Out West, Rules Are Made to Be Broken

By Tuccille, J. D. | Reason, June 2018 | Go to article overview

Out West, Rules Are Made to Be Broken


Tuccille, J. D., Reason


I FELL IN love with the wide-open West during a cross-country drive that followed what's left of Route 66, starting in over-governed Boston, ending in overcrowded Los Angeles, and traversing the wonderful places in between. I remember looking down crumbling strips of pavement, across the empty desert, up at the brightly speckled night sky, and thinking, "Hot damn. There isn't a soul around to screw with me."

To roam the West at all is to inevitably cut across the trail of the late Edward Abbey. The writer with a fondness for untamed places famously commented, "We cannot have freedom without wilderness, we cannot have freedom without leagues of open space beyond the cities, where boys and girls, men and women, can live at least part of their lives under no control but their own desires and abilities, free from any and all direct administration by their fellow men."

Interestingly, Abbey (who has somewhat fallen out of favor in environmentalist circles for his gritty personality, pronounced xenophobia, and anarchic ways) wrote that he was not "primarily concerned with nature as living museum" but rather "for the terror, freedom, and delirium" and "as a place of refuge, as a hideout, as a base from which to carry on guerrilla warfare against the totalitarianism of my nightmares." He granted wilderness status to 1960s Hoboken's decaying waterfront in his essay "Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom"--for its uncontrolled, undesigned character, rather than for any stray elements of nature.

The uncontrolled quality of the West can be overstated, if you take too seriously the reams of laws and regulations that claim to control people's conduct off the beaten trail. The Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, and myriad state agencies are all fond of interpreting laws and issuing rules that dictate what you can't do and where you can't do it, subject to further elaboration. But the "no campfire" signs are often found next to recent fire pits, the "no shooting" signs are almost always peppered with bullet holes, and the "permit required" signs decorate the periphery of areas that play host to many wonderfully unpermitted expeditions and activities. …

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