A Discussion About Wilderness: Backpacking and Fly Fishing in Northern New Mexico

There is a case for wilderness in the American West, which is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.” The problem is, this classification was written by colonizers and erasers of indigenous history. Humans have long inhabited these areas, before the Spanish or the Pilgrims infiltrated these lands, long before it was called New Mexico.

This topic is a heated one. Organizations like the Sierra Club lead the way in this classification, establishing rules about who can or can’t visit these lands: for instance, cyclists. I’m not here to talk about whether or not bikes should be allowed in areas classified as wilderness, so let’s step back a bit and discuss what that word, wilderness, means in the context of the original inhabitants of the Americas.

An Education on Racism in Wilderness Designation

My friend Jolie runs an Instagram account called Indigenous Women Hike. Having just completed a weekend backpacking trip with a small group of friends, I came across a post she had recently penned and it really made me think. The photos from the trip merited a gallery on this site but what about the discussion? As white folks, we ought to think about how we discuss the land which should not be limited to acknowledging the original inhabitants.

Jolie penned this on her Instagram and it really resonated with me:

“The men responsible for the creation of Public Lands were racist. Their racist ideologies have shaped American conservation and the way we experience the outdoors today. ⁣

White men created the industrial revolution then needed an escape so they stole even more Indigenous land and created ‘Public Lands’. Like a playground for them to escape to when their own mess had become too much. But these are not playgrounds they are the homes of Indigenous folx who had lived and still live in connection with them for thousands of years. ⁣

Public Lands were not created for all people. They were stolen from Native people for the benefit of white people. Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks who have only in recent history been given our right to vote and right to practice our own religions were not included in who would be visiting. Public Lands were established before we received our basic rights.⁣

People don’t understand how BIPOC can feel unsafe in the outdoors. Public Lands were created by racist white men with racist ideals. Our Lakes, Mountains, and trails now bare their names. Those names serve as reminders of who belongs. ⁣

This is why we reclaim land, why we reclaim names, why we reclaim our ancestral homelands. Our children need to know that they are the original caretakers of these lands and their history of traveling the Nüümü Poyo deserves to be known just as much (actually, more) as the man who only followed our trails. Black, Brown, and Indigenous folx deserve safety and access. ⁣

Look into your old conservation heroes. Research how Public Lands were created. I know so many Black, Brown, and Indigenous Land Defenders and Water Protectors who are still living that you can look up to. Replace those tired John Muir quotes with their words. Support and uplift their work. Find new heroes.”

Jolie speaks the truth and I do not doubt she has received negativity after posting her thoughts. There will always be pushback on ideologies straight from the mouth of BIPOC people because we live in a white supremacist society.

Look, I’m white. I’m a male. As I’m sure many of you are. While our generation didn’t pen the Wilderness Act or eradicate indigenous populations, we can speak out against it and educate ourselves. One of the ways I’m hoping to make a difference is by having these discussions on this very website, which are not always easy, but first, you have to be willing to grow and through that growth, can come change.

Part of the problem with white people speaking on behalf of Indigenous groups is we lack the verbiage, the understanding, the education of the way First Nations people speak of the land. It’s a white anthropological education problem. How many colleges employ Indigenous professors of history or geography?

My personal discussions with Jolie and other Indigenous people have brought to light that many of us are not equipped to educate in these matters, so let me emphasize that is not my intention here. All we can do is listen and try to understand their perspectives.

John Muir was a racist. His actions did lead to preserving land but at what cost? Edmund Jaeger was the first biologist to study desert creatures of the American West, yet his misogyny and sexist behaviors make it hard to even read his writings. Not to mention that Jaeger fed wild animals on his ranch in attempts to “study” them. Edward Abbey is largely responsible for bringing awareness to Canyon Country and inspired the Earth First movement, yet his racist, sexist, and downright despicable rants are anything but kosher in this discussion. There’s a theme here…

On the contrary, authors like Mary Hunter Austin wrote about Shoshone people as they were of the land, not a distraction from experiencing the land in her novella The Land of Little Rain. Mary was labeled a wild woman of the west by her peers. Yet, nothing in her writing is as controversial as her male counterparts of the era. Rather, she showed the first inhabitants of the land respect.

Historically, authors like her had a hard time finding publishers and I imagine, many women and BIPOC authors encountered similar barriers – which is still true to this day. Yet, they are out there. Indigenous authors are out there. We can all use more education. Remember, Indigenous people are still here. They are talking. The question is, are we willing to listen?

In terms of the construct of wilderness, and where we should go from here, I don’t have an answer, but I have an idea of where we could start. It took me a while to want to understand and to want to be educated. It took spending time in wilderness to want to question what that word means. These experiences brought me to seek out the perspective of people like Jolie and the following trip served as a catalyst for this growth. 

Reportage: Cross Country Backpacking into Wilderness

Since moving to New Mexico, Cari and I have been mindful of the current Pandemic, limiting our travel to about 60 miles from our home. In any direction, you can find various landscapes, with a variety of geological and ecological experiences awaiting.

Our friends Kim and Kyle Klain have spent the majority of their lives combing the backcountry on foot, bike, and 4×4, seeking out streams, rivers, and drainages in search of excellent fly fishing. It was their recent bikepacking trip along the CDT and an elk hunting expedition last year that turned them on to this particular area of northern New Mexico. So when they invited us to backpack in a wilderness area (that will remain nameless in this article), our interests were piqued.

The photos merely serve as a backdrop to this discussion and the Reportage as follows, context.

The rough idea was to meet up at camp on Thursday night, then Friday morning we would drive our 4x4s up to the wilderness boundary, park high on a ridgeline at 11,000′ and backpack into this basin, following only topography lines, “off-trail.”

“It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from which to study trails.”

– Mary Hunter Austin, Water Trails of the Ceriso

The thing about trails, is we often designate them as man or human-made. Trails have long existed before even early humans roamed this earth. They were made from everything ranging in size from single-celled organisms to deer, elk, and other animals. We are but just another mammal using them.

Kyle even joked that he spent so much time hunting growing up, following similar trails, that he was amazed to find there were actually things called “hiking trails” with markers and maps…

As soon as we were off the ridgeline and in the drainage, an Elk trail emerged, which we followed all the way down the valley. Off-trail? Hardly. Animals will always find the most efficient way through a landscape. Scientists have mapped land topography in computer models to calculate potential trails and every time, cattle will find the most efficient way to navigate even the most complex terrain.

Speaking of cattle, in New Mexico, cattle and ranch rights are grandfathered into land designation and with that, use permits. This also applies to wilderness-designated areas. The result is the destruction of delicate watersheds and riparian zones. Plus, many hikers ignore the “Please Close the Gate” signs, allowing cattle to graze in areas outside the land leases.

Cattle damage…

Our camp for the weekend neighbored the confluence of two creeks, or as they’re called in New Mexico, “rivers”. We spent the weekend stealth-fishing cutbanks with Tenkara rods, perfecting the technique of “blind casting” into areas where trout were hiding out. To give you an idea of how easily spooked these fish were, if you could see the water’s surface, you were too close.

We had to learn this technique and learn it fast for our caloric load for the trip relied on catching a few sizable fish to supplement our backpacking meals.

Waking up to a dew-covered tent and beautiful skies, we decided to move upstream in search of bigger fish. That’s when we found a few sizable holes with some rather large Brook Trout lurking.

A note about our intentions with fishing. I’m not necessarily in the mindset where I enjoy fishing for the sport of it. Instead, I’m usually trying to catch dinner. Yet sometimes you land small fish that you can’t eat, so releasing them as quickly and as safely is important. Even though it might look like torturous to the fish, these Brook Trout are invasive and bully-out the native Rio Grande Cutthroats, so I don’t feel too bad about eating these non-native fish…

After two days in relative solitude, fishing all day, and chatting by fire all night, we reluctantly packed up camp and headed north.

On our hike out, we tailed a heard of cattle, who were as shocked at our presence as we were at their ability to navigate the steep canyon thicket. We’d try to cut them off to gain ground, as to avoid trampling through fresh feces, only to be outsmarted at the last minute. This cat and mouse game enveloped much of our morning walk out of the basin until eventually, we decided to move straight up the canyon to the plateau at the top. 1,500′ straight up.

Resting in the shade of a lonesome pair of aspen trees, we looked out across the mountains, at the evidence of beetle kill, fires, and massaged our sore feet, while battling the emptiness felt in our stomachs. A horned lizard skittered away in the dry grass, feasting on ants. Horned lizards at 9,600′ elevation? Another sign of ecotonal shifts in the New Mexican high country. The snow line gets higher and higher each year.

We returned to our vehicles as a monsoon enveloped the blue sky. Lightning crackled, thunder rolled. It was time to get down to lower country. A ten-mile traverse along double-track awaited. Kyle remarked, “if it rains, we’ll be stuck here. There’s no point in trying to drive through the mud up on this ridge.” We booked it out as quickly as possible, still throbbing from the experiences of the last 48 hours, and my mind began to think about how this story would find a place on this website.

Wilderness, disambiguation aside, as a concept is important, yet it is riddled with a racist history. Yes, these designations protect land for future generations from mineral extraction and development but our dialog surrounding the concept of wilderness must adapt, evolve, and include the voices of those who were the original inhabitants of this land.

I don’t have answers to the questions I’m raising here and I need to further my own education on the matter. Reading quotes or snippets on social media from Indigenous authors is a start but I’d love to find some real meaty reading if anyone has suggestions because the only thing I’ve found so far is William Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. (You can read it for free on his website.)

Is there a way recreation can symbiotically exist with Indigenous people’s perspective of land and what it means to them?

This is the land of the Taos Pueblo people, who are very much still alive and present today.

“If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands.” – Chelsea Vowel, Métis, Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements found via