This whole endeavor is called “Through-Hike,” but the “through” I have in mind is partially abstract. I’m doing the hike in fragments, provisionally and improvisationally. I’m not hiking the PCT or the JMT in a summer, or breaking it into chunks and hiking it over several summers. We might come to that eventually, and then again, we might not.
In any case, I have qualms about the kind of completeness or mastery that kind of project suggests. To hike the PCT is to hike from the southern to the norther border of the United States, but the borders of the country themselves are relatively recent historical (e.g., not natural) phenomena. At a talk at the Huntington I attended, a historian at Northwestern made the argument that we have been conditioned to privilege the image of the continental US despite the fact that the US actually holds a large number of island territories. The island territories tend to unsettle the central myths of continental manifest destiny: one, that a bicoastal North American territory was historically inevitable and two, that the West Coast naturally closed off the Euroamerican colonial reach. Because the island territories testify to the contingency and violence of westward expansion and to the ongoing trans-Pacific vectors of American colonialism, they tend not to show up in maps in high school history textbooks. My own impulse to hike a trail that stretches from border to border thus seems at some level to participate in the naturalization of extant borders.
To get even further into the dirt, there are a whole host of problems with the idea of the wilderness as we understand it, and the idea of the “PCT” or the “JMT” as a “thing” you can do to “connect” with the “backcountry” is rife with fictions, which I’ve just begun to gloss with those scare quotes. For starters, there never ever was a pristine, unsettled wilderness in North America untouched by humans. Nope, there were humans here already and they’d pretty much touched all of it, although not necessarily with agriculture or “permanent” structures (although what exactly is the durative threshold of permanence? Sure, wikiups don’t seem very permanent, but if you take a long view of things, the World Trade Center towers didn’t turn out to be very permanent either). Lincoln designated areas of the Yosemite Valley as protected towards the end of the Civil War, but in doing so he wasn’t simply setting aside the most special, unoccupied land. Much land had already been snapped up by private and commercial interests; what was left generally wasn’t very commercially viable. It was, however, most definitively occupied, by Native tribes who had been pushed out of other lands by the US government.
Yosemite (Yellowstone as well) initially kept their tribes as part of the scenery. Not surprisingly, this whole situation didn’t turn out to please anyone, as the Native ways of life didn’t graph well onto white tourism (they hunted the pretty animals, and the white people got all crazy in the head with the idea braves kidnapping their ladies, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from bunch of Victorian honkies), so pretty soon the Natives got shoved out of the pretty public lands and wholly onto shitty ones. When the National Park Service was organized in the early nineteen hundreds, its mission intersected in a novel way with the longstanding American myth of the North American continent having been an unsettled and untouched wilderness before the Puritans got here.
By the end of the nineteenth century, after the famous “closing of the frontier,” the country’s economic frontier (the places where the most growth and development were happening) shifted definitively from rural to urban areas. The boondoggling of Owens Valley water for use by the residents (really, for use by the developers of) Los Angeles is the perfect symptom of this shift: resources were transported great distances to support a burgeoning urban population despite the fact that there was an avidly interested local population who wanted to use that same water to support and develop local agriculture. The National Parks thus became part of an infrastructure of leisure for an urban middle class, an important safety valve that facilitated the concentration of population in dense urban environments. It tacitly propagated the myth that these areas were pristine, untouched, and unpeopled, which of course they weren’t. The National Park Service worked as a final, cruel way to take land away from indigenous peoples and give it to the white settlers for leisure, recreation, and idealization.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve spent a lot of times in National Parks. I’ve drunk deeply of that fiction of wilderness. And whatever I may have learned about the history and implications of the Parks, I still love hiking in them. But just as I want to be critically aware of the myths that subtend them, I want to retain some critical awareness of the myths that subtend the idea of through-hiking. The myth that a trail has an intrinsic integrity or trans-historical meaning. That a trek across a mountain, region, or country means something objective and empirical. That hiking long distances makes you a bad-ass or an adventurer or part of a club of insiders. As a consequence, I don’t plan to make this a big project which I have to complete in a particular way. This is meant to be time with myself, my family, my aging body, and I don’t care how much or how little we hike so much as I care that we commit to it and what it might entail. So we’ll hike bits and pieces – shards – and the shards might not add up to much when you line them up on a map. But I’m more interested in the kinds of territory Mary Austin describes in her introduction to The Land of Little Rain: “Guided by [familiarity with certain landmarks] you may reach my country and find or not find, according as it lieth in you, much that is set down here. And more. The earth is no wanton to give up all her best to every comer, but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy for each.”
Cassuto, David. Dripping Dry: Literature, Politics, and Water in the Southwest Desert. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Immerwahr, Daniel. “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Guano but Were Afraid to Ask.” The Huntington Library, San Marino, California,. 27 October, 2015. Brown Bag Talk.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York, Columbia University Press, 2002.