Frank Vitale: Thoughts of a Wilderness Traveler

Editor’s note: At the Whitefish Range Partnership meeting where wilderness was first discussed, Frank stood up and read the following aloud to the assembled representatives and observers. The whole room burst into applause when he finished.

For those of you who know him, try to imagine Frank’s delivery, rhythm and passion as you read this . . .

It’s lost on me that some people feel wilderness locks them out and locks up the land.

I’ve spent the better part of my life traveling through wild country, both on foot and horseback. When I was younger I got angry with those who would oppose wilderness protection for the last of the wild country. But as I get older and a bit more gray around the muzzle my perspective has changed. I sort of feel sorry and even feel a bit of pity for those who feel wilderness is a bad thing. Perhaps they are afraid, intimidated or just insecure to venture beyond their comfort zone.

For me, wilderness is the greatest freedom I’ve ever known. I’m not alone in these feelings. Just ask anyone who has spent time traveling in wild country. There’s a feeling that’s hard to describe – a sort of magic when I cross the line. It’s the key that unlocks the universe. Ian Tyson says it so well in song:

It’s way out back and the back of beyond
Where the nights are dark as coal,
Where the circle stays unbroken,
Where the rocks begin to roll.

The mules feel it too. The whole string’s cadence of hoof beats picks up; their ears stand erect and forward as if they can read “Wilderness Boundary” on the old Forest Service sign. I can breathe a whole lot easier.

In this fast, crazy world of computers, cell phones, gigabytes, megabytes, YouTube and all this cyberspace stuff, I have my doubts all this technology has really set us free. For me, the sound of well-shod hooves on the rocks, the creaking of saddle leather, the pungent smell of good honest mule sweat tempered with the sounds and smells of the wilderness – That’s Freedom!

I’ll go as far as I need to go to make camp where there’s good water, good grass. I’ll turn the stock out, hobble a few so they don’t stray too far. I’ll hit the bedroll under the biggest, brightest mantle of stars you could ever put your eyes on. I’ll wake early; jingle the mules in; sip stout coffee while feedbags are flipped for the last of the grain.

While saddling up, the hard reality sinks in. We’re about at the end of this gig . . .  Riding down through the Front Range I’m thinking . . .  A hundred years ago, Charlie Russell wrote in his memoirs, “Trails Plowed Under,”

“They ain’t making wild country anymore. We stole most of it from the Indians for a dollar a day. That was cowboy pay in them days.”

As the trail winds its way east through steep, narrow, limestone canyons the wind begins to pick up as it usually does in this country . . .  Wait, I thought I heard some far-off distant singing; a chanting sound fading in and out with each passing gust . . .  Must be my imagination . . .  No, there it is again . . .  Listen . . .  A chill runs through me . . .  Is it the spirits of the “old ones” who passed this way a long time ago?

I’m still riding and I’m still thinking . . .  When I get too old to put my foot in the stirrup and swing into the saddle I’m going to make one request . . .  Just wheel me up to the edge of the wilderness so I can look in one more time to a place and a time where I found true freedom.