Most of Colorado is wilderness and I don’t have access to it because 1) much is inaccessible and 2) I have mobility problems, but it’s OK. Where once I thought “I have to see it” now I think, “I have to leave it alone.” I’m happy walking in semi-remote, semi-wilderness areas. I’m happy skiing on a golf course. I don’t think this is all the result of arthritis. A lot of it has to do with working for more than a decade in an urban wilderness park.
In 1988? 87? I first visited Mission Trails Regional Park it wasn’t a park. It was just 5000 acres of emptiness left over from WW II. The main feature was Old Mission Dam which had been built back in the day by the Kumeyaay Indians to supply water to the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. I didn’t venture in very far — just enough to see the November version of the San Diego River (“You call that a river?” said a Swiss student of the trickle that is the river most of the year)
I started hiking there every day. No one was there. There were some trails but not many. It was just a lump of wilderness surrounded by San Diego and suburbs. It was a landscape I didn’t know and I began learning it, but the first thing I learned was that we never know even the most familiar landscape. I hiked there nearly every day for more than 20 years, in all weather, all seasons, all times of day.
In the early nineties, we started seeing road-graders at work and sticks marking some major construction project. Ultimately we learned that HWY 52 was going to cross the northern boundary of the wilderness because, by god people have to go shopping and go to work.
For a while we made a quest out of pulling out sticks and mildly “monkey-wrenching.” Then, construction stopped for a short time when they found the bones of prehistoric horses. Of course that wasn’t enough to stop progress, so once enough bones has been excavated that they could be studied, it all began again. My wilderness was being cut in two and the former silence was filled with graders and trucks going backwards and forward. Still, once the road bed was graded it was a while before they began real construction. There was a lull in “progress.”
Circumstances led me to the top of South Fortuna in the wee hours of a December morning. That dark night Molly and I danced down a hill, enjoying silence and stars (not easy to see in San Diego). The NEXT day they finally began real construction on the road. After that it would carry cars.
Molly and I were there for the last silent night.
Part of the road deal included “mitigation” — acres given by the city to what would become the largest urban wilderness park in the United States. One Sunday afternoon, pure coincidence, I happened to see a few people wandering aimlessly around a small mesa near the intersection of Mission Gorge Road and Father Serra Trail. I went over to talk to them and that led to me being a member of the board of directors of the Citizens Advisory Council that would build the park. They needed someone who actually KNEW the landscape. I was to be the liaison between the board and the rangers, the board, the rangers and a volunteer organization that I would organize. The visitor’s center I “helped” build became a model for visitor’s centers all over the country. I would have a voice in the educational programs presented in the Visitor’s Center. I would organize volunteer tour leaders who would teach people how to care for that fragile landscape and teach children how to “see” it. To people who don’t know it, the coastal sage chaparral really looks like NOTHING.
“My” park was the first of its kind in this country. When the Garden of the Gods in Colorado wanted to build a real visitor’s center, they looked to ours. When I see signage on trails in my valley, I’m seeing echoes of “my” park. Parks like Mission Trails educate people to love and care for the wilderness. I’m proud to have been a part in establishing it and protecting it. Godnose those acres gave me so much. That they are not now a mall, freeway and water park is partly due to me. That’s the thing in my life I’m most proud of. I helped preserve 6000 acres of “wilderness.”
And it preserved my soul.
Now I live in a truly wild place. I sometimes think of it as my reward for the good things I did during my purgatory years in San Diego. Every time I go anywhere — Penitente Canyon, up one of the Frisco Creek trails, the Big Empty, anywhere — I see what I am able to see because of my apprenticeship at Mission Trails Regional Park. The whole time I was there I thought I was missing Colorado. The reality is that “my” chaparral was teaching me how to see and where to look so I could come back.
“This lovely being, which is alive to its last recesses and understands every feeling, soothed me, it cured me of my pains, and finally, when I had fully understood my love for it, it taught me freedom.” Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power
The title of this blog came from Beth who left the words on a comment on one of my blog posts.