In 1990, at the ripe old age of 23, I decided that I would celebrate Independence Day, every year, on the summit of a mountain. That year, I scaled Grizzly Peak—the highest peak in Colorado not above 14,000 feet—before descending to nearby Aspen to listen to patriotic music in the town park.
Since then, I’ve mostly kept my word and have celebrated the 4th, give or take a few days, on the summit of mountains: Old Rag in the Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains, Wheeler Peak in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Every time I sit on a summit, I look out on the forests, lakes and towns below and to the distant horizon. I feel blessed to be alive and to be a citizen of my watershed, my bioregion, and yes—even my country.
Notwithstanding the current disgraceful political context, I felt the very same way just a few days ago, with my nephew, atop Mount Princeton—which is part of a range of high peaks in the San Isabel National Forest. The cool air and the incredible vistas were a pleasant counterpoint to the heat, smoke and fires that have been blanketing Colorado’s Rocky Mountains the last few days. It was my 42nd summit on my journey to scale all 56 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
Being on the summit of a tall mountain is a great place to celebrate freedom, the pursuit of happiness and a life well-lived. However, being on high peaks isn’t just a celebration of those inalienable rights, it’s also a celebration of the most valuable part of our heritage as American citizens: our public lands.
Those mountains might not be scalable if my name, your name and every citizen’s name wasn’t on the deed. Thankfully they are. Which means when someone like President Trump or his hitman at the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, is trying to sell off the public lands, we can do something about it.
This 4th of July, America’s national forests and public lands have never been more threatened—by an Agriculture Secretary who believes we should treat forests as crops, not as living ecosystems; by an Interior Secretary who questions the loyalty of the agency’s employees and wants to sell off our public lands to the fossil fuel industry; and by a President who has dismantled national monuments and sought to bankrupt our national parks.
If that may seem abstract then I ask you to engage in this, more personal, exercise. Just imagine your favorite spot on public lands, whether in the American West, Washington, DC or the Appalachians. Perhaps it’s an ancient forest you’ve wandered through, or a wild river that you’ve rafted or canoed, or maybe it’s a snow-capped mountain you’ve climbed. Or perhaps it’s a place you’ve never seen but yearn to experience one day.
Now imagine that place is fenced off with barbed wire and “No Trespassing” signs. That is our current nightmare as our President and our Interior and Agricultural secretaries look to enrich the few by privatizing our nation’s public lands.
I have written elsewhere and given speeches that there is no higher duty of a patriot than to defend the land. On this Independence Day, we need those kinds of patriots—and matriots too—who believe that the blessings of freedom come with the burden of responsibility. The responsibility to protect the things we cherish, whether that be the freedom to roam on public lands or the freedom of speech.
It’s been said that public lands are the last refuge of our democracy. If that’s true, then it’s because we’re all equal on public lands. Wild rivers, wild mountains and wildlife can remind us of that equality in tragic, humbling and graceful ways.
Equal before the law is a core American ideal that has taken some blows in the last 18 months. Even more so, the last few weeks have been hard for many of us who care about our justice system and our American ideals of caring for the weak and vulnerable. It’s been easier to feel discouraged.
When I retreat to the mountains and ascend into the high country, I feel more hopeful. As Wallace Stegner noted, “we simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
I like the experience of being in wild country and the challenge of climbing mountains. While the destination is often in my view I try to be present to the beauty of every part of the journey. I remind myself of that philosophy during these challenging times.
For those of us who care deeply about democratic ideals, we must remember that the struggle for justice, compassion and the dignity of all living creatures is one that will outlast our lifetimes. There will be mountaintops that we will rise up to meet and the experience of those moments will be grand. But it is the journey, not the destination, that sustains us.
As we all celebrate the 4th of July this year, I hope you are able to find solace in the land, in wildness and in your hopes and dreams for a better world.