There’s a strangely popular subject of speculation for hikers and explorers: whether they were the first people ever to tread on a piece of land. It comes out of the American obsession with virgin wilderness, which it itself a deeply problematic idea, and it speculates about the possibility of the utterly new, of an experience without predecessors. It is usually mistaken in its premises. There are few places in North American that were not first walked upon by the indigenous inhabitants of the continent, and even if one were to take out one’s mountaineering gear and reach a peak literally untouched before by human beings, one is making a gesture that depends for its meaning and motives on a long history of such gestures. Though you may be the first to climb a peak in the Sierra and your foot may touch a place no human foot has touched, you are covering cultural territory covered by great mountaineers from Clarence King and John Muir onwards. And the actual act of climbing a mountain depends for its meaning on the romantic cult of mountains, and so even if you have never read Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” you have inherited it, and when you step on that piece of ground, you step where Shelley went, and where a wide road of meaning has been worn since. You may not know that the Italian poet Petrarch was the first modern man who climbed a mountain for the pleasure of the view, but you are treading in his six-hundred-year-old footsteps. New or old, it seems you should know where you came form to understand where you are, and only a true and absolute amnesiac could come from nowhere in arriving somewhere. We all carry the burden of history and desire; sometimes it’s good to sit down and open the suitcases.

Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey in the Landscape Wars of the American West