not to see one another. In his journals, which he kept throughout his life, Marshall kept track of the details. In the basement archives of the Saranac Free Library, I had poured over numerous notebooks in Marshall’s careful, looping, adolescent handwriting that included full rules of play, standings, and detailed statistics of all the players in his high school summer baseball league at his Adirondack Jewish family camp, Knollwood. On a research visit to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, I was overwhelmed by the variety and sheer number of lists in the archival collection of Marshall’s papers. Perusing his notebooks and journals, I found lists ranking mountain vistas, hotels and boarding houses, fellow foresters, and even male and female acquaintances. Pages upon pages of small 5×3 inch field notebooks were filled with detailed reports of daily schedules and lists of people he met during his hikes and travels. There were even tallies of the number of times conversation partners used different terms of vulgarity, ranging from “God” to “cocksucker.” Marshall paid attention. I was too tired to write much, so I slid into my solo bivy. The creek swelled from the rain. It sounded like a dinner party that was beginning to get out of hand.

I laid on top of the sleeping bag, dozing and sweating in my nylon cocoon. When I woke a few hours later, the rain had passed, so I crawled out into the cool night air. The stars were on full display. I recalled a passage from Marshall: “In a civilization which requires most lives to be passed amid inordinate dissonance, pressure and intrusion, the chance of retiring now and then to the quietude and privacy of sylvan haunts becomes for some people a psychic necessity.”[2] Back in the libraries, Marshall’s lines had struck me as romantic, in a prose style that seemed to be trying hard, and failing, to keep up with Thoreau. Standing in the dark, however, under the big Montana skies, I couldn’t help but identify with his sentiment. A neglected sense of self was arising again in this wild space.


The trail rose through open, rocky fields to a cool and misty coniferous alpine forest, punctuated with the craggy whitebark pine tree, an essential and imperiled food source for grizzlies. The sun was still low in the east, so the forest on the western ridge felt mystical, mythological. Shafts of light penetrated the early morning gloom. The ancients believed that mountains were the domain of the gods, and on that morning the woods felt alive with spirits. I skirted the edge of a ravine and climbed to a col where a wooden sign marked the wilderness boundary. I crossed over.

Emerging from the forest into the open light of the col, I encountered an immense view. The soft glow of the morning light glanced off alpine snow fields and illuminated a wide range of greens, blues, and purples on the mountains and valleys that filled my view. I dropped my pack and dug into it in search of my notes. I tipped the pack over. It looked like a green beetle stuck on its back. I sat down on it and took in the river valley that extended for miles to the east, framed by steep and jagged peaks. It was a postcard. It was an indulgent and gaudy advertisement for Montana. If Eden had mountains, this was it. I knew, better than most, all the problems with calling an American wilderness Eden. The modern idea of wilderness as uninhabited and pristine Nature was bound to histories of forced migrations, broken treaties, and the sadistic, federal predator control campaigns of the West. But in that moment of sunrise over a mountain landscape, it was hard to find the right words. The romantic ones sprung to mind first, and they troubled me.

I found the lines I was looking for: “One looks from the outside at works of art and architecture, listens from the outside to music or poetry. But when one looks at and listens to wilderness he is encompassed by his experience of beauty, lives in the midst of his esthetic universe.”[3] Bob must have been looking, or thinking, about a view like this one when he wrote his forester’s version of the sublime. On his view, the aesthete confronts a majesty of a landscape capable of evoking both awe and terror for the significance of our insignificance.

“There can be no extraneous thoughts,” Marshall wrote. One “has only one sensation left and that is exquisiteness.”[4] Maybe it was too early in the trip, but even with the scale of the natural beauty, I couldn’t connect to Marshall’s aesthetic description. Frankly, it annoyed me. I was looking for a mode of participation and Marshall’s aesthetics locked me into the role of ecstatic observer. It was too romantic, too anthropocentric. He had teed up his critics. He had cut us out at the knees. “Really, Bob?” I said aloud. The sudden sound of my voice roused a grouse bedded down a few feet away. It was brown, mottled with white on the shoulder and chest, a line of orange for eyeliner. I asked the bird, “What does it really mean to be encompassed by natural beauty?” The grouse scurried into the underbrush. I waited for an answer that didn’t come.

I could not get a Woody Guthrie song out of my head, which seemed fine (there are worse things), but it was a reminder that culture was looping through my experience of the wild present. I was still me in that wild place, of course, and this fact pushed back against the imagined purity of Bob’s aesthetic value of the wilderness. The landscape surely evoked a sense of wonder, yet my mind was simultaneously flooded with “extraneous” thoughts.

Am I wasting too much time in the col? Who were the native people who traveled these spaces before backpackers like me? Where are the bears? Should I follow the trail or bushwhack to the glacial lake off to the south? Do I have enough water to reach the valley below?

Before I left for The Bob, I wrote a quick note to the grizzly expert and writer, Doug Peacock. I had interviewed Doug some years back and we had been in touch a few times since. I wanted to know if he had recommendations for my itinerary. “The Bob is heavily outfitted,” he wrote. “You’ll have to get off the trail if you want to see any wildlife.” As a hiker of eastern forests, I didn’t fully comprehend his warning. When planning my trip, I didn’t understand the degree to which The Bob was impacted by pack animals who transported affluent fly fishermen and their gear deep into the wilderness. On the trail, Doug’s advice gradually morphed into a charge that amplified my questions about the purity of experience in Marshall’s aesthetics. I fantasized about leaving the trail and finding my own way, bushwhacking alone in the wild like Peacock and Marshall before me, through the thickets to where the wolves, grizzlies, and cougars lived their lives in simplicity and by necessity. Sitting on my pack, looking out into the expanse of The Bob, I hesitated. The desire for authenticity became a kind of weight, a mental burden I couldn’t shake. I felt pressure to have an extraordinary adventure. I felt like I was on the line. In the ivory towers of the academic year, the wild infused my imagination, my teaching, and my scholarship, and I yearned for wilderness during my daily suburban routines. If there was any time to be encompassed by natural beauty, this was it.

Bob, too, seemed to be egging me on in the sentences I had so carefully underlined, there unfolded on my lap: “As long as we prize individuality and competence it is imperative to provide the opportunity for complete self-sufficiency.” Marshall had some good support. Many of the great independent thinkers—Confucius, Lao Tzu, Miriam, Jesus, Thoreau—all found independence and insight in the wild and wilderness. Moses and Muhammad removed to their mountains.

I wanted to answer the siren call of the solo bushwhack, to leave the trail and find a more authentic mode of encountering the physical, mental, and aesthetic values that Bob laid out so formulaically is his defense of the wilderness. Was the trail symbolic of well-trod habits of mind that were preventing me from new and creative thought? Did it symbolize a commitment to domesticity, or a weakness of will, even out here in a federally designated wilderness? Then, I thought of my small children back home. I worried about worrying my partner. As I sat on my pack looking over the expanse of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I struggled to accept that I was a disciple who stopped short. I couldn’t leave everything behind, and I felt a small sense of loss and disappointment. I chose the trail instead.

Twenty miles deeper, I had worked myself into a lather. The entangled anxieties that began the day had been blunted by the repetition of rocky steps along the long trail to the river. The South Fork of the Flathead was at its late summer levels, so a wide bed of exposed rocks lined the steady flow of dark blue water. The rocks ranged from the size of quarters to basketballs, worn smooth over the years—some in pastels of blue, lavender, orange, red—spread out in a sea of gray. I dropped my pack by a downed tree. I stripped, hobbled over the loose rocks, and entered a deep, slow-moving pool of the river. The water was cold. I waded until it covered my shoulders. I faced upriver, arms outstretched, and closed my eyes. The labor of the day was done, and it felt good. I stood there for a long time, focusing on how the water coursed around the contours of my weary body and I bid farewell to the voices in my head, releasing them to float away on the slow current. Later, I slept a deep and empty sleep.


The sun was high when I reached the confluence of a tributary and the South Fork. The trail disappeared into the water and so I spent some time walking the bank, looking for a way to cross. In my search, I came upon a small but deep pool below two large boulders. I put together my old Winston four-piece fly rod and tied on a yellow humpy. I casted the fly just below the waterfall and let it drift down the short run, gathering the slack in the line as it floated back to me. There was a vicious splash and the primal force of the fish bent the rod as it dove to the depths. I played out the line, but I was careful not to let him hit the strong current that ran down to the next pool. A few moments later, I held in my hands a most beautiful creature—17 inches of gleaming gold, its throat slashed with a flash of crimson and orange—a native cutthroat trout. I whispered a word of gratitude and held him gently in the shallows until he kicked back to the depths. Caught and released. I rock hopped across the tributary. At the junction, I chose the longer, less traveled path and left the pack trail behind.


My mind went to prayer. Alone, deep in the wilderness, I began to speak through my experience, narrating hopes and anxieties, wrestling with past demons, forecasting possibilities with a new sense of freedom. I spoke my prayers aloud as I moved in a flow state of hiking. I was warm and alive. Somewhere between a jog and a walk, I glided through the brush along the packed earth of the increasingly narrow and overgrown trail.

Then, in a moment, my flow state of prayers and steps was arrested by a sapling. It stood waist high, broken with a point. It was the width of a pencil and the sharp point of the spear was wrapped in a tuft of tan and brown fur. I stood still and tried to slow my breathing. Listening. I took a few steps further to see a large pile of fresh scat, full of huckleberry seeds recently harvested from the bushes on the overgrown trail ahead. I found myself in a swirling constellation of the physical, mental, and aesthetic dimensions of presence. I was more than Bob’s aesthetic observer. I was a participant, a citizen, an undersized mammal—alone in a thicket in grizzly territory. I was dependent upon the conditions of a world that I did not create and could not control. This place did not exist for me. My senses were turned up. I was displaced. It felt dangerous, liminal, right.


The bulky backpacking gear made me stand out among the New Jersey commuters. As the train pulled away from the airport station, I pulled Bob’s essay out of my pack and skimmed my notes one last time. At the Edison stop, an immaculately dressed man claimed a seat opposite the aisle. He was about my age in a sharp black suit, playful blue socks, and expensive brown leather shoes. I looked like him on other days. As the train started to move, I thought about how Bob died of heart failure in a railway car in his 38th year. My 39th year suddenly felt like borrowed time, so, for a few moments, I paid attention to the beats of my heart. I felt like an animal, back from the wild edge. The man across the aisle reflexively checked his yarmulke and opened his briefcase. To my surprise and then delight, he removed a bright red bandana—the kind you would see on a cowboy. Laying it flat, he smoothed, folded, and then carefully tied the bandana over his eyes. A few stops later, I left him sleeping on the train and drove home to my family.

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[1] Robert Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” The Scientific Monthly (February 1930): 141-148.

[2] Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” p. 143.

[3] Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” p. 145.

[4] Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” p. 145.

The author is grateful for the support of a grant from the Wilderness Institute’s Matthew Hansen Endowment for Wilderness Studies at the University of Montana and research funding through The Pennington School. Rick Bass, Ret Talbot, Daniel Ball, and Dan Hassert provided invaluable feedback.


Nathaniel Van Yperen lives in central New Jersey with his spouse, two children, dog, and backyard chickens. He is the author of Gratitude for the Wild: Christian Ethics in the Wilderness (Lexington, 2019) and several essays. His writing focuses on wildness, place, and the intersection of social and ecological ethics. He teaches courses in the humanities at The Pennington School.


The author: Debra Marquart