Call it a duel of knowledge, of desire, of experience. But more than anything, to listen to Will Hearst and Paul Saffo trade their favorite places across California and the West is to be struck by the deep love they feel for this land and their emotional connection to it. Hearst, aside from being the chair of Hearst Corporation and the editor and publisher of Alta Journal, is a horseman and amateur pilot who delights in the legends and lore of any given place in the Golden State. Saffo is a noted futurist and professor at Stanford University who doubles as an EMT and participates in search-and-rescue operations involving lost hikers and climbers. As a forecaster, Saffo can’t help but look at a map and consider what comes next for the vast, unspoiled blank spaces.
Paul Saffo and Will Hearst join Alta Live.
Central to their discussion is the worry that revealing the location of a natural wonder may ruin it, this being an age in which nothing is real unless it is photographed or filmed for social media and shared and shared and shared and shared. Take Joshua Tree. During the 2019 government shutdown, millions of tourists flocked to the famous—and fragile—national park to strike yoga poses for Instagram and take selfies for Twitter and advertise the good times waiting for all. The casualties: vandalized ancient flora, trashed rest-rooms, and a trampled ecosystem.
Yet both men are loath to believe that nature should be locked up and not enjoyed. Instead, they argue that it should be experienced with respect and joy. What’s more, wilderness is in the eye of the beholder. A rugged adventure for some is a tame walk in the park for others. Fortunately for us, the West has more than enough of everything: steep mountain peaks, shadowy box canyons, secret hot springs, abandoned mines, majestic waterfalls.
Hearst caught up with Saffo via Zoom to explore the idea of a disappearing West and what constitutes wilderness. They also shared their bucket lists of places to go—and to return to.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
WILL HEARST: The poet Gary Snyder makes a distinction between Nature, which is everything that exists, and the Wild, which in his vocabulary is the places in nature where humans do not control the outcome, where we are less important.
By Gary’s definition, there are fewer and fewer really wild places—we have reached hegemony over the planet. Even the notion of global warming assumes that we’re in charge, that we’re responsible for what happens. If we’re supposed to do the right thing, to preserve the planet, it’s presumed we must have that power. But if that’s true, then the wilderness is becoming more and more like a garden or a zoo.
PAUL SAFFO: Gary’s right! Real wilderness is disappearing. The vast empty spaces that once existed are shrinking into ever smaller bubbles, and we are fighting a losing battle against preserving some sense of wildness in the wildernesses we have preserved. Just look at rush hour on the Pacific Crest Trail, or two years ago, the line of 200 climbers waiting on the Hillary Step [of Mount Everest] for their turn to take a selfie on the summit. Yet we are drawn to the empty places on the map, to the mysteries.
Yes, some of us are.
A lot of people are. But the white spaces are disappearing. The bottom of the seabed, the abyssal depths, which we know less about than we do about the surface of the moon—there’s mystery there, but it’s hard to get to.
On land, the last blank spaces are shrinking ever smaller. Consider Lost Horizon, the novel of Shangri-la. You couldn’t have written that novel after 1945, because there are no longer places in the Himalayas that could possibly hold a hidden community. Planes fly over them. And now you have satellites and Google Earth, but we’re still hungry for empty spaces.
It’s where our imaginations go to live. A planet without white spaces and mystery is just a comfortable jail. And if we don’t have those spaces, then people are going to make up imaginary spaces inhabited by flying-saucer aliens and Bigfoot.
We may be nearing the end of unexplored Earth spaces. Yet there is a romance about these last wild places. The conservationist George Schaller wrote about rare ungulates in some remote northern habitat on the Tibetan Plateau, and of course there is that romance of his quest to sight the snow leopard.
Yet Schaller eventually found the elusive snow leopards and put radio collars on them. Another mystery gone!
The idea that there are no unknown places on Earth may be conventional wisdom, but unknown to whom?
You have put your finger on how we can still find white spaces and keep from going mad. The secret is to seek out the “nearby faraway,” a phrase sometimes attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. These are the small, hidden places close to where we live. Every one of us has nearby faraways—places that we can visit and recall intimately, confident in the knowledge that they will never turn up in a travel magazine, provided we keep our mouths shut.
MARS AND BEYOND
This is something that has ticked me off about Burning Man: it’s a great festival, but they are bringing more people into these open, empty places of Nevada.
Right. And at certain times of the year, they are still like Mars. Take Death Valley, which gets a huge influx of “heat tourists,” who flood the park eager to experience 130-degree temperatures. One ranger told me the story of encountering a German tourist on the road to Scotty’s Castle1, miles from anywhere, wearing running shoes, a Speedo, and a small handkerchief on his head, running in 110-degree heat.
Well, that’s one of the things that fascinate me about places like Death Valley and Mars, even though it could well be a lifeless planet. The more research we do, the less we find. But part of the attraction is that it’s at least a wilderness.
A place where imaginations go to live. And I’m hoping some people will go to live, including some of the very loud exponents, so long as they make it a one-way trip.
They did a survey of people: raise your hand if you’d be willing to go to Mars, even if it will be uncertain if you can come back. I bet you and I would say, “No, thanks.” But there was a significant number of people who said, “Yeah, I’m OK with that.”
But these people haven’t looked at the fine print. The atmosphere is about one hundredth as dense as the top of Mount Everest, and it’s 95 percent carbon dioxide with mere traces of oxygen. So why get shot out of Earth’s gravity well on a huge rocket and get zapped with cosmic rays while traversing space for maybe a year or more, only to go live in a place that makes Burbank look like paradise?
You are being very logical, but the fact is there is a subpopulation that says, “Yes, that sounds cool.” We have this desire to go to places that haven’t been explored, even if they’re inhospitable.
Yes, we want to discover a place nobody else knows. And when we find the place, we want to share it with our friends. So we say, “Keep it secret, but…” And then everyone tells their friends, and their friends tell their friends, and before long you have herds of selfie-stick-waving crowds flattening wildflower fields in the Antelope Valley2.
Like the Yogi Berra joke, “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”
James Joyce wrote, “In the particular is contained the universal.” I think he meant that in any minuscule part of the world, if you observe it in detail, you will find a portal of discovery. There are hidden places right under our nose.
Precisely! The Joyce quote is perfect. Right here on the S.F. Peninsula, there are hidden spots. I know of a small cave that is just a few hundred yards from a well-traveled road, and I think I’m the only person who has visited it in at least half a century.
You sent me pictures of live cougars that are patrolling your neighborhood.
Well, this might be Silicon Valley, but not all cougars hang out at the Rosewood3.
All right. Let’s not lose this point. There’s usually something less than 100 yards away from you that you don’t know anything about. And if you were a little bit of an explorer, or your mind was a little more open, you might discover something right under your nose.
Absolutely! And there are places which are just inconvenient. Our county parks have lots of these open secrets, like a sandstone Tafoni4 monolith in San Mateo County’s El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve. Tom Stienstra spilled the beans about it in the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago, but it is just enough of a hike to keep it from being overrun.
And by the way, it is close to the site of a 1950s plane crash, an Australian DC-6 that clipped the ridge on its approach to San Francisco that is marked by a memorial. And there are still bits of wreckage at the site, because the word is out that taking any souvenirs will bring massive bad luck to would-be thieves.
WILD FROM ABOVE
I have a question for you, Will. You are a pilot, and I know you’re a connoisseur of lost airstrips.
That’s true. By the way, I was impressed by your discovery of those lost navigation arrows5, big sculptures on the earth, which predated the modern aviation system. Those are lost places, for sure. Very few pilots know about those. It’s a hidden thing.
Those arrows are a good example of an open secret. There is at least one website devoted to them, and they are quite visible on Google Earth. But my question for you is, How do we learn about and discover hidden things without destroying their hiddenness?
I don’t know. That’s a cosmic question.
Maybe those ground arrows offer one answer. They are easy to find on the web, but even with the map, they aren’t the easiest things to get to, and honestly, it is a special kind of nerd who will be fascinated enough to visit. No danger of selfie-taking hordes! In fact, if anything, the interest generated by spreading info on the web is more likely to save them than to destroy them. By the way, how many of them have you seen from the air?
I’ve not seen many, but I have, thanks to you, made a Google Earth search. There are even websites that have attempted to catalog all of them and assess their current condition, but they’re still mostly unknown. Even aviators are largely unaware. On the subject of aerial sites, I have corresponded with Larry Dighera, who’s a connoisseur of those desert training camps, created by George Patton, out in the Mojave. They are still visible from the air.
I hear it rumored that one can still see tank tracks in some spots!
No, but you can see the whole layout of these camps, and you can find them on Google Earth. You have to be a little bit of a detective, but they are there, and they can be found. Like a photographic negative on the land. They must have been laid down in the 1940s. So they’re 80 years old, and they’re still very clear. Moreover, there are places in the West where the Oregon Trail wagon tracks are still there. The earth is extremely sensitive. And some traces last for a long time.
That’s a wonderful image. About those abandoned airstrips, you pointed me to Paul Freeman’s airfields website6. Absolutely fascinating to see places I’ve visited and never realized it was an old airstrip.
Often amateur collectors notice things that professional academics don’t bother with. They have great passions, tireless energy; they keep history alive. Another example: Do you know the website Atlas Obscura?
I love and hate Atlas Obscura in equal measure, because they do such a good job pointing me to things I didn’t know, but then they also reveal places I’ve known about forever that now are noticed by the hordes.
So you hate them because they’re giving away secrets. What about the Howard Hughes airstrip in the middle of Culver City, a 9,600-foot runway. That’s out in the open now.
It’s right there at the side of the estuary.
Nowadays, if you’re Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, you have your own space program. But if you were Howard Hughes in the 1940s, you had your own airport in the middle of Los Angeles. There’s an airport that is also a time machine in Lancaster: General William J. Fox Airfield. If you land there, it’s like 1959. There is a café7 with a waitress who has a pencil in her hair and calls you “honey.” And you feel like you’ve actually landed in Lost Horizon. I love those places, which have an honest, lost-in-time kind of quality.
Sounds like a scene out of The Right Stuff. Not too far from Edwards Air Force Base. Do they serve hash browns and coffee out of one of those Bunn glass carafes?
What about the Area 51 airstrip? Groom Lake8. That was 100 percent terra incognita until a few years ago.
Another open secret, since it is visible from commercial flights into and out of SFO. Really weird to be looking out the window at nothing, only to suddenly see a huge runway in the middle of a dry lake. As the story goes, Area 51 was chosen by [aeronautic engineer] Kelly Johnson, who went out flying over central Nevada looking for a remote place to fly his planes and he spotted Groom Lake.
Speaking of desert mysteries, look at this picture.
What is this? Is this Afghanistan, or where are we?
I’m flying on a commercial flight out of SFO. It’s in Nevada.
Is it a strip mine? What is it?
Close! It’s Michael Heizer’s massive art installation, City.
Really? It’s an art piece?
You can’t get there on the ground. He won’t let anybody in. It was luck I saw Heizer’s work from the air. Just this one time, the plane was in the right spot.
THE LOST COAST
Let me change gears a little bit, Paul. Can we talk specifically about your love of the Lost Coast? I’ve been reading, lately, essays about how wilderness is dying and that we’re turning what used to be wild into zoos.
I find that an upsetting concept. I’ve always believed there are wild places where I just haven’t been yet. I’d hate to feel like they’re all becoming tame. Do you have a feeling about this debate? In the United States, the Lower 48, have we lost the sense of big, wild chunks of places?
The writer Ed Abbey defined wilderness as a place where you had a really good chance of getting killed by a large mammal, which would include most of the major cities.
OK, true. But nonhuman wilderness?
It was [nature photographer] Eliot Porter who said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” We get comfort from knowing that wildness exists. I am happy knowing there are wildernesses I will never visit, but just knowing they exist gives me comfort. Where mystery and wilderness are alive, that’s where I want to venture into for my soul. Mystery takes many forms.
The mystery not just of lost places but of lost souls?
It’s amazing how many people disappear in this state. Like that famous adventurer pilot—they found his body in the Sierra.
You are talking about Steve Fossett, the adventurer who disappeared in a plane crash. There were signs that his remains were scavenged by animals.
I was absolutely heartbroken that he was found. He should have stayed lost as a mystery. And I hope we never know where Amelia Earhart went down. Another marvelous mystery is the disappearance of Walter Starr in the Sierra, the very place he wrote the definitive guide to. The book Missing in the Minarets relates the story of his disappearance and the later search.
What about Ruess, the artist and poet who also went missing?
Everett Ruess. Hopefully, Everett Ruess will stay lost forever. It is the only poetically appropriate end to the story about a mysteriously poetic individual. I think those disappearances create a wonderful mystery. Then you have the real mysteries. Do you know about Los Vigilantes Oscuros in Big Sur?
What are you talking about?
You’ve been in those steep canyons. People talk about shadowy black-clad wraiths they see watching them from a distance. If you make a single motion, they disappear. Of course, the killjoys have a perfectly sensible explanation for it—“Brocken spectres”—but I prefer to believe the myth.
What did Joseph Campbell say? “A myth is a lie that reveals the truth.” Myths like the Vigilantes Oscuros are guardians of mystery.
I remember Doug Robinson11 told me he was asked occasionally to go out and look for lost hikers or climbers. One of the things that I found interesting was that he carried a vial of morphine in case he found these people and they were in distress. There are not many people who could offer solace, who might carry morphine.
Those were more innocent times. Nowadays, searchers would get sued if they stuck morphine into a lost hiker.
I thought it was interesting because the premise was, if you find people very far away from aid, you wanted to provide some relief just to get them out.
Absolutely. I am a wilderness EMT, and they teach us all sorts of things that EMTs normally would never need to know, like how to reduce shoulder and finger separations in the field. And I keep a small expedition kit of prescription meds that are wilderness essentials, like an EpiPen. Oh, and ipratropium bromide—a super-effective nasal decongestant. It’s as good as Afrin but without the resistance buildup. But I, of course, would never use them on anyone other than family or a close friend.
That suggests we bring our worlds into the wilderness with us.
What about your bucket list? Where are the places Paul either loves to go or wants to go and has never been—yet. That’s my definition.
I liked the bucket list term a lot more when I was under 50 and the bucket seemed farther away.
I’m probably not going to get to all of my bucket list places. Age and reality enclose a boundary. But it becomes more precious that I try to get a few of them knocked off.
Or to revisit old friends? Like a certain stand of Santa Lucia fir that narrowly escaped a fire a few years back!
Those are interchangeable concepts. There are places where you’ve been and where you’d like to go again, and other places that attract—where you feel some magnetic pull—but you haven’t been there yet.
Here’s a place I plan to go back to next week, actually. The winter quarter is starting to wind down, and I need a socially distanced road trip.
I don’t recognize the photo.
Notice the crack cutting across the road. This is a spot where the San Andreas creep is really dramatic. I go back every couple of years and measure the shift.
Another place I like to revisit is the Lost Coast and Sinkyone Wilderness State Park12, which is the only wilderness in the California state system.
The new fad over the last 10 years has been creating these long-haul trails. It used to be we had just the John Muir Trail13 and the Appalachian Trail. Then we had the Pacific Crest Trail14, and now there are trails popping up all over the place for through-hikers.
They’re proposing a trail down the spine of Big Sur. I think it should be called the Condor Trail, but it’s also a mistake because it will attract through-hikers who just want to do the trail and won’t stop to appreciate seeing what they are passing. A case in point: Life magazine named Route 50 in Nevada as “the Loneliest Road in America.” It was promptly overrun by people in RVs, and it’s now a busy highway.
Let’s talk about the Trinity Alps15, because I know this is a place where you have a special feeling and where you have been many times. Where’s the magic crystal that connects Paul Saffo to the Trinity Alps?
Well, it’s such a weirdly improbable place. It has the lowest snowfield in the state and a “temporary glacier.” Probably more varieties of conifers than anywhere else on the planet. And for cryptid fans, it is supposedly Bigfoot’s home stomping grounds! But it is remote and very steep terrain, which helps keep it from being overrun.
The up and down is interesting. Doug Robinson used to say that the number of people you run into is inverse to the square of the distance from the road and the inverse cube of the elevation change.
Brilliant. You see that lots of places. Like the Carrizo Plain during wildflower season. The main roads are clogged with flower peepers, but they’re all on the pavement. You get off the pavement, and you get alone real fast.
So the Trinity Alps attraction for you is partly its pocket biogeography and partly it’s just difficult to get out there. The roads are poor, the hiking is vertically up and down. So it creates a quiet zone.
Absolutely, but that can also be said of much of the North Coast.
Any others? Favorite places, bucket list places, or holy grail places?
Well, there’s lots of remote places in Big Sur. Cone Peak has some of the darkest skies in the United States. The area known as the Indians, behind Fort Hunter Liggett16, is wonderful. Hiking from there to Tassajara is especially good, as there are hot springs at hike’s end.
Yes, there is beautiful wild country back there. And the Santa Barbara backcountry has some lovely places.
Yep, and amazingly much of it is still remote and only lightly visited. Which is a good thing, as it is very easy to get in trouble back there.
Fair enough, and there are people who go over Nevada Fall17 every year.
Yes, that’s insane. It reminds me of the sign that the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office posted at McWay Falls in Big Sur a few years back. The overlook is only 1,000 yards or so from the highway, so there are lots of nitwits who get in trouble there.
Yeah, New Cuyama. At the intersection of the road that forks into the Carrizo and New Cuyama, there’s an old abandoned 76 station. Back in the day, when I was exploring there, the woman who ran it, I forgot her real name—everyone called her Cussing Lady, because you’d walk in and she’d just talk a blue streak up and down. And if you asked if you could buy anything, she’d cuss you because nothing was for sale. But the mountains on both sides of Cuyama Valley are stunningly beautiful and very empty.
What about outside of California? One of the zones on my bucket list is eastern Oregon. We think of Nevada as the Empty Quarter, but there are actually pretty good roads through there, especially Interstate 80. Even with the lure of Burning Man, there are still a lot of undeveloped places, wild and mountainous, deserted and empty. But eastern Oregon is a whole Nevada unto itself. That corner of America came into the news briefly because there was a fight over grazing rights near the Malheur wilderness19, but if it hadn’t been for that, the country would’ve stayed very undiscovered.
Agreed, but increasingly I find that the most isolated pockets are ones that are actually not far from heavily traveled highways. There is a road in Central California that I love and will never reveal; it is right in the middle of everything, but because there are highways on all four sides, no one ever drives it. It’s a leisurely two-hour drive, and I have only seen one other vehicle—a farm truck—on it.
I see your point. Hidden in plain sight.
Precisely. One can also find these pockets in other places. Palm Springs, Coachella Valley, Joshua Tree all offer a cornucopia of wonderful, nutty places to visit.
I never heard of that.… Will look it up. What about the Bisti Badlands21? Does that ring any bells?
Oh, the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, north of Chaco!
It’s on my own bucket list. Apparently it’s another kind of Monument Valley, like a George Lucas foreign-planet movie set, or is it completely unknown?
The geology is amazing.
You’ve mentioned the Lost Coast, and I know you have an interest in Thomas Merton’s time there. Why was he there?
He’s the famous theologian, a Catholic monk who died under mysterious circumstances in Bangkok in the 1960s. The last place he visited before he went off to Bangkok was the Lost Coast. He stayed at the Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, not too far from what is now Needle Rock Beach and in what is now the Sinkyone Wilderness. At the time, the area was owned by a lumber company. He was checking it out as a possible site to start a monastery. If he had not died in Bangkok, chances are he would have returned to start a monastery. It’s a holy spot.
Is this a specific place?
Yes, and actually an encouraging story. It is now a wilderness state park, but in the late 1800s, it was a clear-cut logging wasteland. Georgia-Pacific owned it when Merton visited, and thankfully, the land was purchased by the Save the Redwoods League and others and kept as a wilderness. Merton wanted to build his monastery at a place called Needle Rock. There is an old farmstead there, and it is stunning. Think Big Sur without the roads and tourists.
The place reminds me of Jim Harrison talking about the Yamabushi, the mountain sages of Japan. This would be a place where the Yamabushi would hang out. And there’s a marvelous hike along the beach from Needle Rock to Usal in the south. Just be careful to pay attention to the tides. Oh, and rattlesnakes! Who knew that rattlesnakes like hanging out on the beach?
Paul, the image I want to leave with you is the night map of the earth, a composite assembled from data using visible and infrared imagery, where lights indicate dense civilization. It’s the dark places that are still wild, and that’s where I want to go.
Amen. No lights—and no cell towers!
1. An elaborate Spanish colonial revival–style villa located in Death Valley National Park. It was named for prospector and con man Walter Scott, who persuaded Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson to invest in a fraudulent gold mine. The structure was damaged in a flood in 2015 and will be closed until at least 2022.
2. Every spring, the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve becomes a sea of blooming wildflowers. No two years are the same, and the colors vary day to day.
3. Located off Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, the hotel became known for its Thursday cougar night, which attracted older suburban women prowling for young VCs and tech bros.
4. Geologists believe this 50-foot sandstone monolith is a relic of an original formation transported north from Mexico or Southern California along the moving edge of the San Andreas Fault.
5. In the era before radar and electronic navigation aids, pilots used ground-based landmarks for guidance. This network of concrete arrows was created to aid the delivery of U.S. postal mail.
6. airfields-freeman.com contains information and images related to more than 2,500 historic airfields across the country.
7. An old-school diner located in the KWJF terminal, with at least one friendly waitress and a picture-window view of the runway for watching planes take off and land.
8. Area 51 is located in the southern portion of Nevada, around 80 miles north-northwest of Las Vegas. The surrounding area is a popular tourist destination, including the small town of Rachel on the Extraterrestrial Highway.
9. Dark Watchers are an optical illusion of shadowy figures in hats and cloaks who have haunted the California coast for thousands of years. They primarily appear in the afternoon when the sun and coastal fog are aligned at a precise angle.
10. An American poet (1887–1962) known for his verse about the California coast. Jeffers spent much of his life in Carmel, California, in a granite-boulder home he built called Tor House.
11. A mountaineering guide, an Alta Journal contributor, and the author of The Alchemy of Action. Robinson was on the team that first scaled Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome hammerless, and he was the second person to complete a continuous ski traverse of the John Muir Trail in the winter. (See “Across Nevada on the Loneliest Road.”)
12. A California state park situated on the wild shoreline known as the Lost Coast. One of the few places in the state system that cannot be reached by a highway or paved road.
13. A 211-mile hiking trail in California’s Sierra Nevada, located mostly within designated wilderness, with large swaths of alpine and mountain scenery. It lies almost entirely above 8,000 feet of elevation.
14. A 2,650-mile hiking and equestrian trail closely aligned with the highest portions of the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada. It runs from the U.S. border with Mexico to Canada.
15. An alpine paradise deep within the Klamath Mountains with unusual jagged peaks and vast stands of virgin forest.
16. A U.S. Army reservation near Jolon, adjoining Mission San Antonio de Padua and the lands once occupied by the Salinan tribe of coastal California.
17. A 594-foot-high waterfall in Yosemite National Park. The still pool above the fall is popular for swimming and tempts the careless. There is a long history of the unwary being swept to their death.
18. A system of mountains that runs east-west, separating the San Joaquin Valley from the other biogeographic regions of Southern California.
19. In 2016, an armed group of extremists occupied this national wildlife refuge in a failed attempt to force the turnover of the management of federal public land to states.
20. A large freestanding boulder in the Mojave Desert near Landers, California.
21. Roughly 60 square miles of remote badlands and unusual scenery in New Mexico. A must-visit destination for all venturesome hikers, explorers, and photographers.
22. A remote valley south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer tested the first atomic bomb in 1945.
23. An area of breathtaking volcanic pinnacles—some as tall as 40 feet—in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico.
24. A major center for the Ancestral Puebloans (850–1250 CE) in what is now northwestern New Mexico. Their structures were the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century.