Last October, my family sold our house in Montana, our car and most of our stuff. We left the Absaroka mountains, the Yellowstone River and our friends and family to travel around Europe for a year. We love Montana and the United States, but we wanted to explore somewhere new and give our two boys (now 9 and 10) an introduction to other places and other ways of doing things.
Throughout our year abroad, we hiked through the Alps, reached the highest point on an island in Croatia, climbed Scottish mountains, wandered through Slovenian woods on snowshoes and watched waves crash far below cliff trails in England and Ireland. We visited 12 countries and got outside in every one of them. While hiking in Austria, we climbed a mountain in thick mist, passing cows and arriving at the top to find a chairlift. Gondolas, chairlifts and restaurants riddle the mountains in Austria and Germany. In the U.K., laws allowed us to walk anywhere we wanted. The access is incredible and enviable. But we never got away from the evidence of 6,000 years of people and sheep cultivating the land.
Americans made a conscious decision to value wild places and set them aside. We invented the national park. But now our public lands are increasingly under threat.
What I didn’t expect from our cultural exchange was how spending time outside and on trails in Europe would give me such an appreciation for one of the things that makes the U.S. so great –- wild places. Wilderness is where my kids learn about fortitude and caring for place and for each other. Wild places are intrinsic in making us who we are. Montana courses through our veins.
From our house in Livingston, Montana, we can see Livingston Peak and the Absaroka Mountains. It is 15 minutes to a trailhead from which we can walk for days and only see a trail as a sign of humans. When we are hiking or backpacking, we are reliant only on each other and ourselves. There isn’t a beer garden in the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness.
Americans made a conscious decision to value wild places and set them aside. We invented the national park. We invented Wilderness with a capital “W.” Granted, our wild places aren’t the most arable lands or the areas where we want cities to grow, but they are chunks of what the United States looked like before we built up and out, and they are places where bears, marmots and people can be free. They are both symbols and concrete representations of the best parts of us.
Our public lands are increasingly under threat in the U.S. While we were in Europe, access issues kept people out of the nearby Crazy Mountains and nearly caused a Forest Service employee his job.
Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Yellowstone District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz was reassigned after he stood up for public lands access –- access that all Americans legally have. His work on preserving traditional access points and conservation is crucial for preventing the privatization of the Crazies. I’ve had epic hikes with my dog in those mountains, our friends hunt there every fall, and I look forward to showing my boys the beautiful lakes and craggy peaks in this island mountain range. If we can get there.
A few miles south of where we live, a Canadian company is trying to mine gold in the mountains where I hike with family and friends. Lucky Minerals proposed to develop “a multi-million-ounce gold resource” across three drainages on over 2,500 acres at the gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The mines would be upstream of Chico Hot Springs Resort, where many Park County residents and many, many tourists soak, dance and eat. This is one of the places my kids couldn’t wait to visit upon returning to the U.S. Between early morning soaks when they were babies to birthday parties held poolside and meeting friends for a leisurely weekend, this place figures heavily in our family’s traditions. Fortunately, community members, our grassroots conservation group and local business are working hard to keep mining out of Paradise Valley.
While traveling, we read about our Interior Secretary and former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke wanting to shrink our National Monuments. In August, he proposed removing strict protection on at least four national monuments. These American monuments could be reopened for new mining or drilling. Our government is giving away your land and my land to companies and private individuals for their businesses.
Our experiences in some of Europe’s natural areas are ones we will never forget. They were wonderful and different and, dare I say it, life-changing. Exploring these open spaces was the best part of our trip. I know there are wilder places in Europe, but it’s a continent that has been heavily habituated for so much longer than North America. We loved Europe, but Montana is who we are.
I worry that the wild lands that are my kids’ schoolyard, my meditation room and inspiration for all who even look at them are going away. We need to figure out how to cherish and save these places that make America great and that make us who we are. Just as tinkling cow bells and mountain restaurants are a part of who Austrians, Germans and the Swiss are, wild lands are an important part of who Americans are.