The Why Files The Why Files -- whyfiles.org

The worth of wilderness; the need for nature

POSTED 25 JANUARY 2007

Wilderness rescue: After 5 weeks, hiker is safe
On Jan. 14, a 52-year-old woman was rescued from the remote Gila Wilderness Area in Southwest New Mexico, a forested, mountainous retreat where few people stray, especially in winter. The rescue occurred after a three-week search had been halted for lack of clues.

state of new mexico with Gila Wilderness Area, Siler City, etc. locations indicatedThe dramatic rescue took place in the Gila Wilderness — the first official wilderness area in the United States, and perhaps the world.

Carolyn Dorn was unable to cross the swollen Gila River. Out of food, she was starving and dehydrated when brothers Peter and Albert Kottke chanced upon her, huddled around a campfire. The brothers fed her, fed her fire, left some food, and haul-ass hiked 20 miles out to alert the authorities, who organized a helicopter rescue early on Jan. 14.

Dorn is reported to be recovering in a New Mexico hospital.

A dramatic rescue. A hero's role for two university students. A happy ending. End of story?

Not quite. We have wandered the Gila Wilderness -- the first wilderness area to be set aside in the United States, largely through the personal effort of pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold. It's remote. It's rugged. It's beautiful.

To understand what, where and why, we phoned rescuer Peter Kottke, a geology student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was on his second visit to the Gila.

He was kind of sick of talking to the press, but did say that Dorn was "not prepared for what she found there," and had left no detailed itinerary. That stymied the organized search.

Wide expanse of blue skies and purple mountains, dotted with short green bushes
View of the Gila Wilderness (New Mexico) in January. Courtesy Peter and Albert Kottke

Why wander wilds?
But what good are wilderness and nature to the human psyche, spirit, soul? Kottke told us visiting the wilds was about "the simple pleasures, getting into camp, taking off your hiking boots and putting on the camp boots. It's a much simpler life. You get away and don't have to think about very many things. You can spend time reading at night without distractions, it's quiet. You don't have to deal with many things and you don't have to worry about anything."

Kottke told us the experience didn't make him fear the wild; he and Albert are already mulling over their next expedition.

Man studies map in his hands on a trail of scrub brush and dusty pebbles
Peter Kottke studies the map during his heroic expedition to the Gila Wilderness; brother Albert looks on. Courtesy Peter and Albert Kottke

So here's our itinerary: Let's try to figure out why so many people go to such great lengths to get close to nature, even in the face of danger. Could nature have a unique prescription for reversing the stresses of urban life?

Have you answered the call of the wild?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2017, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.