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), and Watched by Wild Animals (1922). For the most part, these are collections of short essays, stories, and reflections. Surely some publisher should put them back in print, for if Mills is not Muir’s match as a naturalist or a psalmist, or Burroughs’s as a homespun philosopher, he is one of the creators of a certain kind of adventure story. Instead of the necessary trials, hardships, and discoveries of an explorer—for example, Lewis or Clark—Mills was one of the first recreational adventurers who went to the woods and mountains for their pleasures. When he found himself in difficult situations he examined their effects on his state of mind and heart. He rambled through the wilderness because he liked to, and innumerable others, now fitted out in goose down and Gore-tex, have followed him there.

One of the best of Mills’s stories, “Snowblind on the Summit,” also from Adventures of a Nature Guide, is a short account of a winter trip up Long’s Peak in Colorado that turns serious when he loses his slitted snow glasses:

At the summit my eyes became so painful that I could endure the light only a few seconds at a time. Occasionally I sat down and closed them for a minute or two. Finally, while doing this, the lids adhered to the balls and the eyes swelled so that I could not open them.

Blind atop the Continental Divide, a mile from the treeline and many more from shelter, without food, in the middle of winter, he is, “while well aware” of his peril, “only moderately excited.”

Fueled by a dozen raisins, he spends the next seventy-two hours stumbling down the mountain. First he feels his way to the treeline. (He wants to make sure he is on the eastern slope by confirming that the Engelmann spruce line the north slope and limber pine the south, but he can only do so by grubbing through the snow to feel the lichen on the rocks and the moss on tree trunks, and by studying echoes to gain a sense of the topography.) Sure enough, after shinnying down a thirty-foot tree to the bottom of a cliff, and after hiking for hours, he reaches the stream at canyon’s bottom.

While he is standing there an awesome avalanche crashes past ten feet in front of him. As he clambers across the debris he falls into the stream, catching himself before he is above his hips. (“This was a close call, and at last I was thoroughly, briefly frightened.”) He loses a snowshoe and finds it again after an hour of searching, makes a fire but has to abandon it because the heat sears his eyes, finally finds an empty cabin, breaks down the door, lights a fire, falls asleep, wakes up half frozen but “though unable to rise” he succeeds in starting the fire again. Continuing downward he nearly tumbles into a mine shaft before finally reaching a homestead. A day or two later his eyes recover.

Despite the thrills (and anyone who has done much winter camping will understand the astonishing courage of this blind trek), Mills should not be confused with the current crew of adventurers hang-gliding over active volcanoes or rowing across sixty-foot waves to reach the Antarctic. Not only did Mills lack corporate sponsors, he did not seek out danger. He simply found it every once in a while in the course of a lifetime spent wandering in the woods.

The two Mills adventures I’ve recounted both took place on Long’s Peak, near Estes Park, along the great divide of the Colorado Rockies. Though he saw a lot of the country, particularly the wilderness of the far West, Long’s Peak was Mills’s mountain—he built a cabin at its base in the 1890s, and later ran a small inn there. He hiked the high peak hundreds of times, by day and by night, in all kinds of weather.

In his rootedness in one spot, he was, of course, like Muir in the Sierras or Burroughs in his beloved Catskills, and utterly unlike most modern outdoorsmen who travel thousands of miles to make a single conquest. If by some chance they climb Everest twice they make sure to take a different route the second time, preferably a brand new one. The National Park Service carefully lays out loop roads through its preserves so that tourists won’t be forced to look twice at the same piece of scenery. And not content with simply waiting for something to happen, many of us seek out nature’s fierceness. I have friends who guide rafting trips through the fine gorge of the uppermost Hudson. Most of their clients, they report, pay no attention during the slow and beautiful drifts between rapids: it is the amusement park thrill that they have paid for.

Mills would not have understood either the contemporary need for novelty or the constant desire for sensation. Most of his finest essays—those in Waiting in the Wilderness (1922), for instance—celebrate sitting still in some small place and watching what happens.

Often I lay on a log or on the ground or hid in the bushes, or sometimes simply stood like a stump. Wherever I might be, without moving I let ants crawl over me and insects bite me as they would. Frequently there was a shower of rain, which when not accompanied by wind or lightning had a softening, subduing effect upon all the forest sounds.

And what marvels does such persistence reward him with! Over eleven days the woodpeckers cut twelve inches into a tree. A chipmunk rousts a field mouse from the abandoned woodpecker hole. Months later a pair of bluebirds drive off the chipmunk and raise five young on the spot. “That winter and the following summer I often saw a pair of tiny owls come out of the woodpecker’s old nest.” Deer, grouse, and beaver happen by. A chickadee builds a nest, a bear tips over an old ant-filled stump, a cub eats some chokecherries. “What a number of incidents in this little area! Quite as many may also happen in countless other small spaces.”

Such adventures seemed to be enough for Mills, and indeed for his many readers—his work was printed in Colliers, The Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, Sunset, Country Gentleman, and virtually every other popular magazine of his day. Thomas Hardy wrote at his death that “it is as if a mountain peak had sunk below the horizon.” Mills believed that if Americans were educated to see and understand just such small movements as he wrote about they would preserve the country’s great empty tracts from those whose interests were less than playful. He was a little right, of course, and a great deal wrong.

Mills was in some ways typical of his time. Born on a Kansas homestead in 1870, he left as a boy of fourteen to seek his fortune in the West. (Neither Mills nor his biographers, his wife Esther and Hildegarde Hawthorne, have much to say about his parents or his life on their farm.) He made enough money as a baker’s boy in Kansas City to buy a one-way ticket to “Denver City,” where, in the three years following, he obtained under the Homestead Act a tract of land on the edge of Long’s Peak and built himself a cabin. (The work slowed down for several months because blue jays nested in roof beams and he couldn’t bear to evict them.) To earn a living, he worked winters on a cattle ranch and then, from the age of seventeen, as a “tool boy” at the vast Anaconda copper mine in Butte, Montana. Overcoming a “weak constitution” (he gave up, on the advice of a camp doctor, all starchy food and exercised with Indian clubs, the Nautilus of the day), he quickly progressed to become a full-fledged mine engineer.

But he built up more than his upper body. Butte, a boom town of 15,000, could boast perhaps “the best library in the West.” To step “from a giant mining camp into a library,” Mills wrote later,

is like stepping from…darkness to light. At one there is noise, a beating and mangling of the earth in order to tear away its golden idol. A specimen is sacred; a stockholder a god. At the library, whosoever will may come and take specimens and nuggets galore.

He read not only Thoreau and Burroughs, both of whom influenced his prose, but Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Washington Irving, Parkman, Stevenson, Scott; he studied Thomas Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Spencer. To improve his writing, he set himself compositions on topics like “Egypt” and “Kansas” and “William Lloyd Garrison.” He rose to speak at the town forums—debated a Catholic priest on evolution, and proselytized (as if to show the limits of an eighteen-year-old autodidact) against vaccination, even going to the pesthouse to rub his hands on the sores of the sick, to show that a healthy man need not fear infection.

He was, in other words, a self-made young man, by then physically and mentally strong, and self-sufficient to a degree almost beyond modern comprehension. But he was not an Alger hero. He eventually turned his back on a possible career in the mine’s business office; in fact he worked part of each year for the mine’s high wages not out of ambition or thrift but because he needed the money to roam the West.

For several years he wandered through the mountain states, Canada, and Mexico. (By the end of his life, he reported, he had “camped alone and without fire-arm” in every state of the Union.) But it was in 1889 that the direction of his life was set. In December of that year, while wandering the beach in San Francisco, he stopped to ask a “handsome, tall, bearded man of about fifty” about a certain yucca plant. The man was John Muir, already well-known as a crusader for preserving Yosemite, who recognized the boy’s enthusiasm, took him for long walks, and urged him to learn more about the natural world and to spread the word about it.

You’ve your life ahead of you, Mills, and you can make it worth a great deal to America,” Mills recalled Muir’s telling him. (The story is in the biography by his wife Esther, whom he met relatively late in life and married only in 1918.)

From your knowledge of the forest, you have seen that it doesn’t take long for the selfish or the ignorant to bring about irreparable destruction. But the world doesn’t know this. You must tell them we are cutting down and burning up the forests of the West so fast that we’ll lay this continent as waste as China in a few generations. And the people need these beneficial influences; the poetry of nature makes better citizens of us all…. But there are so few who have seen this for themselves, lived so close to the heart of Nature and heard her story. You have done this, and you must take your stories of the Rockies to people choked up in cities, urge them to see the wild places of the West, arouse their interest in preserving this primeval beauty for their children and their children’s children.

Coming from the druid pope of the American outdoors, the grandest champion of the wild the nation ever knew, this summons was nothing short of a call. “If it hadn’t been for him, I would have been a mere gypsy,” Mills later said. Muir’s own life prefigured Mills’s—they wrote for the same magazines in the years following the turn of the century; they fought similar battles for parks on the spots each loved. Moreover, Muir’s words explained an entire approach, still perhaps the dominant one, to saying the wilderness that remained in America. His simple belief in the importance of setting aside parks of unspoiled land for people, given shape in his books and talks, and the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892, inspired the conservation movement of the Theodore Roosevelt years—in many respects its most successful period. No one did Muir’s belief inspire more directly than Mills, and in his career can be seen both its uses and some clues to its shortcomings.

In the early 1890s Mills returned to Long’s Peak, where he set about inventing the profession of “nature guide,” which, he predicted, “will become a nationwide and distinct profession, and, though different, rank with the occupations of author and lecturer.” By “nature guide” he meant something very different from the fishing and hunting guides common today throughout the backwoods—“individuals who can ride, shoot, cook a meal, pack a horse, and guide a hunting party to its goal.” The hunter’s chief aim, he wrote, “is to find and kill the bear, while that of the nature guide is to find the bear and enjoy him.”

He took hundreds of parties up and down Long’s Peak (a strenuous climb), explaining erosion, plant distribution, the habits of the porcupine (which cannot throw its quills), the strange history of the parasitic Indian paintbrush, the story of the timberline, the function of beavers, “wind—the great seed sower,” and a thousand other topics. “Nature-guiding is not like sightseeing or the scenery habit,” he cautioned in “The Evolution of Nature Guiding,” one of his essays that has been used by the National Park Service for training purposes in recent years:

The guide sometimes takes his party to a commanding viewpoint or a beautiful spot. But views are incidental. The aim is to illuminate and reveal the alluring world outdoors by introducing determining influences and the respondent tendencies. A nature guide is an interpreter of geology, botany, zoology, and natural history.

Above all, a nature guide stamps out superstitions as assiduously as campfires—Mills proved, for instance, that Groundhog Day was nonsense (one February he watched sixteen dens and found most groundhogs entirely uninterested in their shadows), and he ceaselessly assailed the idea that bears were ferocious. He confidently believed that

the increasing numbers of wildlife reservations and the enlarged numbers of people who have met bears face to face will, ere long, cast animal superstitions…into the scrap heap.

As a base for his operations Mills eventually bought and enlarged a small hotel adjoining his homestead and called it Long’s Peak Inn. And an odd inn he made of it! Upset that guests wasted time lounging about instead of hiking, he forbade card playing in the lobby. In building additions to the hotel he tried to avoid using cut wood and he mainly relied on trees felled by fire, many of them gnarled by the wind into unusual shapes. He encouraged people to go off in the rain and at night and alone. “If people became lost he never complained at having to send out rescue parties,” his biographers wrote. “He knew the adventure had been worthwhile for the lost; they would not starve, and unless they became panic-stricken, would not be apt to suffer serious hardship.” (A nobler place, America, before the age of litigation.) In the evenings he gave nature talks, and he personally supervised the meals to make sure his guests had calories enough to climb on. He even persuaded a big raisin concern to package their product in small, individual boxes for consumption on the trails!

Most of all he loved guiding small children. He refused to let them talk about the movies (“When a new boy or girl arrives,” he wrote in 1920, “he or she is generally full of movie talk”) and instead set them to counting spiders in fallen trees, took them on two-day outings to find the source of a stream, and tracked muskrats with them into abandoned beaver lodges. “The unfortunate attitude of the parent was an obstacle to every outing,” he wrote in an essay, “Children of My Trail School.” “Many were thrown almost into a panic when a trip for their children was proposed…. Each new parent on the scene exhibited a misunderstanding of the outdoors.” But the children—“every child has an inherent interest in the outdoors,” an interest that, “with a little tact,” can be made to infect “any or every phase of life.”

In some ways, Mills’s optimism has been borne out. Every child, while watching thousands of TV murders, sees along the way a few documentaries about stalking lions or mating giraffes—without an Enos Mills there might never have been a Marlin Perkins. And certainly the fight for parks had its victories—huge herds of cars and “recreational vehicles” roam the country from one of these great parks to the next, and there they find the professional brochures and “mixed media” shows of the park rangers. And certainly, too, man has learned much more about the natural world—our biologists know a hundred times as much about the beaver as the best scientists of Mills’s day.

But if man knows more today, men know less. This axiom (the proper slogan for our strange age of information, when most of us have many impressions but little accurate information) is nowhere truer than with respect to our understanding of the physical world. Mills was successful in his crusade to establish Rocky Mountain National Park (a crusade which often found him giving hundreds of lectures a year), and people every year visit national parks in record numbers, but if you hike a mile from any national park parking lot, you can be as alone as Mills was a century ago. (The brief boom in wilderness travel seems to be abating—the National Park Service reports that requests for back country hiking permits have declined 50 percent in the last decade.)

We go to parks for thrills—to watch Old Faithful explode, to peer over the awesome overlooks of the Grand Canyon, to stare up at El Capitan. We leave, having crossed another “must-see” off the list, but we don’t seem to learn much. I live on the edge of the woods, and there are bears hooting and coyotes howling at night. Visitors often want to know how dangerous they are, and express an invincible skepticism when I say they are not dangerous at all. Our failure to understand the chemistry of the upper atmosphere or the ozone layer will cost us dearly. But also we have yet to understand bears.

Nowhere is this failure clearer than with children, in whom Mills put such faith. When he died in 1922 (after being injured in a subway-car accident in New York while on a speaking tour), the American Boy magazine said, “All American boys are bereaved at Mr. Mills’ death.” That was probably an overstatement, but at least it was not ludicrous, just seventy years ago, to speak of a creature called the American boy and to imagine that he might be interested in the natural world, in bird’s nests and campfires. Most boys of my acquaintance (even the word “boy” sounds dated) are more interested in “movie talk” and its modern counterparts—which certainly makes sense since they live remote from nature. If some of them (and some American girls) are interested in science, they are far more likely to care about rockets, about transcending the limits of this world, than about sitting in an aspen grove day after day to see what the woodpecker is up to. There are still Boy Scouts, and I presume they still build campfires, but plenty of merit badges are awarded for mastering subjects like Community Relations.

It is safe to say, I think, that for most of us the real world is not the natural world but the manmade one. Even if people abandon their Winnebagos and spend two whole weeks camping in the Colorado Rockies, their world is the world of the city or the suburb where they live. Mills and Muir overestimated the power of parks because they spent their entire lives there—they came to believe that amid such beauty and bounty the material preoccupations of our species were absurd and destructive. But if you live in an apartment, this belief may seem far from your own concerns.

The elevation of the human world over the natural world has had many consequences, of course, and it will have many more—we stand on the edge of the green-house era, with little idea of how to cope with an artificially overheated planet. It didn’t have to be this way: Americans could conceivably have learned the lessons of Mills and Muir and Thoreau and chosen to live in more harmony with nature, to limit our numbers and our way of life.

An anecdote that Mills tells about Theodore Roosevelt helps to explain his reasons for optimism in thinking we might at least learn enough about nature to preserve more of our wilderness. Roosevelt, of course, was a superlative naturalist. “Some years ago,” writes Mills in his essay “Censored Natural History News,” “a lumber company endeavoured to acquire a large block of timberland from the government.” Roosevelt was reluctant, but agreed to see the company’s agent:

During the discussion the manager exhibited photographs alleged to be of the tract in question. The leading photograph was marked: “Engelmann spruce on southern slope of Granite Mountain, altitude 7,000 feet.” Roosevelt at once asked concerning the accuracy of the legend. The manager doubly assured him of its absolute accuracy. Roosevelt knew spruce and other tree habits and habitats in the locality represented, and realized that the Engelmann spruce was found mostly on cool northern not warm southern slopes, and at an altitude of 9,000 feet or more, and not as the legend said, at 7,000 feet.

The most popular president of our own era, of course, thought trees were mainly responsible for pollution; the incumbent, the “environmental president,” roaring through the waters off Kennebunkport in a haze of noise and wind and blue smoke, will have to make more choices about the health of the planet than any before him. Our understanding of the natural world is dying out. Which is all the more reason to blow on such sparks as the splendid essays Enos Mills has left to us.