Alex Hutchinson is a Toronto-based author and writer. A former columnist for Runner’s World, he writes the “Sweat Science” column for Outside magazine and is a contributing editor there. Hi most recent book is Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance (2018). (November 2019)
Wilderness, the environmental historian Roderick Nash has argued, is not so much a place as an idea—one enshrined in the 1964 Wilderness Act’s somewhat whimsical legal definition of wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” That idea of wilderness as the absence of humans remains implicit in much of how we think and talk about wild places. Yet the only reason early European settlers found the land seemingly empty was that as much as 95 percent of the indigenous population had already been wiped out by European diseases transmitted at initial contact. Moreover, the “primeval” landscapes from the Great Plains to the Amazon rainforest didn’t exist in untouched, Edenic form; they had already been widely modified by human activity. All of this undercuts the stories I like to tell myself about why I love wilderness travel.