The Wilderness Next Door

In 1934, Everett Ruess walked into the canyonlands of southern
Utah never to be heard from again. His last letter, to his brother,
proclaimed

I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky
to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the
unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to
the discontent bred by cities.

Hollister – In 1934, Everett Ruess walked into the canyonlands of southern Utah never to be heard from again. His last letter, to his brother, proclaimed “I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and the star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities.”

At times, many of us feel the same call of the wild that Ruess must’ve felt — the desire to escape, at least temporarily — from the boredom, structure, and pressures of modern society. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds we hear the ancient call towards the self-sufficiency and freedom and connectedness that our distant forebears must have experienced.

Thanks to decades of hard work by people who recognized the need to preserve wild lands as soul escapes, wildlife sanctuaries, for scientific research, and for the sake of preserving wildness in the face of exponential population growth, the U.S. congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964. The law recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Over the last 40 years, this law has designated 677 areas as wilderness, covering 107 million acres of wild lands in 44 states. However, this protection represents only 2.5% of the continental U.S., and 5% of Alaska, and many roadless areas still need to be protected.

California followed suit in 1975 with a wilderness act of its own, to preserve additional pristine areas outside of federal lands. Under this legislation, in September 1981 the State purchased 34,800 acres adjoining the northeastern boundary of Henry W. Coe State Park. In 1985, 23,300 acres of this addition were classified as a Wilderness Area, forever protected and preserved so that future generations of Californians could find solace there. The new wilderness was called Orestimba, a name that has persisted over the centuries and is thought to derive from the Ohlone Indian “ores”, their name for the grizzly bears that once roamed there.

Wilderness is wild: there are no roads or buildings, no mechanized transport of any kind, not even bicycles. In the Orestimba, there are few visitors due to its remoteness and inhospitable summers. Aside from a few homesteaders and miners, few humans have spent much time there since the decline of the Ohlone. Today there is little indication of human civilization aside from a few faint trails and the contrails of passing planes.

There are no day hikes into the Orestimba. For strong backpackers, to reach the border of the wilderness is at least a day’s hard walk from the Coe visitor center, longer for most. Ambitious hikers could spend their first or second night at Mississippi Lake and then walk the Hartman Trail to Orestimba Creek “road” (a creekbed) and up into Paradise Flat.

Paradise Flat is a beautiful wide, flat valley of tall grass and flowers that can best be described as savannah like that seen on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when we were all younger. There used to be an airstrip there for hunters or ranchers or both. My first impression upon seeing this valley was amazement. Amazement that such a perfect place had escaped permanent settlement and the eventual ruin that follows. To discover that such places still exist, unaltered by man, was an exciting and hopeful experience. This wasn’t a frozen mountain range, scorching desert, or impenetrable jungle, yet civilization had passed it over for some odd combination of reasons. In that way the Orestimba reminds me of Carrizo Plain, another such forgotten land.

From Paradise Flat, you can spend a couple days exploring the Red Creek, Robinson Creek, and Pinto Creek drainages. Red Creek and Robinson Creek have cut wide flat valleys in which you would expect to see cabins but there are none. You won’t want to leave. Once you overcome the exuberance that accompanies finding such places, you will begin to feel that connection with the land that most Americans will never find. For those who visit there not to be permanently altered in some way would defy understanding. A visit to the Orestimba will certainly make you respect wilderness advocates, if it doesn’t make you one.

Take a few days off from work this fall or next spring and instead of driving to the Sierras, load up your pack and strap on your boots and make the short drive up East Dunne to the Coe headquarters, your portal to the wilderness next door.

“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth . . . the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had the eyes to see. –Edward Abbey

Jeff Winkler is a Volunteer, at Henry W. Coe State Park

Leave your comments