Backpacking in RGS Country

This essay sums up the love of the outdoors that causes many modelers to try and replicate that same look and feel in our layout scenery.  It is adapted from an article originally published in Backpacker Magazine.

I try to get over to southwestern Colorado every year.  This summer, I once again spent a few days backpacking along the old narrow-gauge Rio Grande Southern right of way in the area known as the “High Line”.  It’s one of my favorite places to spend a little time alone.  There, I can immerse myself into a past that I never had a chance to experience in real life, yet somehow have intimately come to know.  It’s my way of escaping from civilization back to the majesty of nature’s wilderness.

But just what is the wilderness, and why is it important?

Without wilderness, the world is a cage.  Hiking into the wilderness means getting away from everyday life as we have come to know it, and getting back to a more primitive way of experiencing nature.  Backpacking is nothing more than a longer, more intense hike into the wilderness.  A backpacking experience means different things to different people.  To some, it is a physical challenge – a test of one’s endurance or stamina.  To others, it is a knowledge adventure – a chance to learn how and why things exist in the natural environment.  But to all, it is a firsthand personal learning experience – a chance to learn about one’s self, and how we fit into the overall scheme of the world around us.

“Wilderness holds more answers to more questions than we yet know how to ask.” – Nancy Newhall in This is the American Earth

Backpacking is more than just hiking and looking around.  To get the most out of the experience, you need to change the way you see and think about the things around you.  You need to fully immerse yourself into the experience – to become a part of nature rather than just an observer.  The following story illustrates how my personal thinking about the wilderness has changed over the years.

“There, in a high fork of a quaking aspen, a dark small shape stands against the sky.  I rest below it.  My companion, a lone hawk owl, regards me with brief curiosity, gives an avian shrug, and looks off towards the Ophir needles.  I try to put myself in its feathers, see with its eyes, and feel the lightness of its bones in the wind.  As the first star flickers against the cold blue of space, the owl and I pause together, fellow travelers in hard, lonely country.  I am overcome with quiet gratitude for life – the owl’s and my own, and for all the others who left their tell-tale signs and tracks around me.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I’m not sure I would have understood.  The owl would have been a momentary curiosity.  I’d have stopped briefly, maybe waved my arms to see it fly, and moved on, vaguely unsatisfied.  Like a kid in love with Batman and explosions and comic books, but puzzled by mature fiction, I generally missed the nuances of smaller moments, the ones that often hold the most profound truths of our existence.  I wanted a point-blank grizzly, a pack of wolves, or a double rainbow each time out – or better yet, all three at once.  Of course the country was too sparse, the nature of life too diffused for that sort of nonstop melodrama.  I set myself up for almost continual disappointment.

A by-product of my drive for big thrills was a systematic, willful ignorance of the country I thought I knew.  The extent of all I didn’t know, and told myself I didn’t care about, would have shocked me if I’d been able to look down from some great height.  I remember a time, not so long ago, when any bird smaller than a robin was of little interest, and I never stopped to wonder if that flicker in the brush was a dark-eyed junco or a redpoll, let alone a Wilson’s warbler.  The ground at my feet was a collection of, well, plants and rocks.  Sure, I could recognize poison oak, and I knew the difference between sandstone and granite, but my knowledge went only as far as the dictates of utility or simple chance required.  Looking back, it’s easy to understand why I thought so many parts of nature inconsequential.  True respect seldom grows out of ignorance.

I wish I could say there came a momentous change of sorts, one defining, instantaneous breakthrough when my perspective altered.  I can’t point to a moment or even a year as a turning point.  I think, in fact, that there was none; each day was a step on a faint, looping trail, one that doubled back, faded out, then reappeared.  Something was changing, I knew, each time I ventured out in to the wilderness.  But the change was not about seeing.  It was about sensing an entirely new paradigm, the essential dignity, worth, and value of all living things.  The life and death of a red-backed vole or a white-crowned sparrow was just as dramatic, just as noble, as that of a bull moose, if you only leaned in and watched.

There’s little doubt that photography played a part in the way I saw.  The more time I spent looking into a viewfinder, the more I found myself funneling down on small details – nuances of light, the exact shape of a leaf, the glint of an eye.

I began to carry along my bird, plant, tree, and rock books, and to study them at home when I wasn’t outdoors.  Lives and stories began to unfold, each a mystery.  The more I knew, the more I realized the extent of my ignorance.  But it was precisely this understanding, arriving at the point where I sensed the beauty of all I didn’t know, that changed my way of seeing.

As living things, we are all bonded by the same essential truth: There will never be enough time, and each life is, in a sense, our own.  Like a lone hawk owl at dusk, we wait, our bones frail in the wind.”

If you travel RGS country, you’ll realize that nature created this wonderland over millions of years.  The High Line is an impressive place, grander than any man-made cathedral or monument.  Savor it, become part of it, and you’ll realize that this beauty isn’t just the result of nature’s destructive forces wearing away at the land, or of man’s feeble attempts to conquer it.  Time created this place and serves us all lessons, if we’re willing to listen and learn.  If you spend enough time in such a place, an ancient and subtle sense of reverence is called forth, as is silence and respect.  Heed this signal, rest with it patiently, let the land steady you, and eventually, you’ll be rewarded with a gift of knowing.