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Wilderness: Made in the USA

I have always felt at home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My dad grew up summering in the Whites, my grandpa was the executive director of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and I have been climbing them since the age of five.

From what my dad has told me of my grandpa, he was at one with the mountains. Long after his hiking days were over, he would spend hours sitting on the porch of his cabin, Echobank, with his binoculars, watching people walk across the Gulf Side Trail. He could even pick out the regulars 3000 feet above, and identify them by name.

My grandpa spent most of his professional life trying to preserve the land in the Whites and wrote about the men who almost destroyed it in his book Logging Railroads of the White Mountains. He closes the introduction by saying, “The rest of this book tells the story of the logging invasion – the combatants, the campaigns, the victories, and ultimate defeat, as the mountains were saved and put in trust for future generations.”

One-hundred years after “the mountains were saved,” I stood atop Bondcliff, a mountain in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The Pemigewasset Wilderness is 45,000 acres of protected forest, created by the White Mountain National Forest after years of unregulated logging ravaged the beautiful landscape. The WMNF was created by the Weeks Act of 1911 that allowed the government to purchase land in watershed areas in order to protect the natural ecosystems.

Perhaps it was out of respect for my grandpa and the relationship he had with the mountains that I found myself on Bondcliff, overwhelmed by the most beautiful view in the Whites.

As I stood in the center of the Pemi, it seemed as if all signs of human activity were absent from the panorama. A massive expanse of green spread out in front of me. Five hundred feet below, a bird sang in the valley. Clouds formed and slid up the cliffs, gaining speed as they rose out of the trees. As they leapt over the lip of the summit ridge, they curled over, falling back down into the evergreens.

But as I looked closely at the mountains, something unnatural blemished their sides. Long, spiraling lines ran up the slopes, like a topographical map inscribed in the trees. I realized they were the logging roads, their marks still on the land. Nearly one-hundred years after it was turned into a “wilderness,” the Pemi showed the scars of the industry that nearly destroyed it.

The history of the venerable peaks played itself out before me. The one-hundred foot Chestnut trees towering out of the valley. The loggers moving in; entire mountains stripped of their behemoths and roads carved into their sides. Finally the new trees sprout out of the naked slopes, rising from the rubble, their roots reclaiming the rotting stumps.

The Pemigewasset is an example of the rapacity of industrial America. It illustrates the conflict between Manifest Destiny and the desire to preserve the land’s natural beauty. The scars on the peaks of the Pemi remind us of the hubris that comes with the belief that the land is ours to do with what we want. In American history that belief has driven us to exploit much of the pristine land of our country. The Pemi is an attempt to alter that belief and say we would rather return it to its unspoiled state. But even time can’t erase the scars of the loggers, at least not 100 years.

That day atop Bondcliff, I realized my love for the mountains was completely entwined with my Grandfathers belief in preserving them. The day my dad got a call saying my grandpa’s heart was failing, he had a vision of my grandpa taking off his pack on top of Mt. Adams with all of the Whites spread out around him.

My grandpa succeeded in passing on his conviction for the mountains to my dad and my dad passed it on to me. I knew that day that if I were to honor my grandpa, a man I never knew, but felt completely akin to, in any way it would to be to continue to “put [the mountains] in trust for future generations.”

Belcher, C. Francis. Introduction. Logging Railroads of the White Mountains. By Belcher. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1980. 16. Print.