Those who dwell. . . among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.Rachel Carson
I started hiking and backpacking while quite young, and I have to admit. . .that was a very long time ago. When I first started backpacking alone in my early twenties, I often would head to a trailhead in Olympic National Park, strap on my pack and head off into the wilderness with no particular plan or route in mind, simply stopping and making camp when I found a beautiful site that called to me. There was no reservation system in those days. Wilderness permits were not even required, and I liked it that way. The only limitations were how far I could hike and how much food I could carry, where I could find a clean water source and a level spot for my small tent.
Many years later it all seems rather risky. No one knew where I was. There were certainly no cell phones or emergency beacons that would allow me to be found quickly should that become necessary. I simply used a map for navigating, and it worked just fine. I do not recall much about my mind set in those days, but no doubt I found the quiet solitude well worth the risk, and I always returned home safely.
It came as a surprise to me one summer when I arrived at the Obstruction Point trailhead only to find out that reservations were required to camp at any of the nearby lakes. This felt like a personal affront. For many years I had happily wandered in whatever direction I chose, unconstrained by campsite reservations. I vowed to find a new hiking destination, since I found this reservation thing to be a restraint on the freedom I enjoyed in the mountains.
The following summer I discovered the Pasayten Wilderness, a vast area in the North Cascades of Washington, a longer drive from my home in Tacoma but well worth the extra time to get there. It remained relatively undiscovered, and though I saw other hikers on the trail, I had no trouble at all finding isolated campsites, where I would often spend several nights and then explore the high ridge tops off trail. Wilderness permits were required, but no reservations were necessary. I was once again free to wander as I chose.
Many years later after I moved to Wyoming I enjoyed the same freedom in the Bighorns and Wind River Mountains, each summer discovering new trails and lakes that could only be reached by scrambling over ridge tops, where I would often discover high basins in which would be nestled small lakes, one after another, each one higher than the last until I nearly reached the summits of those jagged peaks in search of them.
In the spring I often travelled to Arizona, where I visited a friend who had a rustic cabin in the Painted Desert, and on the way I would stop and visit one of the many magnificent National Parks in the southwest. There were crowds of people on the trails, hardly the solitude I was used to, but it was usually possible to find an isolated spot to camp on BLM land adjacent to the parks so that even with my vehicle nearby I found the peace that I was constantly seeking.
On one such hike I discovered the arch you see in the photo above. It reminded me of Stonehenge and like its ancient counterpart seemed to possess mystical qualities. I wanted to camp there. I do not know why, only that I felt a need to be there in the evening and feel the stillness of the canyon walls, to watch the colors deepen in the fading evening light, to sip my tea in the morning surrounded by such a wonder rising above me.
The following autumn I made a campsite reservation for a short backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. It was not possible to reserve a site near the arch. I had hoped to camp in its shadow, but I would be only a short distance away. I hoped that I would be able to escape the crowds, that I would find that stillness in the canyon, that I would even discover why I wanted to be there.
I stopped at the visitors’ center and claimed my reservation, still a little difficult for this grizzled old hiker, as it was a reminder that I would not be free to camp wherever I wished in this beautiful canyon country. I arrived at the trailhead and was immediately dismayed by the number of vehicles in the parking lot. I feared that I had made the long drive from Wyoming only to once again be surrounded by crowds of hikers. I donned my pack and made the short hike to the campsite I had reserved. It was on a shelf above a wash. I set up my tent on the slick rock, adding rocks to anchor the poles since I could obviously not drive in stakes to secure the tent, and sat and watched while the crowds made their way by my camp. Though it was pleasant to sit in the sun and watch the colors of the canyon change as the afternoon light waned, the hordes of hikers continued until early evening, at which point something miraculous happened. All of the day hikers simply disappeared. I was suddenly there surrounded by the quiet of the canyon walls. I was in the perfect campsite at the perfect moment, and nobody else was there.
The following morning I got up early enough to hike to Druid Arch before the day hikers appeared. I sat at its base, taking in the wisdom of silence and ancient sandstone. I spent one more night at that beautiful reserved campsite and hiked out the next day, renewed by the solitude and the magic I had experienced in a quiet place where even my thoughts seemed to echo from the canyon walls.
I made several more backpacking trips in Canyonlands over the years, grateful with each visit for a system that allowed me the solitude that too often escaped me on crowded trails where no reservation system existed.
In a perfect world no such system would be necessary, but this world is a crowded one, and I always try to remember that those other hikers have as much right to be there as I do despite my grumbling.
And what is it I learned from Druid Arch? Just this: The world had been around for a long time, millions and millions of years. Whatever changes our species has brought about in our brief time on the planet, the sandstone from ancient seas reminds us of permanence, however fleeting that concept may seem in these days of environmental threats. There is still a place where the peace of quiet places can heal our troubled souls.