Guaranteed safety not included

I worked for a time in the Navy with a man who loved hunting, fishing, and generally being outdoors, but whose wife, he often said, defined “roughing it as a Holiday Inn without a swimming pool.”

I once was giving directions to a young woman as she was driving her admittedly nice car to a destination the route to which included a final section of dirt road. “I’m getting mud on my car!” she exclaimed as she drove through a puddle.

To a fellow who was raised where the directions ended with “after turning off the hard road,” such statements are humorous. They also paint an authentic picture of how we get used to our environment.

In 1973, I bought a new Datsun (Nissan by its other name) pickup. I took delivery of the truck and immediately drove it to the gas station where I worked part-time to show Mike, the owner and my friend.

“You need to install a liner in the bed,” was his first reaction.

“What for?” I asked.

“So you don’t scratch it up and get dents in it,” he explained. “So it’ll be worth more when you sell it.”

“Mike, it’s a truck!” I responded. “I don’t expect to sell it while it’s still worth anything.”

As it turned out, the truck made a couple of cross-country trips to Maine and Florida, took my growing family hunting and camping in the Sierra Nevadas, and when the Navy decided it needed my services in Alaska, the truck and my family went with me.

When I returned to the Lower 48, I sold the nearly four-year-old pickup, beat up from hauling stuff and from four-wheeling the one-wheel-drive vehicle where paved roads were permanently on the endangered list, for about $100 to a guy who, I heard, was still driving it four years later.

“Roughing it” clearly is a relative term. Unfortunately, many of us consider wilderness as an iconic spot at the end of a paved road, where we can stop in a paved, painted parking space and take pictures of a distant mountaintop thousands of our neighbors have photographed before us.

A party of dissatisfied vacationers once left this comment in the vacation company’s guestbook: “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”

We humans have a primeval need for wilderness almost as visceral as our need for smartphones. Our demand for it allows developers to sell us pictures of farms, cattle, trees and wildlife they will push aside to make room for the homes we will pay to build in pictures that will exist only in leftover sales brochures.

Or we find a place on a river or small pond, pave a road to it, build tiled changing rooms, rope off swimming areas and post lifeguards, and open concession stands to sell us “safe” water in plastic bottles we will toss on the ground or, at best, into a landfill-bound trash receptacle.

What we need are fewer No Trespassing and No Swimming signs (ask permission first, and four-wheelers on the hay field and free-range kids among the cattle might well be discouraged), and more laws like Pennsylvania’s Act 98 of 2018 which says if a landowner allows us to walk on their land for free to watch the birds, bugs and other critters, and we stub our toe on a tree root and maybe even break a leg, the landowner is not responsible. That’s just a risk of walking among the birds, bugs and other critters.

Safety is not guaranteed, but the reward is well worth the (mostly imagined) risk.

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