Hero of the Wilderness

The traditional mountain-climber’s reason—“Because it was there”—has always seemed witless to me. I much prefer the answer given by Enos Mills (1870–1922), who was among the most loved nature writers of the first two decades of this century and who styled himself America’s first professional nature guide.

In “Wind Rapids on Heights,” an essay from his finest book, The Adventures of a Nature Guide (1920), Mills describes climbing Long’s Peak in Colorado in a February gale. He stopped to read the anemometer he’d installed at 12,000 feet—it was spinning wildly, registering 170 miles per hour. But he decided to press on to the summit, 2,200 feet above.

Ever from some quarter came an unending roar. Splendid were the deep sounds and thunderings, ponderously heavy and prolonged were the booms of the wind. These often mingled with terrific, crashing explosions which even the elastic air did not always soften. There were long ripping sounds as the diverted wind rolled up a slope or tore around a corner.

Above 13,000 feet he compared the wind to the fiercest river rapids: “Rock projections, behind which I hoped to find shelter, were more unfriendly places than the open…. The wind appeared to surround them with increasing speed…. It hurled me off with centrifugal motion each time I made close approach.” There was no escape from the onslaught—“each time that I hugged the earth more closely than usual, the wind took a sheer delight in paying me personal attention…. Once I was picked up carefully by a current that carried me off as carefully as if to first aid; but from this I was rudely snatched by the angry wind.” Anticipating that the reader might wonder why he did not at that point try to go down the mountain, Mills writes:

Irresistible is nature’s call to play. This call comes in a thousand alluring forms. It comes at unexpected times and sends us to unheard-of places. We simply cannot tell what nature will have of us, or where next. But from near and far, ever calls her eloquent voice…. We rush to respond and fix our eyes on a happy horizon, but ere we reach it she calls elsewhere, and elsewhere, with the highest hope of a boy at play, we hasten. It was seriously splendid to play with these wild winds. There is no greater joy than wrestling naked-handed with the elements.

In his day Mills was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as the “two Johns,” Burroughs and Muir. Though most of his books have been for generations out of print, the University of Nebraska Press has recently reissued Wild Life on the Rockies (1909) and will publish The Spell of the Rockies (1911) in November. A grandson, Michael Mills Kiley, is trying to interest publishers in a selection of his best later essays from In Beaver World (1913), Adventures of a Nature Guide (1920), Waiting in the Wilderness (1921 …

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