Parks and Recreation

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Original Air Date: 
July 24, 2016

"We live by wild mercy," Terry Tempest Williams writes. In this hour, she takes us to some of her favorite national parks, from Big Bend to Arches. We also explore the desert wilderness of Utah's Escalante area, and hear about a father and daughter's remarkable adventure into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Lauret Savoy says the American landscape also has a complicated history that can't be separated from the country's racism. And Robert Moor talks about the wisdom of trails.


Aidan Campbell was 15 when she butchered a caribou at -35 degrees. Now she's 17 and she's already made three trips deep into the Alaskan wilderness with her dad, James. They describe some of their hair-raising adventures into places that few people go. 

Desert at Joshua Tree

Losing yourself in wilderness can also be a way of finding yourself, and one place you can do that is in our national parks. Renowned nature writer Terry Tempest Williams reflects on her love for these parks โ€” especially those with desert landscapes.

A moonlit arch over Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Where do you go if you want to see dinosaur footprints, ancient rock art and remote desert wilderness? There's no better place than the Grand Staircase-Escalanate National Monument in southern Utah. Steve and Anne spent an afternoon exploring this area with nature guide Nate Waggoner.


Nature is more than pristine meadows and eroded canyons. There's also a history of how people have shaped and sometimes fought over the land. Lauret Savoy uncovers this shadow history and the racism that's embedded in the American landscape.

A path near Lake Wingra in Madison, Wisconsin.

Any hiker has to wonder about the trails they walk on. Who made them? And why does the trail follow this particular route? Robert Moor has traveled around the world exploring animal and fossil trails, and he's investigated ancient roads and neural networks. He says paths embody a deep wisdom.

Show Details ๐Ÿ“ป
July 24, 2016
May 28, 2017
Full Transcript ๐Ÿ“„

Aidan Campbell (00:23):

I butchered a caribou at 35 below with Yup'ik eskimo life Edna. And I remember this moment where she slid open the cavity and the caribou was steaming and the insides were steaming. And my hand was so cold I could barely hold the knife. It was shaking. And so she took my hands and she guided them into the opening. And when I withdrew them, they were wet with blood, but they were still, there were warm again. And I thought these are my hands. It was a really interesting experience.

Anne Strainchamps (00:56):

Aidan Campbell was just 15 years old when she butchered a caribou at -35 degrees. Today, she's 17. She's made three Alaskan wilderness trips with her father. I'm Anne Strainchamps. We've To The Best Of Our Knowledge. And what is it about wilderness that draws some people back again and again to the places that test the limits of their strength and endurance? James and Aidan Campbell are not your typical father and daughter and they've been places very few people go.

Aidan Campbell (01:27):

The Arctic national wildlife refuge is 20 million acres of raw wilderness. You have the mountains, you have the tundra, you have glacier fed rivers. It's beautiful, but it's also a very harsh landscape.

Anne Strainchamps (01:40):

How far away were you from other people?

James Campbell (01:43):

Well, we were about 300 miles northeast of Fairbanks so we were a long, long way away. I think the nearest village is Fort Yukon or Arctic Village and they were both about 120 miles away. So we were all by our lonesome.

Anne Strainchamps (01:59):

Wow. That's a long way to go for groceries.

Aidan Campbell (02:02):


Anne Strainchamps (02:03):

What do you eat?

Aidan Campbell (02:04):

Well, my favorite is caribou heart and I think that tastes like the best steak I've ever had. My least favorite was beaver tail. And my dad always says that it tastes like if you fry chicken in a pan, so take that, then take out the chicken and then that Crisco, eat that. That's what beaver tail tastes like. I don't know, fatten Crisco.

James Campbell (02:29):

So we crave, we want lean meat down here, up there, particularly in winter, they want meat just loaded with fat. So they shoot the fattest moose, the fattest caribou.

Anne Strainchamps (02:40):

So what is living in those conditions, what does that change about your sense of your own body?

James Campbell (02:47):

Well, you certainly feel very, very vulnerable. You know that you're at the mercy of mother nature. The cold, the river ice, fall through the river ice, hypothermia, obviously just so many things can go wrong up there which makes you feel a very, very human and very expendable.

Anne Strainchamps (03:09):

I'm just thinking you're her dad. I mean, a parent's job is to keep their kids safe.

James Campbell (03:15):


Anne Strainchamps (03:16):

Are you crazy?

James Campbell (03:18):

Yeah, I understand. I was criticized for putting Aidan at risk, but we prepared long and hard for each trip and with Aidan, yeah, my burden of responsibility you can imagine was enormously high and that weighed on me psychologically, but the great thing was these trips were kind of rite of passage trips and an each trip I saw her become more comfortable, more self-reliant or composed and more confident.

Anne Strainchamps (03:52):

And Aidan, I can imagine that in these kinds of extreme conditions, your dad's, all his protective instincts would come out and he'd want to be really careful about the risks you took. So were there times when you would kind of push back and say no, I got this or back off.

Aidan Campbell (04:08):

There were certainly times where I had to take the lead and I was responsible for both of us particularly on that last trip when we were in the canoe together. And I was in the bow of the boat, which meant that I was the captain. I had to pick my line through the rapids and give instructions to my dad. And so initially I didn't know how to respond to that and I meekly whispered commands to him and he couldn't hear me over the roar of the river. And both of us were getting mad and we had many near collisions. And so finally, I just said, daddy, you're going to have to trust me. You're just going to have to let me follow my instincts and he did. And by the time we got to the Arctic Ocean, I was barking commands at my dad and I was the boss of that canoe.

Anne Strainchamps (04:52):

Aidan, what's the worst thing that happened on that trip or the riskiest, most dangerous thing?

Aidan Campbell (04:59):

I would probably say when we turned the canoe because it was incredibly cold that day. I was suddenly in the boat by myself. My dad had fallen out. I was still in the canoe. So I was trying to get the boat through the rapids. He was trying to get back to me and I didn't want it to capsize, of course, because then you lose your stuff, possibly the satellite phone. And then once we finally did get my dad back in the boat, he had hypothermia. And so I could see the progression, which was hard for me because I did not know how to help him. I told my dad, I said, we need to stop. We need to make a fire. We need to get you warm. He said no, let's go a little bit farther. And in that case, I think of fate and incredible luck. We actually discovered a native hunting cabin on the Arctic coast and so we took refuge there and I think that saved his life.

Anne Strainchamps (05:48):

Wow. So I have to say, I really love hearing stories like this. I think lots of people do. I don't want to do that. Do you enjoy it afterwards in the telling or do you actually enjoy it at the time?

Aidan Campbell (06:03):

There are periods where I was miserable but there are also periods where I felt the adventure and there are moments of wonder and joy. You feel alive when you're in the wilderness. And actually when I came home, I realized that I was no longer content because compared to Alaska, my life felt monotonous and I felt like something was missing.

James Campbell (06:25):

Aidan tells a funny story about my telling her, well, just enjoy the magnificence of this scenery.

Anne Strainchamps (06:35):

It must be something you heard a bunch.

Aidan Campbell (06:38):

Yes. When I was in the canoe and I was in the bow of the boat and I always had my eyes on the rapids coming ahead and the boulder gardens and I was trying to plan how we would navigate through. And my dad would be sitting in the back of the boat and he'd have his paddle up on the gunnels. And he'd be looking out over the mountains and he'd say, Aidan, just soak it up. You are in 20 million acres of raw wilderness. You will never see anything like this in your life. I'd say, yeah, dad, but watch the right. We're going to have some rapids coming up. Aidan, just relax for a second. Just give it a break. I want you to look around. So it definitely was a [inaudible 00:07:17]

Anne Strainchamps (07:17):

You probably felt like I'm keeping you alive.

Aidan Campbell (07:21):


James Campbell (07:21):

And she was.

Anne Strainchamps (07:28):

James and Aidan Campbell. You can read about their adventures in James's book, Braving It, a father, a daughter and an unforgettable journey into the Alaskan wild. You can also follow Aidan on her blog Gritty Gal. The idea that losing yourself in a million acres of untouched wilderness could also be a way of finding yourself. That's part of the rationale for America's national parks, but setting aside that much land as a public trust has been and still is controversial. Terry Tempest Williams is a nature writer and an activist on the front lines of the battle to protect public lands, especially in her native Utah. No one writes more beautifully about the emotional and spiritual value of wild places. And she's just come out with a new book about the national parks. This one's called The Hour of Land.

Terry Tempest Williams (08:23):

I was raised in the state of Utah where five national parks and seven national monuments are commonplace. We took them for granted. Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef were in our backyard. The land where our families gathered and we roamed free. We hiked the Zion narrows and escaped the flash flood. On that same trip, my brother and I camped against a red rock wall. And in the morning when we awoke, a boulder had fallen between us. In Capitol Reef, we picked peaches from orchards planted by Mormon pioneers. Natural bridges had the darkest star struck skies. The place where I almost died falling off a cliff with 136 stitches running down my forehead like a red river and the lifelong scar to prove it. We learned early on we live by wild mercy.

Terry Tempest Williams (09:17):

But it was standing inside Timpanogos Cave, a national monument as an eight year old girl that marked me. We hiked up the steep mountain trail that rises 1,000 feet from the valley floor. We were hiking with our church group from Salt Lake City, just an hour north. We reached the entrance of the cave and were ushered in by a park ranger. Amends, stalactites and stalagmites hung down from the ceiling and rose up from the floor declaring themselves teeth. We were inside the gaping mouth of an animal, but it was the great heart of Timpanogos Cave that captured my attention. When everyone else left the charismatic form, I stayed.

Terry Tempest Williams (10:00):

I needed more time to be closer to it. I wanted to touch the heart, run the palms of my hands on its side. Believing that if I did, I could better understand my own heart, which was invisible to me. Suddenly, I heard the heavy door slam and darkness clamped down. The group left without me. I was forgotten, alone, locked inside the cave. I waved my hand in front of my face, nothing. All I could hear was the sound of water dripping and the beating heart of the mountain. I don't know how long I stood inside Timpanogos Cave before a church leader realized I was missing, but it was long enough to have experienced how fear moves out of panic toward wonder.

Terry Tempest Williams (10:45):

Inside the cave, I knew I would be found. What I didn't know was what would find me. The spirit of Timpanogos. To this day, my spiritual life is found inside the heart of the wild. I do not fear it, I court it. When I'm away. I anticipate my return, needing to touch stone, rock, water, the trunks of trees, the sway of grasses, the barbs of a feather, the fur left behind by a shedding bison.

Anne Strainchamps (11:20):

Terry Tempest Williams reading from her new book, The Hour of Land. Steve Paulson recently sat down with her to talk about the lasting value of our national parks.

Steve Paulson (11:30):

Terry, have the national parks always been part of your life? I mean, is this something that's part of the family DNA?

Terry Tempest Williams (11:38):

It is part of our family DNA and I would tell you that my first memory is in a national park. Grand Teton National Park to be specific. What I remember is kneeling before Hidden Falls, the spray of the water on my face with my mother on one side and my grandmother on the other. And I was kneeling down with cupped hands drinking that cold mountain water. I'll never forget that. It's my first memory and I think to this day, I still search for that feeling of home, refreshment, renewal.

Steve Paulson (12:16):

No, the national parks have a complicated legacy. I mean, they are more popular than ever. And some of them are practically overrun by visitors. And we should point out that not all national parks are wonders of nature. I mean, Gettysburg is now a national military park and this is a place not only to commemorate the dead, but it's also, it's become a contested place where different versions of the civil war get played out. I mean, you write about your guide who was actively on the side of the Confederacy. I mean, she thought the wrong side won the war.

Terry Tempest Williams (12:50):

And I have to tell you, Steven, my ignorance as a westerner or my own ignorance, I didn't realize how strong her point of view was until about halfway through and I thought, aha, so this is why we are focusing on Pickett's Charge where a tremendous amount of men were killed. Because Robert E. Lee would not give up his plans. And you see the fall of the south in that moment. It wasn't until I realized, oh my God, her saddle is the Confederate flag. The blanket that is supporting her saddle that I realized we were literally in the point of view of the south. It was fascinating.

Steve Paulson (13:35):

And again, I mean, she works for the National Park Service. I mean, this is not just some outsider you're talking about.

Terry Tempest Williams (13:42):

Well, she's a licensed guide, which is hard one, but this is the history of our national parks, of our battlefields, of our seashores. One story is not sufficient. There are many stories to be told in each of our national parks.

Steve Paulson (14:02):

You write about touching the essence of a place. As a writer, how do you do that?

Terry Tempest Williams (14:11):

I think it's always an attempt. And one of the things that struck me about each national park that I visited was that there was always a tender point. There was a moment where I thought, ah, here, this is where the heart beats for me in this particular place. I remember the vastness of Big Bend National Park. And I was so stunned for so many reasons. I thought this is what I remember in Southern Utah as a child. And I realized how much fragmentation has occurred because of the oil and gas development outside Arches and Canyonlands. And in Big Bend, there was a moment where we were at the very end of the canyon in Santa Elena. And honestly, if I ever disappear, I will be there. It was so magnificent, it was so still, it was so quiet. The shadows and light, the sound of rushing water, borderlands, sacred lands.

Steve Paulson (15:16):

One thing I was curious about in that chapter on Beg Bend, you refer to various notebooks. So your turquoise notebook, your green notebook, your orange notebook. Do you actually have all these different color notebooks?

Terry Tempest Williams (15:28):

I do. I had this set of rainbow note bugs. They were artist notebooks, blank notebooks and I just thought we're going to be there for 14 days. I had 14 notebooks. So would you believe me if I told you I filled a notebook a day? That's how passionate I was about Big Bend. Honestly, it's my favorite national park right now and I just reveled in every single day of it.

Steve Paulson (15:56):

Do you carry around notebooks as you're out there hiking?

Terry Tempest Williams (16:00):

I always have a journal with me and it's probably an illness, a sickness, but I can't take something in if I can't take my notes. It's like an artist's sketchbook. And of course, when I'm walking, I'm present and when I'm sitting, I'm listening, but then there comes a point where I just have to write to qualify, to quantify what it is that I'm seeing, feeling, experiencing. And I realized, Steve, in Big Bend, the desert is not a void but my unknowing. And I think it's that humility before landscape. So human, so large, timeless that we experience awe, humility, wonder.

Steve Paulson (16:45):

I love that phrase of the unknowing. What do you mean by that?

Terry Tempest Williams (16:50):

It's just I think as human beings, we think we're the center of the universe as a species. And we're not. I just think when you go into places like Big Bend or Grand Teton or my goodness, Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, it's so clear that we are one species among many and I'm stunned.

Steve Paulson (17:13):

It's so interesting to hear you say that Big Bend is now currently your favorite national park. I mean, because my sense is that the landscapes you were most drawn to are the barren ones and especially the desert. Is that true?

Terry Tempest Williams (17:27):

I think that is true. I love erosional landscapes. I love being able to see out. I love the bare boned architecture of the Chisos Mountains or buttes and mesas in Utah. And I'd love these landscapes a little water that Mary Austin talks about where everything is brought to its essence. And I think including us. I love that. I get a little nervous when I'm in places with too much green, I must've admit.

Steve Paulson (18:02):

For a lot of people, the desert is a scary place. It's so forbidding. I mean, do you-

Terry Tempest Williams (18:07):

But, it is scary first.

Steve Paulson (18:08):

So you get scared there too.

Terry Tempest Williams (18:10):

Oh yeah. I mean, it's a harrowing place, but you're brought down to your knees and I think that's healthy. Like I said I get nervous if there's too many trees then I can't see out.

Steve Paulson (18:23):

There's another line in this book that just blew me away. Wilderness is the source of what we can imagine and what we cannot, the taproot of consciousness. It will survive us. Can you explicate that?

Terry Tempest Williams (18:42):

We're a part of something so much larger. I remember when my brother Steve was dying of cancer and I remember walking in one morning and I said Steve, how are you doing? And he said I'm great if I don't start thinking that I'm someone special. And I think it's that, again, that humility that we're part of something so much larger than ourselves. And that to me is the taproot of consciousness. And whether we're facing our own death consciously, whether we're facing an immense mountain, to me we touch the ineffable. It's that vibrating energy. It's the stuff of mirage. It's heat waves. It's ghosts rising from the fields of Gettysburg. It's what our national parks hold for us. It's our bedrock. It's what makes us Americans. And I know that's not politically correct to say, but as citizens of this country that I believe is in such a crisis spending the last five years looking at our histories, both political, natural historical really allowed me to fall in love with what is beautiful about this country. And what is beautiful is not necessarily all good, but it's what we are learning. It's how we're evolving to a deeper state of mind of the open space of democracy.

Anne Strainchamps (20:15):

Terry Tempest Williams talking with Steve Paulson. She's the author of Refuge and a new book on national parks called The Hour of Land. Well, Steve and I actually met Terry last year when we did a live show from member station KUER in Salt Lake City. The way she talked about that Utah desert, we knew we had to go back. The spring, we took our 18 year old son to visit the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. I actually never seen anything like it. Had you?

Steve Paulson (20:46):

I visited some of Utah's national parks when I was a kid, Zion and Arches. But the thing that really surprised me was the scale of this place. I mean-

Anne Strainchamps (20:54):

It's huge.

Steve Paulson (20:55):

It was huge, actually bigger than the Zion and Bryce and the Grand Canyon combined. And also there weren't many people there. I mean, unlike those national parks which are kind of crawling with people, I mean, this place was really desolate.

Anne Strainchamps (21:08):

There's one day when we went out with a guide, this guy named Nate Wagoner, who's the co-owner of a local outfitters that he'd founded, Escalante Outfitters. And I remember we would stand on these plateaus and look out and I would just think that's a lot of rock. And then Nate showed us had a look at it.

Steve Paulson (21:25):

Well, I mean, he kind of reads a landscape as he walks along. And I got this incredible sense of deep time. I mean, he talked about all the dinosaurs that had lived around here and you can go back even further than that to when the North American continent looked totally different.

Anne Strainchamps (21:40):

So here's us standing by the side of Highway 12 at the entrance to a Hole in the Rock Road. And you have to picture Nate gesturing across this horizon to horizon, this huge expanse.

Nathan Waggoner (21:53):

About 92 million years ago, there was a gigantic inland sea that divided the continent in half. All of the middle of the country was completely submerged in a shallow inland sea. And we were two continents is kind of how paleontologists look at it. We would be on Laramidia on this side and we'd be on the shoreline of Laramidia. And it was a gigantic island that had mountains on it and rivers flowing down into this inward seaway.

Steve Paulson (22:23):

It's kind of crazy considering this as one of the driest places I've ever seen.

Nathan Waggoner (22:27):

Absolutely. Oh, 92 million years gives you a lot of room to play, right? Trust me, it's been a lot of different things over geologic time and wrapping our minds around geologic time is one of those concepts that people struggle with, even great geologists. And if you're not struggling with it, you're not thinking about it hard enough. It's huge, but they were on the Colorado plateau. So it's all in order as we go down time, as we go deeper, as we just drive down Highway 12, we will be driving back 100 million years. And by the time we get down to the Escalante River in about 15 minutes. So it's all stacked right there and it's just there to look at and see and marvel at. The Chaparro [inaudible 00:23:07]

Steve Paulson (23:08):

We're looking at a vast stretch of desert with shrubs and rocks and in the distance, some of the most remote mountains in the lower 48 states. But the point is it didn't always look this way.

Nathan Waggoner (23:18):

It is the sea floors deposit. As you look at it, it's the fossilized remnants of a sea. And it is chock-full of wonderful dinosaur discoveries because we are on the shoreline and these guys are all grazing and hanging out and we're finding triceratops, creatures in this section, gigantic crocodiles the size of school buses. And then in the sea, we find sea turtles, we find pliosaurus, paddled reptiles, mosasaurus, which are the orca of the ancient sea. Fantastic stuff, full of dinosaurs that we're just beginning to find. The largest skull found on planet earth came from the [inaudible 00:23:57] plateau.

Steve Paulson (23:58):

Really? What's the skull?

Nathan Waggoner (23:59):

It was a giant triceratops kind of creature, triceratops.

Steve Paulson (24:04):

Just a few miles down Highway 12, we pull off to the side of the road and Nate points out a rather ordinary looking slab of sandstone and there they are, dinosaur footprints.

Anne Strainchamps (24:15):

Oh my gosh.

Nathan Waggoner (24:18):

[inaudible 00:24:18] 190 million years ago.

Steve Paulson (24:22):

And the footprints I have to say are not very big.

Anne Strainchamps (24:24):

What kind of creature-

Nathan Waggoner (24:26):

Well, this is probably representative of most of the dinosaurs that were on the planet earth. They weren't T-Rexes all running around all the place, but most of them are about the size of a chicken. That irony never escapes me whenever I look at my chickens running around in my backyard either.

Steve Paulson (24:39):

Having this sort of a bird-like quality, right?

Nathan Waggoner (24:41):

Yeah, and absolutely am. What happened was is this guy was cruising around in probably kind of a little bit of a wetter area in the sand field and his footprints went into the sand and then something fell on top of it, a little organic matter, a harder material. And then we happen to be here at the exact right time where it eroded just this small layer of sand sort of way. I mean, these won't be here much longer.

Anne Strainchamps (25:06):

That is amazing.

Steve Paulson (25:07):

That's totally cool.

Anne Strainchamps (25:09):

We're going to keep driving down the road, right?

Nathan Waggoner (25:11):

Yeah. And I've looked all over here and I can't find anymore.

Steve Paulson (25:16):

So just to go back to your own story a little bit, what made you want to come to here, to this landscape? What is it about this landscape that attracts you so much?

Nathan Waggoner (25:25):

Oh, the desert, when I was young just definitely put its teeth in me and I just kind of wouldn't let go. And I think it was that that idea of wilderness. Well, wilderness doesn't have to be comfortable and in its beauty and itself is in its harshness. When you go out there, you can get lost in this country and it doesn't care about you. It's grandeur just kind of can't, but take root and take a hold of you.

Steve Paulson (25:52):

And why Escalante? Why this particular?

Nathan Waggoner (25:53):

Why Escalade? I mean Escalante is... It's kind of like a little outlaw community and in so many ways, it is even more untouched than all those other spots. When we were young, we'd spent a lot of time in Moab and those places and they just, they became civilized. And the Escalante was that last bastion of wildness that's out here. And so I think that was the idea. I mean, I came out here because there was nobody else out here. And then I came out here and then I became a fishing guide and there definitely wasn't a fishing guide out here. And I'd always worked for other people and this was my time to kind of start my own deal. And I think that also has a lot to do with the West, going out and becoming yourself, your own person. And I always thought I would continue a little bit further north, but nah, I never got any further north than this.

Steve Paulson (26:41):

Nate's very aware of lots of people have come and gone on this land for centuries. So he keeps exploring around here and every so often he stumbles on remnants of a lost civilization. Some years back, he discovered a series of caves filled with ancient petroglyphs. So he took us to see some of them, down in old river wash past the few desert shrubs that have managed to eke out a living here.

Anne Strainchamps (27:06):

What's this little spiky thing?

Nathan Waggoner (27:10):

It's called black rush. It's a [inaudible 00:27:15]

Steve Paulson (27:15):

We hiked down to the top of the canyon and three caves filled with rock art that's way older than even the nearby pictographs of the Anasazi.

Nathan Waggoner (27:24):

The petroglyphs that are in these caves are left by hunter and gatherer people. And they were pretty much doing what people did. The majority of the existence in North America. They followed big herds and they never ever even thought about planting something in the ground.

Steve Paulson (27:40):

So what time period are we talking about here?

Nathan Waggoner (27:42):

So probably maybe 2, 300BC. So we're in a tight bottleneck of a short canyon and then right below us off this point here is about a 300 foot drop to the canyon floor.

Steve Paulson (27:56):

And as radio producers, there's something else we are thrilled to discover.

Nathan Waggoner (28:00):

Now the archaics, we're very particular about acoustics so you have a cathedral effect. So if I go whoa, I get it over there too. And so there were very, very interesting people. We don't know anything about them. They have very little remains. Primarily what we find are pictographs that are left behind.

Steve Paulson (28:20):

Wow. I can see that from here.

Nathan Waggoner (28:22):

Yeah. We're going to go look at this. You can see as you kind of let your eyes adjust, you begin to see different color pigments. See these lines here? There's also the mouse man over here.

Steve Paulson (28:38):

He's mouse man.

Nathan Waggoner (28:40):

And I, yeah, I don't know. He looks like a rat figure with bird feet, kind of a really, kind of very different. And he shows up twice on the wall here.

Steve Paulson (28:48):

And we don't really have a clue why they did this. Right?

Nathan Waggoner (28:50):

No, not at all.

Steve Paulson (28:51):

Do we know if they lived in the space or was this more of a ritualistic space?

Nathan Waggoner (28:56):

I think people primarily think that they did not live in these spaces. These were places that kind of were come to at certain times and used and then left. I mean, these people will stay on the move. They had to follow animal because they moved with the seasons.

Steve Paulson (29:09):

Do you sometimes try to put yourself in the minds of those people or sort of imagine what it would have been like to be alive then?

Nathan Waggoner (29:17):

Yeah. All the time. I think that would be a pretty interesting thing. I also like to think that it wouldn't be a whole lot different. When these people were standing in this rock wall, this place looked just like it does right now. But I do like to kind of think about that. The things that I always think make a better mind. Traveling long distances, interactions with other peoples. That's what these archaics were doing. And they were moving, they were hunting. They were coming across other people. I mean, that is an amazing thing to think about what kind of mind that creates in a person. And when you're traveling through a place like this, the internal landscape is definitely affected by the external landscape here.

Steve Paulson (29:55):

We weren't in this barren desert landscape for very long, but long enough to see why people keep coming back or like Nate, simply never leave.

Nathan Waggoner (30:04):

Being in a place like this, you start out in small dosages and you're like yeah, I want to be out there. I want to go for a hike today. And then you get this immunity to it. And you're like, oh, I gotta stay up for three days. No, I have to stay up for four days. No, I'm going to go out for two weeks. I'm going to go out for three weeks. I'm going to do three months. And it takes sometimes a little bit longer. You have to stay out a little bit longer to get that feeling back. Sometimes that scares me and sometimes it just kind of, it's fascinating to me, but it really drives you to want to be out there full time.

Anne Strainchamps (30:41):

Nate Waggoner on top of a canyon in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Southern Utah. Nate is a nature guide and he's the co-owner of Escalante Outfitters. By the way, while Steve was recording that audio, I was taking pictures of the pictographs and dinosaur tracks. We'll post them on our Facebook page if you want to take a look. Coming up, the hidden and often contested history of wilderness. I'm Anne Strainchamps and as To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International.

Anne Strainchamps (31:25):

I am the child of a woman with deep brown skin and dark eyes who married a fair skin man with blue gray eyes. Yet as a little girl in California, I never knew race. Skin and eye color, hair color and texture, body height and shape varied greatly among relatives. Like the land, we appeared in many forms. That's a passage from Lauret Savoy's collection of essays called Trace. It's part autobiography, environmental history and nature writing. And unlike most people who write about nature, Lauret is less interested in the pretty parts, the pristine meadows and eroded canyons. She's more interested in how people have shaped and even fought over the land. History has not always been pretty. Native people for instance were forcibly removed to make way for our celebrated national parks. So the history of race and racism is embedded in some of our most iconic landscapes. Lauret grew up in California and she told Rehman Tungekar that she didn't notice race until after her family left.

Lauret E Savoy (32:35):

California was the place before race. And my father decided to move back to Washington DC, which was his familial home for generations at the time of riots when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. And so we returned east to a place that seemed to be filled with hate. And it was the first time that I understood that colored could mean something very different from sun and sky and I learned that the first time at the age of seven and eight, when I was spat upon and learned that I could be hated for the color of my skin.

Rehman Tungekar (33:15):

And so at this point, I mean, did you see the natural world as kind of a refuge from that kind of hate?

Lauret E Savoy (33:22):

Absolutely. I thought or I came to understand and I think this was one of the hardest lessons I learned as a young child, was that the landscape itself, whether it was a river named Potomac or a canyon called Grand, the landscape did not hate. It proceeded hatred. Only people hate it. And so I did seek solace and refuge in the land because I knew I wouldn't be judged or spat upon or hated.

Rehman Tungekar (33:52):

You bring a lot to the table in these essays. I mean you are a nature writer and an environmental scholar. You're also a person of color and we don't really usually hear that perspective in nature writing. What changes about how we think about nature when we consider the sad legacy of race in America?

Lauret E Savoy (34:09):

I think many people think of nature writing as going out into nature, experiencing it in solitude, but I think it's very important to think of environment in nature in a larger sense. Take a for example, the idea of wilderness. Wilderness as an idea and as preserved land never existed apart from human experience. And if you consider Yellowstone which is the first national park established in 1872 by Congress, what many people don't realize is that that land lay within ancestral homelands of Shoshone, Bannok, Crow and what were regarded as Sheep Eater Tribal Peoples. The US army would have to remove these peoples to reservations. So it's important to remember that even wildernesses had a long indigenous presence.

Rehman Tungekar (35:10):

In another chapter of the book, you write about place names, names like Sequoia, Shenandoah, Cheyenne, Mojave, Yosemite and a lot of these names come from native traditions. So what changes when you kind of unearth those histories?

Lauret E Savoy (35:28):

What's really critical to understand is that far from innocent naming and mapping were essential to the projects of possessing and creating a new world. And so half of the United States or more than half of the United States names originated in some form from native languages, but the words and the phrases were often reshaped by European colonists and their descendants with little sense of the original use and context. A really good case in point is the name Wyoming. It originally came from a valley in Northeastern, Pennsylvania that was named the Weamiing valley by the Lenape people there. And it meant either at the big flat or the great meadows. But in 1778, during the American revolution, there was a massacre or a killing of 300 settlers by British and their allies who were Tois as well as Iroquois.

Lauret E Savoy (36:34):

And because of that massacre in honoring the people who had been killed, a poem was written in the early 1800s that was called Gertrude of Wyoming. And that poem became extraordinarily popular. And then within a few decades, the name Wyoming was applied to different places from the East Coast westward. And it won out because of the sound. It sounded beautiful.

Rehman Tungekar (37:03):

Well, another thing you point out in the book is that there's also a long history of names that involve slurs, especially those referring to African-Americans. And frankly, I was amazed to discover that many of these derogatory names still exist.

Lauret E Savoy (37:18):

Unfortunately they do. There were before 1963 about 200 American place names that had, and forgive me for saying this horrible word, but nigger as part of the word. And if I may say a few, they included Dead Nigger Creek, Dead Nigger Hill, Nigger Gulch, Nigger Prairie, on and on. And for decades, the NAACP and other groups petitioned an organization within the federal government that's called the US Board on Geographic Names, which is the organization in government that officially gives place names and monitors place names.

Lauret E Savoy (38:00):

And so the board was petitioned again and again and finally in 1963, it changed nigger to negro in most of the cases, but not everywhere. Some of the original uses still linger and other slur names remain as well or they've only recently been changed. Near Pocatello, Idaho is a mountain that once was called Chinks Peak and in 2001, it was named Chinese Peak, but many are still, as you noted official names on the land. There's [inaudible 00:38:36] in California, there's Darkey Springs in Tennessee. There's [inaudible 00:38:42] in New Mexico. There's [inaudible 00:38:45] in Wyoming. There's Dead Injun Creek in Oregon. There's Sambo Creek in many states. And they go on and on.

Rehman Tungekar (38:55):

I guess I'm wondering for you, are you able to the still appreciate the natural beauty of a landscape if it has one of these awful names?

Lauret E Savoy (39:03):

Oh, of course. The place is not the name. And if you understand the history of naming as a history of overlay, the name is not the place, but they are overlays that tell us much about history, about the history of possession, of conquest, of relabeling. And for me, the whole journey across the country, discovering these unspoken histories has been a way of finding home. And we're marked by residues of the country still unfolding history and residues that include silence and displacement that cross generations.

Anne Strainchamps (39:50):

Lauret Savoy teaches environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. She was talking with Rehman Tungekar about her book Trace. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International. When Robert Moor graduated from college, he decided to take six months off to fulfill a dream. He sublet his apartment, sold everything he owned, said goodbye to his friends and set off to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail. 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine. It took him five months, during which time it rained nearly every day. So instead of sweeping mountain vistas, he got mud, not what he had signed up for.

Robert Moor (40:52):

We think of hiking as an aesthetic experience. And we often think of it in terms of vistas and landscapes. And so when you don't have it, it feels odd. You think what's the point? Why am I walking if I can't see a view?

Anne Strainchamps (41:08):

So maybe because he spent a lot of time looking down at the trail, Robert started thinking about paths in general. Since then he's traveled all over the world exploring animal insect and fossil trails, ancient roads, neural networks, the tracks of stars. His new book is called On Trails: An Exploration. And it begins with the question most hikers have wondered at some point, who built this thing?

Robert Moor (41:34):

The moment you really start thinking about it is when the trail goes wrong. It's when something a little bit illogical would happen that you would get intensely frustrated and you would think who built this? And why? Why did they put this here? A hiking trail designed to be sustainable. So it has to shed water in certain ways. It has to avoid certain places. So it will sometimes go a place where you as a hiker don't want to go, but the trail builder needs you to go there. And hikers get very, very frustrated by this because hikers especially true hikers, want to get where they want to go as quickly as possible. They want to follow the path of least resistance. And so that's one of the interesting things about the task of building hiking trails is that you have to convince people to go where they don't necessarily want to go. And oftentimes hikers won't do it. They'll take a shortcut and they'll create what are called desire lines, which cut across the trail.

Anne Strainchamps (42:26):

I love that term desire line. That was the point when you first brought it up in the book where I thought, oh, that's such a beautiful metaphor. It made me wonder what's the desire line in my life and am I following it?

Robert Moor (42:42):

Yeah, it's true. It has a really strong metaphorical resonance for people because we are born into the world I think with various paths laid out for us. And one of the questions is it's really the deep question of wisdom is do you follow these paths that are laid out for you or do you start making your own path? And one of the things I love about the metaphor of the trail is that it is so applicable because most people have walked on trails. Everybody has walked on some kind of trail, whether it's in an urban environment or in the woods. So you know instinctively it's much easier to walk on a trail, right? It's much harder to strike off into the weeds and the brambles. And so that is something that I thought about constantly while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail is by following this path that was laid out for me. Am I missing something? Or is this actually the best path from Georgia to Maine?

Anne Strainchamps (43:34):

Well, that's interesting because in our culture I think we tend to glorify the trailblazers rather than the trail followers. As you explored the metaphor, did you come to think differently?

Robert Moor (43:48):

Well, yeah. I mean, it's a very American way of thinking, right? And if you go back and you read, for example, Derow is appalled by the idea of following a trail. He believes everyone should be a trailblazer in life. And of course, Emerson writing about self-reliance. There's a long tradition in America of believing that following a trail is kind of shameful. It's kind of cowardly. But actually when you look into it, following a trail is also a very original act because every person who follows the trail edits the trail a little bit as they're following it. That's what I find so beautiful about them. It's such a beautiful idea that we are as a collective body, we are creating this thing together, which takes us all where we need to go.

Anne Strainchamps (44:31):

You did so much research exploring so many different kinds of trails and there are things that I love knowing having read the book. For instance, the oldest trails in the world are 565 million years old. They were created by, what? Some of the earliest animals. They're fossilized now.

Robert Moor (44:48):

That's right. Ediacara. Yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (44:50):

Ediacara. And they're Newfoundland? They were discovered only recently, right?

Robert Moor (44:54):

Yeah. So they were discovered by an Oxford researcher named Alex Liu who was just wandering along the seashore there in a place called Mistaken Point. He was looking for ediacara biota fossils, which are, as far as we know the earliest form of animal life. They're Precambrian animals. So they don't look like anything that you would ever even imagine as an animal. They don't even look like trilobites. They look to my eye like underwater plants, but of course, plants had not even evolved at that point. This is how far back we're going. And so Alex Liu found these little traces and he realized that what he had was the oldest trail on earth. He'd found the oldest record of an animal intentionally moving. And it was just sort of scrunching along. You can see how painstaking and difficult it was when you see these fossils as I have. Just inch by inch moving through the sand and that little movement in some ways led to the incredible diverse array of movement you see on earth now.

Anne Strainchamps (45:55):

What are the most complex trails you uncovered?

Robert Moor (45:59):

Probably ant trails. Because they're made of pheromones, they're not impressed into the earth. They evaporate very quickly, which means that they can change very quickly. And what that allows ants to do is to create these networks at incredible efficiency. So they can solve problems that we even have trouble solving and people will actually study ants to learn how to better route packages through a shipping network or how to better route information through the internet.

Anne Strainchamps (46:29):


Robert Moor (46:31):

It's true. It's amazing because they're very simple animals and yet collectively they're incredibly smart. And in a certain sense of that collective intelligence resides in their trails. It's the very structure and makeup of their trails that makes them so smart.

Anne Strainchamps (46:46):

What's so amazing about their trails?

Robert Moor (46:48):

Well, for example, fire ants, which E.O. Wilson has famously studied. They can tell each other not just where food is, but how much food is there by the strength of their trail. And then as the food begins to diminish, the trail will begin to dissipate as well. So you have this ever updating map of where all the food is and it's mesmerizing because you think how could they have, with no central coordination, they're managing to do all of this. It's incredible.

Anne Strainchamps (47:17):

You also remind me, you mentioned E.O. Wilson. There was some anecdote you wrote about that he used to almost as an entomologist party trick. He used to write his name in ants.

Robert Moor (47:28):

That's right. Yeah. He isolated the trail pheromone and he would write his name on the ground or on a piece of paper and the ants would line up and spell out his name and it would just amaze his visitors.

Anne Strainchamps (47:41):

Things entomologists do for fun. There's another little factoid you mentioned that just fascinates me. Elephants turn out to be amazing virtuoso trail makers.

Robert Moor (47:53):

Yeah. Incredible. Probably unparalleled because of their size and their intelligence and the incredible power of their sensory organs. They will find paths that we end up building into our roads and our highways. I remember hiking in Tanzania years ago and following elephant trails and just marveling at them thinking how do they always find the shallowest crossing across a river? How do they always find the lowest paths through the mountains? You imagine them almost having a kind of a telepathy or a God's eye view of the landscape.

Anne Strainchamps (48:29):

They also seem to sort of have evolved to walk trails. Their feet are incredibly light.

Robert Moor (48:36):

They're incredibly soft. They're incredibly cushioned and they're very sensitive. They're incredibly sensitive to the point that their feet are almost like stethoscopes. They can actually feel vibrations through the ground and sense rainstorms many, many miles away. There's a little anecdote which describes a group of three rangers were sleeping, had accidentally laid down a tarp in the middle of an elephant trail and woke up in the morning and realized that there was an elephant footprint in between where they were lying down. An elephant had actually walked right over them and they hadn't even known it because that's how quiet they are.

Anne Strainchamps (49:14):

Wow. Have you ever been in a pathless wilderness, tried hiking without a trail?

Robert Moor (49:22):

I have, yeah. I've quite a few times, I found myself for certain stretches, but by far the most memorable was in Newfoundland, a place called the North Rim Traverse around Western Brook Pond, which is designated as a pathless wilderness. They will never build a trail there and you actually have to pass a navigation test before you can go in. It's a little bit daunting. You have to pass this map and compass test and then they give you a little tracking device which will locate your hopefully still living body if you stop moving. And I went there by myself. I had no cell phone, I had no GPS, just a map and compass. I really wanted to test myself. And it was, to be honest, it was kind of horrifying. I felt very, very uneasy from the first moment I started out because I realized how accustomed I had become to following a trail.

Robert Moor (50:12):

And there were these trees called tuckamore, which are elephant wood trees. They're very short and very sturdy. They can be a 100 years old and only reach as high as your waist because the wind has stunted their growth. And so you had to fight your way through these trees. And for three days, I just fought and fought my way across this landscape. I got completely lost. I was miles off track. And then on the last day I found my way back to the trail. There was a big Karen, a big stone Karen marking where the trail was and I felt this flood of relief just to be back on a trail. And that's was I think when I really realized the value of a trail.

Anne Strainchamps (50:48):

Robert Moor talking about his new book called On Trails: An Exploration.

That's it for our show today, but there's more in our podcast for you. To sign up, visit iTunes or Stitcher or visit our website at To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin, and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Steve Paulson put this hour together with help from Craig Eley, Rehman Tungekar, Doug Gordon, Charleston Rockane and John Murfield. Our theme music comes from Steve Mullin at Walk West Music. Our technical director is Caryl Owen. I'm Anne Strainchamps. We'll be back next week.

Speaker 1 (51:31):

PRI. Public Radio International.

Last modified: 
August 19, 2021