My string of Grateful Dead shows are numerous enough that "What a long, strange trip it’s been" comes pretty naturally in describing aspects of my life.
Long ago, stepping away from a business I’d created, I needed to describe why I was pursuing conservation work as a career. Rather than rational thought, my response was always anchored on an image, my first ascent of Chamberlain Divide, in the winter of 1984. We were skiing north from Galena Summit to Slate Creek, a weeklong twisty route through the high peaks of the White Clouds. As we climbed the divide, the majesty of Castle Peak-covered in bright alpenglow of sunset-was revealed.
The looming splendor of the mountain that evening changed my life. I was already obsessed with the history of the mine for Castle Peak and the fight to save the White Clouds. Wilderness in 1984 was one of the state’s most active policy debates. Later that summer, I would testify on behalf of this wilderness before the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time. In 2015, I would testify on the Boulder-White Clouds before the U.S. Senate for the last time.
A few days ago, I climbed that same ridge with Rep. Mike Simpson. For over 15 years, Simpson has worked to protect the Boulder and White Cloud mountains as wilderness, accepting a challenge that the Idaho Conservation League, in part, handed him the first time he joined our annual conference at Redfish Lake in 1999. This challenge could have cost him his seat. Certainly many questioned his quixotic quest. No longer.
This is not the place to describe, "What a long, strange trip it’s been." Others have told the story well. Maybe all I can do right now is describe some of the feelings I felt, standing with Rep. Simpson on the Chamberlain Divide staring in awe at Castle Peak. I felt gratitude.
Another night, camped at the foot of the range’s highest peak, our entourage gathered in a circle. With a little something special to warm the glass and belly-and maybe loosen our tongues-we talked about the work that brought us together. We talked about the work of those before us-those who stopped the mine. We talked of moments in the long campaign where we could have given up, but never did. We also talked about the people who’ll sit in that very place, generations in the future.
The next day, high on the east flank of Castle Peak, on another divide, I took the group to a campsite where I’d stayed a few nights in 2014. Today, perched up high at my past camp, with the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service Tom Tidwell, my friend Forest Service ranger Ed Cannady and a few others, we could see all three of the newly designated units of the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. To suggest I was not overcome, maybe more than just a bit, would be disingenuous. I had to look down and clear my eyes.
Literally at my feet was an arrowhead. I reached down to lift the finely worked point. The tip was broken, but otherwise it was intact. Suddenly the long trip was rightfully made longer. Deeper. More expansive. We are not alone. Protection of this landscape? We can’t begin to know now what it will mean tomorrow. But I believe it’s right and good. To my core, I believe that. Nearby there used to be a sign that said, "Take only memories. Leave only footprints." The arrowhead returned to the land.
Just before heading out, Rep. Simpson sat long on a lakeside rock, gazing at Castle Peak. Others were ready to go, but he was not. A few minutes later, arm on my shoulder, he said, "At this age, you never know if you’ll see such a thing again." I thought of my first visit, on that winter night and everything that had followed. You never know.
Howard Zahniser was a citizen who helped write and pass the Wilderness Act. He wrote, "We are not slowing down a force that will destroy all wilderness there is. We are generating another force, never to be wholly spent, that, renewed generation after generation, will always be effective at preserving wilderness. We are not fighting progress. We are making it. We are not dealing with a vanishing wilderness. We are working for a wilderness forever."
A long trip indeed. May we all treasure our journeys wherever they may take us.