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Paying Forward Wildness In A World Consumed By Self-Interest

Timothy Tate treks into the Yellowstone backcountry and ruminates on an ethic present in three generations

Bison move across Yellowstone's Fountain Paint Pots as if part of a surreal wild illusion.  Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
Bison move across Yellowstone's Fountain Paint Pots as if part of a surreal wild illusion. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
There are portals to the eternal that await our human passage. 

There are pools of swirling mountain water vivid in their transparency beckoning us to a kind of baptismal awakening. 

There are trees so resolute in their standing that neither lightning strikes nor beetles daunt—holding their ground for centuries, unmoved, indifferent to us but bearing witness to the flow of time. 

Should this description sound to you as too religious then perhaps you have not walked through such a portal or opened yourself up to recognizing its appearance. 

Reverence is the spirit that I’m writing about here, not ecclesiastical reference. 

The big eternal is all that exists beyond the hungry grasp of our wincing ego. And you won’t see it if your whole orientation to the world is akin to Narcissus gazing into the pool, admiring one’s own self-reflection.

The portals I mention are invisible to many, especially the young who believe themselves immortal.

Such portals evoke, for me, the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery through the character of the fox in his book The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one sees clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

When I am not in session having conversations with clients, I try to ground myself, as much as possible, in places of the heart. Heart, as opposed to rational thinking mind, is a place where you have a reciprocal relationship with the good things that fill you up; you make a contribution to their well-being as a gesture of altruism for what they give to you. It goes along the lines of what the Beatles sang in their last album, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

As noted, above, it is not often that the young ponder issues of legacy, whatever the topic, but here I am pondering the hand-off of public lands, the sacred obligation of passing them along in a greater, not lesser form.

° ° ° °

Recently my son, his wife, and two granddaughters found a portal of our own seeking in a backcountry backpacking journey to the furthest southwest quadrant of Yellowstone National Park. Our objective was to reach our campsite seven miles in by traversing high ground that mercifully was rather level. 

We had chosen the Union Falls Trail, since our final goal was to view its 265-foot tall cascade. The only way backcountry backpackers can get the necessary permits for these reserved sites is to visit the Yellowstone Park backcountry office in West Yellowstone, Montana near the park’s west entrance the day of their departure. 

Rather than allowing for dispersed camping with no limits on numbers, as happens with many areas in our national forests and pieces of Greater Yellowstone administered by the Bureau of Land Management, reservations mean Yellowstone Park’s sites are rationed; that’s what makes trips there coveted and special. Wildlife doesn’t need to worry that their haunts will be overrun by too many people.

The backcountry office opened at 8 a.m. so I arrived at my son’s home in the Elk Grove subdivision west of Bozeman off of US Highway 191 at 6:30. giving us a chance to make the 90-mile trip and be positioned near the front of the line.

The attending backcountry ranger knew the trek in could be grueling. Looking at us, he noted an alternative trail to Union Falls that didn’t feature “Cardiac Hill.” Diagnosed with arteriosclerosis as I am, an alternative to such a pitch caught my ear. He suggested Fish Lake Trail, closer to the way we were approaching from Ashton, Idaho. 

Permits in hand we departed unsure which trail we would choose and how to find it off the washboard gravel road along Yellowstone’s southern border, connecting eastern Idaho with Flagg Ranch.

The parents and the precocious teenage granddaughter and I discussed the alternatives presented through the various GPS maps available on our respective cellular devices as we drove 30 miles east of Ashton across a mixed use landscape featuring amber waves of grain, tidy farmsteads, forested plots, mature aspen groves rustling in the mild mid-70s temperature breeze and the vast rolling landscape held fast by the ragged Tetons in the approaching distance to the south. 

We decided to give the Fish Lake Trail a go since the topo map showed mild inclines over the distance we were to trudge. Fortunately we met no oncoming vehicles on the rutted dusty road into the trailhead. It set the tone for escaping the harried pace of humanity rapidly overtaking the once quiet ambiance of Bozeman.

There were no apparent turn outs and the pick-up clearance was just enough to navigate the mini-sinkholes encountered.  After about three hours of travel time that elapsed from Bozeman, we bailed out of our rig only to heft on our backpacks ranging from the 60 pounds my son carried through to the 40 I strapped on, down to the ten- year-old’s burden.

The message of asking every participant to carry some weight is all part of the tradition.

It had been at least 12 years since my last solo backpacking trek up to Elephant Head mountain in the Absarokas. Some claim that backcountry camping is on the wane in America which is probably a good thing as front-country areas, be it in Yellowstone, the perimeter of Hyalite Reservoir or the chain of lakes at the foot of the Tetons, get inundated and ever trampled.

In the proposed new plan for managing the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, Hyalite Reservoir is scheduled to have expanding numbers channeled around its perimeter; with Yellowstone/Gallatin County now at 110,000 inhabitants; what will it be in a generation or two with 220,000 or 440,000?
The Tate clan as it prepares to pass through a portal of shared experience.  Tate says the sacred does not only mean recognizing the gifts of a divine presence greater than ourselves; it is also about creating traditions of values that serve a higher good and that are passed along from one generation to the next.  It's a lesson not always apparent to the young yet venerated in the wisdom held for indigenous elders.  Photo courtesy the author.
The Tate clan as it prepares to pass through a portal of shared experience. Tate says the sacred does not only mean recognizing the gifts of a divine presence greater than ourselves; it is also about creating traditions of values that serve a higher good and that are passed along from one generation to the next. It's a lesson not always apparent to the young yet venerated in the wisdom held for indigenous elders. Photo courtesy the author.
What arrested my attention, as we entered Yellowstone, was that there were three generations heading up the trail, all at similar ages of introduction to such arduous magnificence.

Almost 60 years earlier, I was introduced to backpacking at age 12 by my sister and her doctor husband in the Beartooth Mountains via the Stillwater drainage, whereas I introduced my son, escorted by my sister, headed up to Pine Creek Lake above Paradise Valley at around the same age, and here were his daughters with six backpack trips already under their belt at the tender ages of ten and 15. 

There is a moment of resolve, reached each in our own way, that initiates that first step through the portal into wilderness where all bets are off and a tremor ripples across our psyche registering that we are not the dominant species in these parts.

It is incomprehensible to me how friends and colleagues of mine can strap on expedition class packs and head off into 14,000 to 29,000-foot elevation destinations. My 71- year old frame was maxed out with this load on this land. I go relative low-tech. My backpack was a classic Jansport external frame type, Keen boots, and recently gifted sheared bison fur socks on my ready feet. 

I was enamored with the idea that my feet were wrapped in woven bison material. I imagined that my 10- year-old granddaughter and I would bring up the rear of our family column but out in front she charged filling me with pride. 

We soon fell into a trail cadence that matches inhale-exhale with stride and footfall. Me as old granddad was content to mind my own pace vigilant about foot placement mindful of not wanting to burden the clan with a twisted ankle or wrenched knee. This I could do but the river crossing up ahead was a different challenge.

° ° ° °

There are things I can no longer do, places I will never reach again, but I hold no grudge. In this new age of e-bikes I could probably ride one to reach places I experienced while in my 30s but to me that would be a violation of the essence of place, putting my wants ahead of the needs of place to be left untrammeled. This is the gift I give to my grandkids.


Years ago I stopped wade fishing over slippery moss covering submerged river rocks as a concession to aging and waning balance. I know men my age use a singular trekking pole to stabilize but with a rod, a fishing vest and net, I feel more like a clown. Facing a broad river in Yellowstone, knee deep, with a swift current I stood there perseverating. 

My 50-year-old beast of a man-son came quietly up to my side shouldering his heavy weight saying: “Dad, I got this. I will crossover with my pack and come back for yours.”

Why I tear up at this memory suggests the depth of ease and dignity with which I was treated by my son who, perhaps like his father, is not prone to saving people from their own challenges. But on this river and two more streams along the trail, that as a family we needed to cross, he did the same move all at once carrying my back on his shoulders and his youngest daughter’s under his arm.

Doubtless, when his time comes, standing where I am, he will not self-indulgently ride an eBike either. And so our tradition for place goes.

° ° ° ° 

We saw but a dozen people hiking on the trail in the Yellowstone Park backcountry over three days. We did encounter and adjust our position on the trail to accommodate three different horse encounters: two pack trains and one group of cowboys. Damn, horses are impressive beasts when contrasted to hikers. I both envied the riders and had a smidge of contempt for the wealthy ones, dressed to the nines in backcountry fashion garb led by tough women wranglers up the trail that was taking me to the limit of my capacity. 

Still, they moved at slower speed which was in tune with the place.

The day after my arriving home I returned to Yellowstone but this time hosting my wife’s sister and husband on a drive through the late summer visitor madness.

We, like other locals, tend to write-off summer visits to the park but there are portals to be had. Yet I was unprepared for the sheer volume of people, vehicles, and selfie-sticks leading the charge up the paint pots trail.

Driving onward to Midway Geyser Basin where the normally serene evocative Grand Prismatic Spring steams was impossible to access with a line of cars snaking out of the parking lot and both shoulders of the road loaded with vehicles for hundreds of yards.
Midway Geyser Basin in summer. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Midway Geyser Basin in summer. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
I liken this spectacle of visitor surge to a summer state fair where the attractions overwhelm the animals. It would be easy to judge this free for all but how many times have I heard from adults who live in the Deep West that this type of exposure to the grandeur of Yellowstone and the Tetons viewed from the back rear facing seat of the family station wagon would ignite their young minds to a vow of return?

This contrast between the public drive-by access to Yellowstone’s features and the backcountry story is the crux of my contemplation here. What price does the frontcountry pay in order to  keep the backcountry in its self-willed naturalness?  Some 99.9 percent of Yellowstone visitors will never enter the Bechler but the wildlife living there are not complaining. 

Do we have to earn access to the wonders of our land or is public access to such magnificence an entitlement afforded to people whether they understand the importance of dwindling wild places or not?

It’s like the challenges implicit in gaining entrance into the sacred inner sanctum. We can view the sites which hint at the sacred but to earn the rights to the experience of the raw divine demands sacrifice. It’s like in therapy sessions; the deeper conversations and insights happen when one’s defensive armor of ego is checked at the door.

Tate has made peace with knowing there are places his aging body will never allow him to reach again;  part of growing old, he says, is letting go of being ego-centric.
Tate has made peace with knowing there are places his aging body will never allow him to reach again; part of growing old, he says, is letting go of being ego-centric.
Many elderly, infirmed and unfit people would love to stand on top of the Grand Teton or Granite Peak in the Absarokas or Gannett Peak in the Wind Rivers. Is it discriminating if there’s not an ADA-qualifying elevator there to transport them to the summits? Is that a compelling argument for e-bikes? I would say there’s a paradox: if it requires an e-bike to penetrate wild lands, then maybe it confirms the reasons why you may wish to head somewhere else.

If destinations are easy to access or girded with handrails to make them safer, then what is lost? 

Do people hold as much reverence standing in the observatory deck of the Empire State Building as they do in reaching the ridge of the Bridgers? I can tell you this: the sight of a wild, skittish moose, wary of humans offers a different portal than encountering a semi-tamed, one walking the streets of Jackson, Wyoming.

° ° ° °

The Bechler Area’s campsite, 94A, was worth the small price of admission. We reached it drenched in sweat mingled with guts and seasoned by the knowing we were there to absorb our surroundings, not fly through in a rush.

We witnessed Union Falls—only 40 feet less a cascade than the more iconic Yellowstone River Lower Falls. We were on a quest to discover its hidden nature which according to the tradition of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is called Beyul or hidden paradise that must be discovered. 

According to this principle, “Buddhists texts indicate beyul are discovered when the planet is approaching destruction and the world becomes too corrupt for spiritual practice.” Right you are, and what I interpret it to mean is that the real discovery must happen within; it’s the discovery of humility, not of checking another box on the bucket list.

Alan Watts in his last work Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, intimates this principle, one he lived out in his hut on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California., stating that: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” 

Beyul’s must be discovered. I imagine readers of Mountain Journal know such certain places. Indeed, Watts called his book a “mountain journal.” 
Recreating in wilderness is not simply enough to achieve its protection. We must advocate for its protection before and after we return home again. Sometimes, allowing wildness to persist might mean acknowledging that its mere existence is enough without us in it. That’s the essence of the sacred portal where giving exceeds taking.
The climbers I serve in my work with North Face athletes are called to such summits. Those of us who choose to live in mountainous habitats are drawn on quests for such succor. Certainly my son and his family (our daughter as well) are called to such a discovery. There’s something to be said for saying you went to a larger region—such as the Bechler—and not creating a treasure map and posting it on the internet for all to follow.

We did discover such a place that will remain unnamed and unidentified so that it will never appear in a guidebook replete with GPS coordinates. Sitting in its 86- degree water while my family stepped off the rocks into its pool and clambered under its waterfall brought me to a moment of utter satisfaction knowing that the legacy of individuals and families who hear the call of the wilderness is still alive. 

The sacred, abundant in the Yellowstone backcountry, is waiting for you, rationed for its perpetual safekeeping. You simply have to discover the portal.

As enchanting as this idea sounds there is more to the sanctity of the wilderness than finding a way in. 

Actually, the challenge we face in our lifetime is whether or not such wilderness will exist in the decades coming in any recognizable shape or form. We argue sillily over the definition of “wilderness” but we know how wilderness feels when it has its wildlife and its wildness intact, and isn’t stripped way by those who haven’t a clue what making space for wildness outside of their own desires means.

° ° ° °


Will my 11-year-old granddaughter lead her son or daughter down the trail as her father and grandfather did when they are her age in 2049? The answer to the question waits in the narthex of the future but what is alive today is the manner in which we conduct ourselves as stewards of the land. Humility is a teaching.

One way to foster deliberate conscious action is to instill in our young through leading by example and providing them with exposure to the sacredness of wild spaces, explaining why they are so. 

This means that the apparent tidal wave of self-absorption, where an inanimate cellular device has become our closest and dearest intimate relationship, must be addressed. 

Knowing what wilderness is originates in our soul. Without a vibrant relationship within our own psyche to the wildness of life, we domesticate the world to fit our small personal selfie frame. Is it not the role of elder to initiate the young into the mysteries of life? And is not one of the more robust mysteries of life the wildness of wilderness? 

If that is true then each of us who choose to live in the battleground of the deep Mountain West have an ethical responsibility to instill an inchoate sense of responsibility in the minds of our young that the wild is home,  offering temporary inhabitation for us, permanent to other creatures that live there. 
All this means, in its most essential form, is to take your children or grandchildren into the woods on a walk or hike as often as possible. Do it with passion for exploration, with empathy for other creatures, and to ponder even restraint. It might mean teaching that places have limits, that fewer of us might be better, and that there might be places where we shouldn’t be at all. 

We must endeavor to model and reinvent an intimate relationship with nature that is more meaningful, respectful and enduring than boasting on social media platforms how we built a trail  that changed the character of a place forever.

This gathering of awareness that comes from exposure to the natural world with simple gear and no social media connection revives the human imagination—the ultimate source of creativity for our species.

Recreating in wilderness is not simply enough to achieve its protection. We must advocate for its protection before and after we return home again. Sometimes, allowing wildness to persist might mean acknowledging that its mere existence is enough without us in it. That’s the essence of the sacred portal where giving exceeds taking.

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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