Mountain Running, Wilderness, and MTC

Photos by Ed Iversen

I’m pleased to announce, as we welcome a new year, that Montana Trail Crew is now incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in Montana. MTC is here to stay. And we hope that it will serve the trail and ultra running community as a source for information and good stories. 

And yet we hope it does even more, and this larger purpose is a central reason why we filed our papers. We would like to serve as an educational and conservation-based organization, dedicated not just to providing a forum to discuss all things trail running but to advocate and educate on behalf of the preservation of wilderness and open space. One of the “charitable and educational purposes” of MTC, as elucidated in our bylaws, is: 

To advocate for and to educate on behalf of non-motorized access to public lands and the preservation of open space, and to encourage and promote conservation measures that protect our wild lands. 

On the surface, we understand—as any trail runner does—that we need open spaces and healthy wild lands to do what we do. We need to safeguard access to the trails that we use every day. We encourage support of Friends of the “M” Trail, we applaud and support the work of the Montana Conservation Corps and other similar organizations, and we acknowledge in gratitude the work done by men and women to ensure we have open spaces and wilderness places protected and accessible for use. 

But we also recognize on a deeper level the intrinsic connection between mountain running and wilderness. It’s worth reflecting on that relationship. 

When Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964, officially designating America’s wild forested areas as Wilderness (with a capital “W”), it deliberately defined Wilderness as places “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Congress authorized that certain wild lands would be set apart, permanently “retaining [their] primeval character and influence”—“unimpaired” for future generations. It was a deliberate act of bringing our motorized civilization more in harmony with the natural world. The idea was that we—including future generations—need these places, protected by our government, to escape the sights and sounds of a mechanized America. 

Howard Zahniser, an architect of the Wilderness Act, selected the term untrammeled deliberately: a trammel is a net used to catch birds and fish, so untrammeled, as Zahniser understood it, meant free, unbounded, unhampered, and unchecked. I can think of no outdoor activity better suited to this wilderness definition than mountain running. The freedom of the runner is unmatched: she glides effortlessly on her own two feet, carrying the bare minimum, free to scan the terrain in front of her and to venture to places that might be more difficult to reach for someone on a mule or carrying a large backpack. Runners enter wild places for a short time until beckoned back to the society from which they came. The runner’s encounter with wilderness is brief, as it should be, reflecting the idea that wilderness welcomes our arrival but will be grateful for our departure. 

But mountain runners know intuitively that they are not mere foreigners in wilderness. When we venture deep into it, we feel a belonging not just to a particular place but to the larger world around us. And yet, wilderness is not just an abstract concept: it is, rather, profoundly familiar, at least in the biological and subconscious realms. Our species was born and thrived in the wild for generations. Returning to it seems not only timely, given the continual buzz of modern life, but wholly natural. Wilderness to us is not just federally protected places where motorized vehicles can’t go. It is an escape from our modern life back to the embrace of the natural world. 

Most mountain runners I meet recognize experientially what all humans must “know” intuitively (but perhaps have forgotten)—that we must return to wild lands for renewal. While we might not remain there, we need to find time to return. We understand the value of wilderness, of Edward Abbey's idea “that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.” It is not some fringe idea. Like running, wilderness is basic to the human condition. We need it just as we need food and water. Wilderness sustains us. 

Mountain running profoundly reflects wilderness “values,” beats to the impulse that prompted conservation forebears to value wilderness and protect wild lands, and proudly belongs to a storied tradition of people venturing into the backcountry—for renewal, for solitude, for connection.

MTC aims to be involved in conservation and wilderness efforts. We are currently partnering with the Montana Conservation Corps for trail work to be done in the Rattlesnake area. And we are excited to explore other ideas to be involved in this work. Let us know yours.


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