John Muir said “Going to the mountains is going home.” If you can relate, there is no shortage of places in the greater Inland Northwest that should feel like home. This is OTM’s second annual “Backcountry” issue, so a cover story highlighting a few wild, mountainous places that you can drive through, with drool-inducing views and inimitable trails and campsites along the way, seemed like a perfect fit.
My addiction to exploring such out-of-the-way places in whatever ramshackle vehicle I had at the time (or, more often, in the more reliable, higher-quality vehicle of a hiking/biking buddy) started back in college. Back roads through remote, primitive country called out from guide books, worn road atlases with missing pages and from too many barstool conversations with wild-eyed characters in small town taverns. If there was a “road” in questionable condition to the bottom of Hells Canyon or another splitting two of the biggest wilderness areas in North America, I had to check it out.
Roads that head into the middle of nowhere or that flirt with large blocks of wild country usually have a lot to offer in the way of high quality outdoor recreation experiences: amazing views; uncrowded trails and camp sites; clear, cold creeks and rivers; plenty of chances for cool and unusual wildlife encounters; interesting old cabins, lookouts, mines and other historical sites; and a general feeling of real solitude and primordial wildness that can certainly feel like home when you’re kicking back in your lawn chair gaping into the void of some bottomless canyon or out at a mind-numbing display of endless peaks. That is if you’re in to that sort of thing.
“Backcountry” is one of those words, like wilderness, that has meaning to many of us beyond formal definitions. Even living in the city, at least around here, the possibilities for backcountry-like experiences close to home are boundless, with plenty of public lands and trails connecting the urban home front to rural landscapes and mountains far beyond the county line.
In the week leading up to writing this, out running on trails near the river, my sense of urban and rural, civilized and wild, became pleasantly blurred on two separate occasions. Along a little-used foot path in a dense stand of pines near the Bowl & Pitcher, I found myself surrounded by four curious coyote pups that stared back at me as I watched them from a few yards away. I caught my breath and sweated while they scratched, sat, or weaved in and out of stunted trees, seemingly contemplating their next moves. Days later, even more surprisingly, a badger bolted in front of me suddenly from a well-manicured yard and across a city street into the dark, wooded river gorge beyond. We sure are lucky to live in a place where we don’t need to leave town for a backcountry experience, but that sure is nice too once in a while. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” said Muir. Amen to that. //