SI Vault
 
A NEW WAY TO FIND OUR LOST FRONTIER
Robert Cantwell
May 20, 1963
West of Baton Rouge, La., Highway 190 crosses Bayou Grosse Tete and the tracks of the Texas & Pacific runs through the towns of Quick, Blanks and Lottle and reaches the trackless banks of the mysterious Atchafayala River a little above the town of East Krotz Springs. Like Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and Point of Arches in Washington (see following pages) the bayou country hereabout belongs in what authorities on outdoor recreation call an intermediate recreational zone, something not quite primitive but not commercialized either, sometimes fairly close to metropolitan centers but remote from crowds and commuters and reachable in a short time. Such partially isolated pockets of underdeveloped repose—the unexploited camping areas along the white gravel beaches of Lake Superior and the countless tranquil groves along the 45,000 miles of trails in the national forests are others—are growing increasingly-important in this country's summers. And not the least of the reasons is the ubiquitous camping trailer, which has multiplied from 20,000 in 1930 to 325,000 today. Safe, reasonably priced and comfortable (SI, May 13), the trailers make it possible for venturesome, though not necessarily heroic, travelers to go pretty much where they please beyond the usual tourist horizons. To Arizona's Canyon de Chelly they might also trailer a horse, which can carry them to places along the sandy creek bed that cars could never negotiate. To the bayou country they might take a boat trailer. Accessible without the expense of pack-train expeditions, these places are no less beautiful than the deeper wilderness of primitive areas, and often they are equally as wild.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 20, 1963

A New Way To Find Our Lost Frontier

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

West of Baton Rouge, La., Highway 190 crosses Bayou Grosse Tete and the tracks of the Texas & Pacific runs through the towns of Quick, Blanks and Lottle and reaches the trackless banks of the mysterious Atchafayala River a little above the town of East Krotz Springs. Like Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and Point of Arches in Washington (see following pages) the bayou country hereabout belongs in what authorities on outdoor recreation call an intermediate recreational zone, something not quite primitive but not commercialized either, sometimes fairly close to metropolitan centers but remote from crowds and commuters and reachable in a short time. Such partially isolated pockets of underdeveloped repose—the unexploited camping areas along the white gravel beaches of Lake Superior and the countless tranquil groves along the 45,000 miles of trails in the national forests are others—are growing increasingly-important in this country's summers. And not the least of the reasons is the ubiquitous camping trailer, which has multiplied from 20,000 in 1930 to 325,000 today. Safe, reasonably priced and comfortable (SI, May 13), the trailers make it possible for venturesome, though not necessarily heroic, travelers to go pretty much where they please beyond the usual tourist horizons. To Arizona's Canyon de Chelly they might also trailer a horse, which can carry them to places along the sandy creek bed that cars could never negotiate. To the bayou country they might take a boat trailer. Accessible without the expense of pack-train expeditions, these places are no less beautiful than the deeper wilderness of primitive areas, and often they are equally as wild.

The bayou country, for instance, seems to lead to a different geologic era entirely. It is not surprising that there are so many fish, bobcats, muskrats, alligators, pelicans, herons and migrating waterfowl: it would hardly seem surprising if a pterodactyl flew by. The Atchafalaya flows through a wilderness 70 miles long and 40 miles wide. It has never been completely mapped or explored. North of the highway that crosses it a side road runs up toward Petite Prairie Bayou and Little Wauksha Bayou, which borders the great St. Landry game preserve. To the south and southeast there are the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel, the Happytown Oil Field and the network of waterways, Indian Bayou, Bob Tail Bayou, Bayou des Glaises, Bayou La Rose, Plumb Bob Oil Field, Bayou Mai Boeuf, Alligator Lake—and beyond these a maze that only a few trappers and commercial fisherman ever penetrate, reaching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Arizona and Louisiana and Washington have plenty of undeveloped land; the problem is different in the eastern states. But there are places in the Adirondacks and the While Mountains in New Hampshire, a long way from motels or developed campsites, where a trailer camper, dependent only upon himself for his night's lodgings, can explore a sort of semiwilderness with a flavor of its own.

Take the laurel highlands of Pennsylvania. Follow Highway 31 east for two miles after you leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the Donegal Interchange, 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. Turn right again along Indian Creek on Highway 381. The road runs almost due south through a narrow valley between those two strange parallel ridges that sweep in gigantic arcs across western Pennsylvania, Laurel Ridge on the east and Chestnut Ridge on the west, steep and thickly wooded walls that rise to 2,000 and 3,000 feet on either side. The road winds along the creek below dark weathered rocks and hardwood forests and immense patches of laurels and rhododendrons, with a score or more mountain streams cascading down in so many miles—great deer-hunting and trout-fishing country, but principally valued now because it is the sort of terrain that the Pennsylvania Forest and Water Department, in a rare burst of official eloquence, once described as possessing ' 'a special appeal for those who enjoy seclusion.' "

Where the valley narrows to little more than a canyon you cross the Youghiogheny River, a turbulent stream that pours through a narrow defile after its juncture with the Indian. There you leave the highway to reach a destination with the unlikely name of Ohiopyle Falls. History of a sort is connected with the place—Washington supposedly gave up trying to find a water route from Virginia to Pittsburgh when he discovered the falls—but the importance of this particular part of the American woodlands at the moment has nothing to do with its past. Like fresh air and pure water, it is remarkable for what it lacks rather than for what it possesses, and like a good many other relatively unknown places of moderate outdoor attractiveness it has an increasingly rare commodity to offer to mankind—a few square miles of reasonably untroubled solitude.

Last summer, when we were camped not far from the banks of the wild Bumping River in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, there was a commotion downstream a way just after dark. Through the forest there shortly appeared a family wheeling its camping trailer, which they had unhitched from the car back on the Forest Service road. With the aid of a flashlight, they guided the trailer expertly around and between the trunks of some good-sized pines and parked it on a sort of terrace that sloped down gently to the water. Then the light of a lantern gleamed whitely over the river and the branches high overhead, a fire started cracking, a tent was opened out and air mattresses were inflated in a matter of minutes. They had driven down from Bremerton Navy Yard, 150 miles or so, after the day's work, but what made them representative of the new generation of trailer campers was that they had been doing the same thing on vacations and long weekends for several years: the youngest boy learned to walk on this pine-needle-carpeted ground.

The endless appeal of this kind of camping is the sense of discovery, the finding of the sort of place you like, not because somebody built a camp there but because it suits your own inclinations. In The Columbia, Murray Morgan gave a classic description of the process: he had driven the dirt road to Downie's Creek, above Revelstoke and along the Columbia River in British Columbia, the old road that skirted the edge of some of the wildest country on the continent and which has now been supplanted by the Trans-Canada Highway. "Few roads in the world cross terrain as rugged or as beautiful," Morgan wrote. "The snow mountains stand close to the river. The forest is predominantly cedar and the sharp smell of cedar is strong in the thin, cool mountain air. The Columbia is a living thing, strong and beautiful, and the sound of the river is a deep purr. Here in the dark forest beside the two rivers is one of the lovely campsites of America. Squatting by a fire roasting meat at the end of a green stick while the sky darkened and the pinpoint stars expanded and the nightbirds called in the woods, it was easy to slip back a century to the nights when the voyageurs sang in the darkness. . . ."

Or take Canyon de Chelly. "This whole state is just one big trailer park," an oldtime camper wrote. "One of our sites is in the Navajo reservation above the Painted Desert in northern Arizona. Rock spires and monuments tower a thousand feet above the canyon floor. Cliff dwellings are nearby and Indians herd their sheep. National Park facilities are rough but adequate for anyone trailering."

As a matter of fact, the Park Service issues a warning to all visitors that it will take no responsibility for people who get stuck in the sands of Canyon de Chelly, but experienced trailer campers say that anyone who can pull a trailer can make it. About 230 miles west of Albuquerque and some 360 miles northeast of Phoenix, Canyon de Chelly is as secluded as ancient Petra on the edge of the Arabian Desert and is strangely akin to that deserted city of rose-colored rock. You drive over transcontinental highways to Gallup, then north to Highway 68, then 52 miles west through uninhabited country, then turn right on an unnumbered road leading through the dry bleached mountains and lunar emptiness and silence of the Navaho lands—"A country that seems to be grieving over something," a literate cowhand named Andy Adams once wrote. At the town of Chinle (pop. 150), 32 miles above Highway 68, there is an opening that leads into the canyon along the stream bed. There is only one way in and one way out. Through the sandy roadway you reach a hidden green recess between red canyon walls that are increasingly high and close together. At seven miles you come to spectacular monuments like Spider Rock, and a junction with a side canyon, and a cliff dwelling built in a fold high on the face of a stupendous concave gold and greenish-blue gemlike cliff. Farther on there is a magnificent 90-room, three-story structure built by Indians centuries ago in a recessed shelf that measures about 300 feet long and 100 feet deep and stands 300 feet above the canyon floor. A camper who stops under the huge cottonwoods on the banks of the creek, with the sheer canyon walls towering above and the haunting ruins of a hidden civilization around him, will find the seclusion of De Chelly deep enough. Nor will he be crowded. "In some places in Arizona there arc local restrictions against trailering," a camper wrote, "but in most it's just pull over into some meadow and camp."

Even in the underprivileged East you can drive from New York down the New Jersey Turnpike, follow Highway 13 through eastern Maryland, cross over to Norfolk and in a few more miles (after driving along the Great Dismal Swamp Canal) reach the northern end of the Outer Banks, 70 miles of almost unbroken isolation, at Kitty Hawk. On all the long beaches that stretch from Oregon Inlet to Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke, one of the longest undeveloped expanses of the U.S. eastern coast, you can travel for miles in a seclusion broken only by shorebirds and surf casters. The threat that hangs over most undeveloped areas, the ever-present likelihood of their commercial development as soon as they become popular, has been removed: this windblown coast is the first National Recreation Area, run by the Park Service, and frozen in its present status of half a dozen small villages and one through road. Here you can camp at any time during the year. Here, too, the Park Service warns that it will not be responsible for towing your car and trailer out of the dunes, but campers say you can get wherever you want to go without trouble.

Continue Story
1 2