For five years, I was a competitive cyclist—not competitive against Lance Armstrong of course, but I trained for hundreds of hours a year, joining a community of amateur athletes who found it prudent to spend more money on their bicycles than their cars. Aside from the spending habits, it was a surprisingly thoughtful community. Certainly part jock, but also part philosopher: probably because on long rides there’s little else to do but debate and think. Over the years, cycling became a big part of my identity.
Then at a local race I received a flyer denouncing protections for California’s wilderness. People I’d known for years were claiming that because biking isn’t permitted in wilderness, wilderness designations were arbitrary—even discriminatory—to those who identify as “mountain bikers.”
Now, during this same period of my life, I hiked the John Muir Trail. The Trail covers 211 miles of California’s wildest mountain scenery, and I traversed its entire length, alone. I explored canyons, watched wildlife, and just hiked along, discovering who I am.
But because most of the Trail is protected as wilderness, I was away from my bike for three weeks. If I were to view the value of the Trail only from my perspective as “cyclist,” then I might not get past the fact that the Trail’s designated wilderness means there are fewer places to ride.
But I am not my bike. I am also attorney, brother, professor, lover, Chaldean, and many other things that can’t be stated in a single breath. Wilderness provides opportunities to engage these other parts of me, portions of my identity that the civilized world may be too busy or callous to care for. In that sense, wilderness preserves not only the world, but also who we are.
On that race day, however, the person who handed me the flyer explained that for those who identify solely as “mountain biker,” wilderness restricts their freedom to be who they are. But between the mountain biker who’s constructed such a constrained identity, and the cyclist who has not, I ask you to consider which one of us is truly free.
With a perspective, I’m Brent Plater.