Dogwood at Nelder Grove - Deanna Wulff

Dogwood at Nelder Grove – Deanna Wulff

It’s difficult to guard a secret for most of your life and then tell everyone about it. I didn’t even tell my fiancé about it, until we had known each other for a year. I didn’t want him to think I was too “out there.”

It’s as if I’m describing someone else’s life. In high school, I had closets full of clothes, I’d curl my hair just exactly so, and I’d wear nylons with matching flats and belts every day. I was even voted “most likely to make a million.”

And that was the plan.


High School Student, Waitress at Wawona, Ranger

But that particular plan began to unravel when I realized that it didn’t matter if I had all the money in the world, if I sold my life in exchange for it. You get one life, and that’s it. This realization led to another question or two: What makes people happy? What makes life worth living? I chose to study journalism, because I could ask anyone whatever I wanted under the guise of a story. I was looking for hints from our best and brightest. Still, when I finished my degree, I’d only gained a surface understanding of it all, so I applied to get a Master’s Degree in literature. Perhaps, our greatest writers could explain life’s mysteries.

That’s when things took an unexpected turn.

The South Fork of the Merced River

The South Fork of the Merced River

My parents balked at paying for another liberal arts degree. My grades were fair, but not good enough for a scholarship, and I wasn’t willing to acquire debt. So how would I pay for graduate school? I walked through the student union, and there was a career fair. Tenaya Lodge, a resort on the south side of Yosemite, was offering summer jobs. I applied and got the job. Off I went.

When I arrived, I rented a room from a couple who I didn’t know. I soon learned that they had problems with drugs and alcohol, and they argued a lot. I referred to them, as Mr. Six-Pack, and Mrs. Bottle of Wine. One day, the police had been called. Six-Pack had threatened to drag Wine off into the woods and kill her. He had crashed his car into her friend’s vehicle too. Time to get out of there. Pronto. I packed my bags, scribbled a quick goodbye note, left a $50 check for extraneous bills and headed out into the night. The problem was—I had no place to go. I called my mom, and she paid for a hotel that first night.

The Sierra National Forest - Nelder Grove

The Sierra National Forest

The very next day, I went into the woods and pitched a tent. I stored my clothes in a locker at the lodge and showered there. I would work until late at night and then drive out into the darkness to sleep in a flimsy nylon contraption. Initially, I was terrified. I would grip a cooking pot and a bottle of laundry bleach each night. My plan, if attacked? I would hit the intruder with the pot and throw bleach in his eyes. But nothing bad ever happened. Instead, something wonderful happened. I would awake to the smell of pine, to the mellifluous sounds of a nearby stream, to warm sun draping through boughs of trees, to birds singing and chipmunks scurrying along. In a month, I never felt happier or more beautiful in my life. So I came back the next summer and the next. Each time, I felt as if the light of all living things was flowing through me. It was pure joy. I did return to finish graduate school, but my real education came from the woods. I decided that the wilderness was worth knowing better.

Again, off I went.

After the Rim Fire

The Stanislaus Forest after the Rim Fire

Fast forward nearly 20 years. I’ve explored the American West relentlessly, and in all that time, I’ve only grown a deeper admiration for the original place. Its quiet beauty infuses my soul with peace and contentment. Upon my return, however, I noticed its neglect—big trees gone, soil eroded, land overrun. It’s been logged, mined and seldom given the care it needs. Then, I witnessed the Rim Fire. I watched as the northern portion of Yosemite and the Stanislaus Forest went up in flames, and I realized that the forest on the southern side might suffer the same fate too—and if isn’t cared for, no one will get to experience the power and beauty of the forest, as I did.

So how do we save the forest on the southern side of Yosemite?

We change the policy at the highest level via a national monument designation. With a Presidential Proclamation, we can protect more than 500,000 acres, two major watersheds, hundreds of Indian artifacts, unique geological formations and the lovely delicate forest. In doing so, we can extend nature’s reach.

View of the Sierra National Forest from North Fork San Joaquin River - Photo by David Husted

View of the Sierra National Forest from the North Fork San Joaquin River – Photo by David Husted

People will be able to walk from the Central Valley up into the High Sierra and beyond in a peaceful  undeveloped setting. We’re starting near the Minarets, the high peaks in the region, the spiritual pinnacles, and we’re going to grow outward from there. If you’d like to join in the creation of this special place, contact me via email or donate to the Minarets Foundation.

Let’s build a big beautiful park for people and for wildlife for all time.

Tell it on the mountainMy boyfriend has been having trouble sleeping lately. Since he has barely slept in the past two days, I suggested that we watch a “boring” movie about hiking. I even remarked, “This will put you to sleep for certain,” and we started to watch Tell It on the Mountain, a story of seven people’s journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600 mile trek from Mexico to Canada. But once the film started, my beau didn’t check his iPad, his iPhone, his wristwatch or anything else for that matter. He sat engrossed in the film, witnessing the evolution of seven individuals as they marched along one of the most beautiful and rugged sections of the American West. He even insisted that we watch the movie to the end – staying up late with his eyes wide open – not drooping a second – until the film ended.

What’s remarkable about this film is its quiet grace. Producer Shaun Carrigan and Director Lisa Diener did not mar the pristine landscape with personal tragedy – in order to dramatize the scenery – one of the aspects of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild that upset so many hikers. The filmmakers did not get lost in the mire of self-hood and sulking, so popular with memoirs these days. Instead, they told deeply personal stories about life outside, keeping their focus on the scenery and the human expressions of delight, fear, pain and happiness.

pctThat took incredible skill. The film touched on many themes, which I’ve struggled to articulate myself: the freedom and beauty that envelopes the very soul and heart of hikers, the sense of individualism and unity that comes with walking alone and with others, and the incredible feeling of being alive and connected to the wild landscape. With only the essentials on your mind and beauty before your eyes, you forget all about the material world with its excess and ugliness and instead are free to examine yourself, your life and the mountain skyline.

A year or so ago, I tried to explain to my book editor that writing a confessional about my life – was not what I was intending – because it would put me before the most beautiful thing that I’ve come to know, and that’s backwards. The wilderness is the primary thing, the first and best thing we have in America. While I’m still sorting out exactly how to express that, Carrigan and Diener got it exactly right in this film. They told great stories, seven of them, and they effectively enshrined the wilderness as a sacred place and life on the trail as a spiritual, physical and mental odyssey. It’s a triumph. Bravo.

Watch it – rather than the big game.

We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.John Hope Franklin

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is the object of relentless derision. Critics complain about her drug addiction, her sex addiction, her infidelities and her overwhelming grief. One reviewer writes: “This is not so much a book about hiking the PCT as it is her own catharsis: her father brutalizing her and her family, the death of her mother, her heroin addiction, and the final straw for me: the graphic murder of a beloved horse (it made me ill). And the hiking of the trail? She’s lucky to be alive. Don’t take notes. She’s Adventure HIker Faded Edgesill prepared, and with the aid of strangers, who provide rides, showers and food, she ‘makes it.’ I was not inspired. Just saddened.”

After reading such comments, I was determined to avoid her book. Why read a memoir that brings personal horror into the holy temple of the American Wilderness, which I personally cherish?

But I kept hearing women chatting about it. They would mention it to me at parties, or I’d catch a phrase from strangers passing by. Try as I may to avoid the book, it kept coming into my life, so I finally bought a copy and read it all the way through.

And yes, her critics are right; Strayed includes every painful detail of her life, down to the heroin-induced scar on her ankle, which was fresh the day she started hiking the PCT. But Strayed also takes her readers up and down mountains and successfully articulates the satisfaction of simple shelter and a solid meal and the way wandering in the wild makes you crave sweet soda and greasy fries, and thankful for a sunny day, a hot shower and a cold beer. Yes, she barely survives the PCT, but that’s the point. Backpacking takes grit and determination, and it hurts, just like life. And it’s wonderful, just like life.

Strayed’s critics need to a giant step back (or forward) and consider the underlying theme.

Consider that Strayed spent the next 15 years learning to write in order to tell this story. Consider that she highlighted the three months that she walked in the wilderness—above all. Consider that on the PCT, she began to recover from her overwhelming grief at that loss of her closest ally, her mother. Consider that by interspersing flashbacks of death, sex and shooting up, she effectively enshrines the haven of the natural world. Her walk in wilderness was the single most powerful and redemptive experience in her life, and it took guts to put her foibles into a book and publish it for all to see. That’s brave, not sad. I wrote my own hiking book for someone just like Strayed – to point my finger at the best places I know and to share beauty with people who most need it.

What saddened me about her book was just one thing. In her Acknowledgements, she forgot to thank the wilderness itself, without which, there would be no journey, no story to tell, no redemption, no place for her children to visit and reflect. So many people spend their weekends enjoying parks, forests and open space and so few work to protect them, and they’re under threat all the time. We’ve allowed rampant logging in our national forests, and what’s left of them seems to be on fire. In California, clear-cutting is still widespread, and in Oregon, where Strayed lives, it’s worse. Just fly to Portland and look down.

Strayed is a beautiful writer, she’s amazingly honest, and she’s achieved something good with this book, despite the barbs. I respect her accomplishment and her tremendous recovery. She’s absolutely headed in the right direction; she’s simply not gone far enough, not near far enough.

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.―Mahatma Gandhi 


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