The Wilderness Tool

Roman Mars [00:00:01] Vrbo offers whole vacation homes with the space to spend quality time with the people you love. In a Vrbo vacation home, a host doesn’t stay with you. So, when you rent a Vrbo, you get the whole upstairs, the whole downstairs, and the whole nap room–which is any room really if you try hard enough–where you can just be together because the most important thing in the world is quality time with your loved ones. Book your next day on the Vrbo app. In Williamsburg, Virginia, there’s never too much of a good thing. Whether you’re a foodie, a golfer, a history buff, a shopaholic, an outdoor enthusiast, or a thrill seeker, you’ll find what you’re looking for. Explore the grounds of America’s first English settlement in Jamestown, or shop along the quaint streets of historic Williamsburg and Yorktown. Dig into the forensics of the country’s earliest settlers, or experience a day in the life of one. Williamsburg is the type of destination that you can go back to again and again and have a completely different experience. So, plan your visit now. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Every year, park rangers and trail workers across the U.S. take part in a kind of scavenger hunt on their days off. They’re looking for a particular tool–one that’s often over 100 years old, but to them, it shines like a diamond. 

Lasha Madan [00:01:28] And with the right combination of strategy and luck, they might spot the perfect one on the wall of a local Cracker Barrel restaurant. 

Roman Mars [00:01:37] That’s 99PI producer Lasha Madan. 

Lasha Madan [00:01:39] Because this hot commodity is an antique, steel blade crosscut saw. 

Roman Mars [00:01:45] Imagine one of those old timey lumberjack photos–the kind where two men in plaid are working away at a tree, holding opposite ends of a huge human-length saw. That is a vintage crosscut. 

Dolly Chapman [00:01:58] Oh, gosh. The first saws I named, I named all with a King Arthur theme. So, I had Arthur and Guinevere, of course. And then along came Lancelot. 

Lasha Madan [00:02:09] This is Dolly Chapman. She’s worked on trail crews for more than three decades, building and maintaining trails with the U.S. Forest Service. 

Dolly Chapman [00:02:17] And Gareth and Linette, who were a couple. And Elaine and Percival. 

Lasha Madan [00:02:24] And of course… 

Dolly Chapman [00:02:26] I have Axcalibur as my favorite ax. 

Roman Mars [00:02:29] Dolly is an expert at finding, using, and maintaining these coveted songs. And she’s got a match making reputation. People call her up to get paired with their perfect crosscut. 

Lasha Madan [00:02:40] Dolly’s saws hang side by side in her workshop in Northern, California, looking a little bit like a walk-in closet full of incredibly sharp clothes. She has 40 of these vintage saws in her collection, which is pretty amazing, given the lengths that sawyers and collectors go to in order to get their hands on even one of these things. 

Dolly Chapman [00:03:01] A lot of what I like about them is there’s so much more to him than you see at first glance. I saw treasure when the previous owner saw junk. 

Roman Mars [00:03:10] Some people spend hours mining websites like eBay and Craigslist. Others search in person on saw hunting road trips, driving up and down highways to stop by yard sales, antique stores, and even places where the stores aren’t technically for sale. 

Dolly Chapman [00:03:26] If you go in restaurants in rural areas–restaurants and bars–you see painted saws hanging above the bar and on the wall. I’m sure you’ve been in a restaurant with a painted saw on the wall and not noticed it yet. 

Lasha Madan [00:03:38] On its face, it may seem a little intense–you know–to care about old saws so much that you end up trying to barter with your Cracker Barrel server because they have a wall decoration you just really want to take home. But the vintage crosscuts that trail crew leaders go hunting for–they aren’t just for show. Often the plan is to put these saws back to use. After the paint has been scrubbed clean and the teeth have been sharpened, many return to the woods, bucking and felling trees in the American outdoors. 

Roman Mars [00:04:09] In fact, vintage cross cuts that were made between 1880 and 1930 are often the tool of choice for the hundreds of trail workers who maintain the American backcountry today. That’s ahead of chainsaws and newly made cross cuts. 

Lasha Madan [00:04:23] And the reason this old tool has stuck around for so long–even in an age where there’s a newer, better gadget coming out every year–it goes way beyond the physical saw itself. 

Roman Mars [00:04:34] Because the rise, fall, and unexpected second life of the crosscut saw is the story of how America created the very concept of wilderness. 

Lasha Madan [00:04:46] “Wilderness.” It’s a word that summons images of old growth forests and ancient, untouched mountain peaks. 

Adam Sowards [00:04:52] Honestly, when I hear that word and I think about it, I picture myself on a ridge in the mountains, looking probably across other ridges in the mountains. 

Lasha Madan [00:05:04] This is Adam Sowards. 

Adam Sowards [00:05:05] I’m an environmental historian and have studied public lands for about a quarter of a century–national parks, national forests, things like that. 

Roman Mars [00:05:15] The concept of wilderness might seem like it’s been around forever–like it came with the planet as a kind of package deal. But in the long history of the natural world, the idea of wilderness that we’re familiar with today is actually pretty new. 

Lasha Madan [00:05:29] The word “wilderness” first popped into use in the year 1200, essentially to describe land not being used for farming. Much later, the colonization of North America gave wilderness a new meaning and a new purpose. It became a way to define and distinguish white settler society. 

Roman Mars [00:05:48] Early wilderness in the U.S. mostly meant danger–a place to be wary of. 

Lasha Madan [00:05:54] This kind of thinking helped European settlers define themselves in opposition to indigenous people. So, starting in around the 17th century, the idea was that white people lived in civilization and indigenous people lived in the hostile wilderness. And for 200 years, that’s how it went. Wilderness didn’t have the greatest reviews. 

Roman Mars [00:06:16] Then came the Industrial Revolution, which was when wilderness started to take a different shape. 

Lasha Madan [00:06:27] Industrialization created the conditions for certain things to grow chaotically and exponentially–things like cities, factories, pollution, a working class. It shattered the old patterns of rural life, and it brought on new ways of relating to land. 

Adam Sowards [00:06:43] There’s a lot more people that are talking about the busyness of cities and the crowdedness of cities. 

Lasha Madan [00:06:50] The crosscut saw played a major part in America’s industrialization. This tool–it helped loggers topple countless Douglas Firs and Redwoods to make way for new cities. And Adam says that it was around this time, during the chaos of the Industrial Revolution, that wilderness had a glow up. 

Adam Sowards [00:07:09] So beginning in the mid part or the late part of the 19th century, celebration of the wild begins. 

Roman Mars [00:07:20] As steam and coal power came on the scene, cities got bigger, noisier, and more polluted. The idea of wilderness became more and more appealing as a contrast to the pressures of industrial capitalism. 

Adam Sowards [00:07:32] And as that industrialization expands and as the cities get bigger, that desire to not only have access to those places but to create those places and protect them intensifies. 

Lasha Madan [00:07:47] Wilderness started to represent an escape from an urban life that felt like it was expanding out of control. Writers and poets described wild spaces as pure instead of scary, safe instead of savage, no longer an unformed wasteland, but more of a temple–something of value to humans that needed to be protected from humans. 

Adam Sowards [00:08:08] There’s sort of a religious dimension to part of that. There’s an anti-urban dimension and an anti-urbanite position too. “We don’t like the people who live there. So, we need to go to these other places where they might be pure.” 

Roman Mars [00:08:24] By the romantic era, American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed that wilderness was a creation of God that provided important space for intellectual and spiritual stimulation–a place where good men could become great men. The famous photographer Ansel Adams became known for his landscape photos of the American West, and Adams helped propel the idea that America’s wilderness was a point of pride and national identity. 

Lasha Madan [00:08:50] And maybe a lot of this kind of thinking is sounding familiar at this point. But at the time, the idea of wilderness was still mostly an intellectual and artistic one. Actual wild places weren’t so accessible to the urban masses yet, and most people definitely weren’t going there on vacation. 

Roman Mars [00:09:08] That started to change in the early 1900s when the U.S. government established the Forest Service and Parks Service and America’s wild spaces started to gain national attention. 

Old Yosemite Ad [00:09:19] You and your family can enjoy this wonderland at very modest rates because a variety of tent accommodations are available. A tent like this–with comfortable furnishings, lights, bedding–costs only $2.50 daily per person, and fine meals are available at… 

Lasha Madan [00:09:35] An outdoor recreation movement took off that would only grow and grow and grow as Americans hiked, canoed, and camped their way into the first decades of the 20th century. Wilderness became a place where not just wealthy artists, but everyday Americans could find the promise of health, relaxation, and moral regeneration. 

Roman Mars [00:09:56] By the 1920s, the Park Service was building cushy resorts, complete with dude ranches and even scheduled bear feedings. 

Lasha Madan [00:10:04] So in order to get as many tourists as possible into these parks, the government went hard on building roads. And all this development meant that the crosscut saw was in extremely high demand. These saws were being churned out in huge numbers by manufacturers who were selling newer models every year. 

Dolly Chapman [00:10:23] There were three main companies in the U.S. that made them. There was the Disston Saw Company, the Atkins Saw Company, and the Simonds Saw and Steel Company. They tried to outsell each other every year. They each made their own steel. 

Lasha Madan [00:10:40] By the Great Depression, millions of Americans were put to work, many of them wielding the crosscut to clear trails and lay down miles and miles of pavement. These saws helped make way for the next big thing that shaped wilderness history: cars. 

Roman Mars [00:10:56] By this time, over a million cars were being sold in the country each year–many of their owners eager to drive the widely publicized Park-to-Park Highway, which connected 13 national parks by road. From Yellowstone, you could drive north to Glacier, west to the Cascades, south through the Sierras, and east past the Grand Canyon. 

See the USA in your Chevrolet [00:11:17] Traveling east, traveling west, wherever you go, Chevy service is best! Southward or north, near place or far, there’s a Chevrolet dealer for your Chevrolet car! See the U.S.A in your Chevrolet… 

Roman Mars [00:11:32] These new highways–combined with affordable cars and promotional campaigns–well, they got millions of Americans outside. Within just four years, national park attendance tripled. 

Lasha Madan [00:11:42] But the success of these efforts concerned some of those early worshipers of the wild. With all these roads and tourism, it seemed to them that wilderness was at risk of losing its moral character–its purity. The unique quality of wilderness was that it existed outside of human life. So, if all these pristine landscapes would one day be ruled over by hundreds of cars a day, was that wilderness at all?

Roman Mars [00:12:10] And so in 1935, a new political movement started to emerge, spearheaded by a small group of people with one specific goal in mind. 

Adam Sowards [00:12:19] “Let’s not have roads everywhere. Let’s keep some cars away.” 

Lasha Madan [00:12:22] A group of eight Americans got together to defend the wilderness against recreational and commercial overuse. Among them was ecologist Aldo Leopold, Forest Service chief Bob Marshall, and Benton MacKaye—the guy behind the Appalachian Trail. Together, they called themselves The Wilderness Society, and they had one specific enemy: the car. 

Adam Sowards [00:12:44] What united them was not every last detail about what they thought wilderness should be, but what united them was the fight against the automobile. 

Lasha Madan [00:12:56] The Wilderness Society wanted Congress to create a new type of federal land called Wilderness with a capital W. They wanted Wilderness to be part of the country’s public lands. But unlike other types of public land, like national parks, forests, and monuments, Wilderness would be a separate category–a place with specific and permanent restrictions on human activity. 

Roman Mars [00:13:20] The Wilderness Society dreamed of preserving plots of land throughout the country where roads and most types of commercial development would be forbidden. This included things like logging, resorts, or any type of human made structure. 

Lasha Madan [00:13:33] This was a hard sell. I mean, setting aside millions of acres of land that you can’t claim ownership of or make profit on doesn’t sound very American to me. But they kept trying. 

Roman Mars [00:13:48] As World War II swung around, wood became a critical war material, and the demand for lumber grew exponentially. And it was around this time that chainsaws entered the chat. 

Dolly Chapman [00:13:59] Within just a few years, chainsaws were doing all the work, and crosscut saws were completely obsolete. 

Roman Mars [00:14:07] The efficiency of chainsaws helped fulfill the country’s appetite for wood during the war. And because it could cut more wood at a faster rate, it had major economic appeal. Chainsaws so dramatically replaced the old crosscuts that crosscut manufacturing came to a grinding halt. 

Dolly Chapman [00:14:24] So there were thousands of crosscut saws in the country–belonging to logging companies, belonging to wood cutters, belonging to individuals–for which there was no use anymore. 

Lasha Madan [00:14:36] Picture hundreds of crates of crosscut saws being pushed to the back of warehouses because no one wanted them anymore. These tools eventually found their way to antique stores or someone’s basement. Others found new purpose as wall decoration. And just like that, with crosscuts no longer in use–commercially, at least–the American outdoors got a whole lot louder. 

Roman Mars [00:15:12] Eventually, The Wilderness Society’s anti-car campaign succeeded. After 66 legislative rewrites, Wilderness became a concept that was signed into law. 

Lyndon B. Johnson [00:15:22] Members of the Cabinet and the Congress. Ladies and gentlemen. This is a very happy and historic occasion for all who love the great American outdoors. 

Roman Mars [00:15:31] In 1964, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, and America did something no other country had ever done. It passed a law to protect the land and preserve it in its natural state. 

Lyndon B. Johnson [00:15:43] The Wilderness Bill preserved for posterity for all time to come 9 million acres of this vast continent in their original and unchanging beauty and wonder. 

Roman Mars [00:15:55] It presented something powerfully new in public lands history by placing value on collective restraint. Today, there are roughly 112 million acres of protected Wilderness. 

Lasha Madan [00:16:05] Wilderness went from being a set of cultural values to physical plots of land with defined borders and a legal definition. And that definition? Well, it’s a doozy. 

Adam Sowards [00:16:17] Well, I have it right next to me. I can read off some of the phrases. “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…” 

Lasha Madan [00:16:31] “Untrammeled.” It’s oddly poetic–a choice of word that somehow manages to be specific and a bit vague all at once. Wilderness is a place of “primeval character,” the Act goes on to say, “that it should be preserved in its natural conditions and allowed to maintain its ecological freedom.” 

Roman Mars [00:16:48] One important thing to note about this new capital W Wilderness is that the untrammeled part was actually enforceable by law, which meant that all this land suddenly had to be free of all mechanization and motors. 

Lasha Madan [00:17:02] There’s a particular section of the Act–Section 4. c), if you want to follow along at home–and it excludes the use of motorized equipment, which means no snowmobiles, no jackhammers, no powered rock drills, and no chainsaws. 

Roman Mars [00:17:19] Meaning that people working in the wilderness started to rely heavily on crosscut saws again. 

Lasha Madan [00:17:25] As in, “Sorry, Cracker Barrel, but we’re going to need those crosscuts back.”

Dolly Chapman [00:17:32] So a saw? Now, there are all different types of saws, and I’m going to go over a bunch of them because it is fascinating. What I like about crosscut saws… 

Lasha Madan [00:17:43] A couple of months ago, I followed Dolly Chapman down to a national forest just outside San Diego, where she was leading a crosscut saw training for park rangers and trail workers. At the end of the training, participants would walk away with a certification allowing them to use crosscuts on the job. 

Dolly Chapman [00:18:00] I think we’re ready for you guys to start grabbing saws and working together. This is the part of the day I waited for.  

Lasha Madan [00:18:18] Dolly told me that when the Wilderness Act first passed, a lot of people didn’t want to switch from chainsaws to crosscuts. 

Dolly Chapman [00:18:25] I worked on one national forest where instead of sawing fallen trees, they would blast them out of the way. And I was a blaster too. And that sounded like fun. 

Lasha Madan [00:18:35] As in using explosives to clear trees instead of sawing them at all. And then there were the people who tried to sneak chainsaws in. 

Dolly Chapman [00:18:43] But after a while, there were enough of us sharpening cross cuts and doing a really good job with it that people were saying, “Hey, this is fun. We want to use the crosscut saw.” 

Lasha Madan [00:18:58] Now, there are some case-by-case exceptions to the Act’s rule against motorized tools. But by drastically reducing the use of things like chainsaws, it’s made wilderness areas quiet in a way that’s unlike anywhere else–quiet from all the human-made noise, at least. 

Adam Sowards [00:19:16] Except when you’re out there, it’s actually loud. You can hear the wind. You can hear the water, you know, stumbling over the rocks. You hear the breeze through the trees. You can hear all these things that you can’t hear elsewhere when you’re hearing traffic. 

Lasha Madan [00:19:41] Crosscuts first made a comeback because they had to. But now they’re increasingly desirable, even in non-Wilderness areas where chainsaws are technically allowed. With a lot of forested land seeing increasingly long fire seasons, some trail crews are finding that crosscuts are just safer. You don’t need to haul a bunch of flammable fuel like you would with a chainsaw, and the relative quiet of a crosscut is a lot less disturbing to wildlife. 

Roman Mars [00:20:06] Ever since the crosscut revival, though, the vintage saw has become harder to find, especially as some are being snatched up by collectors or competitive lumberjacks. Many others are being kept as family heirlooms. 

Lasha Madan [00:20:19] In fact, the Wilderness Act, and its emphasis on the purity of nature–it’s kindled interest from a whole subculture of diehard crosscut users, sharpeners, and collectors. Back at Dolly’s training, people continued taking turns pulling a crosscut through a fallen log–two by two. Pretty soon it was my turn. And as I hesitantly walked towards the log, I thought back to a moment that morning when everyone shared what they loved about this tool. The well sharpened vintage crosscut moves cleanly across the grain of a log, pulling out wood in a sort of noodle like shape. Dolly says the test of a good saw is if you see a pile of fresh spaghetti forming at your feet as you move back and forth. 

Dolly Chapman [00:21:04] And then when you’re sawing through wood with it, it makes the singing noise–just a beautiful, comfortable, rhythmic sort of… I won’t say it sounds like bells, but it’s kind of a singing noise. 

Lasha Madan [00:21:20] And sure, you’re sweating in your goggles and your hard hat, butt muscles clenched in preparation for every pull. But there’s also something elegant about it. This saw demands a kind of dance between two people, a thoughtful exercise in communication and trust. In short, what people tend to love most about the crosscut is in the experience. These days, new crosscut saws are being manufactured again. There are modern day crosscuts available for purchase online. And Dolly says there’s actually plenty of these models lying around, mostly unused, in federal storage facilities. 

Dolly Chapman [00:22:00] When the U.S. government spends money on tools, there are a lot of requirements that they buy only new equipment and that they buy American made equipment. And we really don’t want our government employees to be buying things off of eBay or buying antiques. That doesn’t sound professional. 

Lasha Madan [00:22:24] So no need to dig around for second hand tools in old logging towns. And yet every trail worker I’ve spoken to for this story has said they strongly prefer the vintage crosscut. Even the Forest Service published a study in 2005 comparing the quality of vintage and modern saws, favoring the older ones. 

Dolly Chapman [00:22:45] These are just better. And a lot of us–I’d say, me included–would only want to use an antique saw because it is better. It’s going to feel better in the hand, better balance, better flex to the metal. It’ll stay sharp longer. It’ll cut smoother. They’re just far superior to anything made today. 

Lasha Madan [00:23:09] These old saws–they’re made from a higher quality steel. And the teeth are set in a crescent shaped arc. So, there are practical arguments that they do cut better. But perhaps more important is something less tangible than the shape of the arc and the quality of the steel. 

Dolly Chapman [00:23:25] I think more and more I like this one because it has a history, because it might have worked in a logging camp, because it’s 90 years old, because I restored it from real wreckage on the back floor of an antique store. So, there is that nostalgia. 

Lasha Madan [00:23:44] That nostalgia for the antique crosscut–it’s complicated because in it I can’t help but hear parallels to the way we think about Wilderness today. It makes me think back to something Adam told me–that one motivation behind protecting these places as Wilderness was the desire to preserve a frontier frame of mind–that Wilderness could be a place for the weary urban human to use traditional tools like the crosscut and imagine doing what their ancestors did on the open frontier. 

Roman Mars [00:24:17] There’s a certain romantic idea to using a vintage crosscut that feels really similar to the romance that Aldo Leopold and others felt about Wilderness in the 19th century. The pursuit of something untouched, unsullied by contact with humans and industry. 

Shandiin Nez [00:24:34] There seems to be this really big obsession with purity. 

Lasha Madan [00:24:40] This is Shandiin Nez. 

Shandiin Nez [00:24:41] I am Mud Clan. Born for Bear Clan. My maternal grandfather clan is Redwater, and my paternal grandfather clan is Towering House clan.

Lasha Madan [00:24:49] Shandiin is a conservationist who used to lead crews with Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, an all-indigenous environmental group based out of New Mexico. Wielding a crosscut has long been part of Shandiin’s family history. Back in the mid ’30s, both of her grandfathers were crosscut sawyers for a logging company in the Chuska Mountains. 

Roman Mars [00:25:08] Shandiin never anticipated felling trees with crosscuts herself. But for the past ten years, she’s led trail crews into the backcountry on work trips, rarely going into the wilderness without a crosscut saw. 

Lasha Madan [00:25:19] And Shandiin says she gets the romantic allure, both with crosscuts and with wilderness. 

Shandiin Nez [00:25:25] I think before I became as involved with outdoor recreation and working on trails and increasing that access, I did have, like, this romanticized thought and I guess kind of, like, a colonized thought of like, “Wow, this is really beautiful. Humans are the worst”–keeping it in this, like, quote, “pristine state”–before I realized that uninhabited land is a myth. 

Roman Mars [00:25:54] Uninhabited land is a myth. The thing about Wilderness is that it never really existed. Not today. Not in the days of Teddy Roosevelt or in the Industrial Revolution. And definitely not back when European settlers landed in North America. 

Lasha Madan [00:26:09] Because long before these spaces were even referred to as Wilderness, they were populated and tended to by the indigenous people who lived there. 

Shandiin Nez [00:26:17] John Muir and Everett Reese came in and spoke about these places so eloquently, but it lacks a lot of knowledge. It lacked a lot and just holds a lot of deep-seated racism and hate towards Indians. 

Roman Mars [00:26:36] John Muir, a forefather of the American Wilderness movement, argued that Wilderness should be cleared of all of its inhabitants and set aside to satisfy the urban human’s need for spiritual renewal. In his writing, Muir described Indigenous people as, quote, “dirty, lazy, and uncivilized.” In one essay collection he wrote to promote national parks, he assured prospective tourists that most indigenous people were dead or, quote, “civilized into useless innocence.” 

Lasha Madan [00:27:05] And remember Ansel Adams, that famous nature photographer? Well, he actively avoided photographing any of the local Miwok who lived in Yosemite Valley, even though they were rarely out of his sight. He filled thousands of human-free negatives with land he knew that the Miwok had tended to for at least 4,000 years. And he knew that indigenous people throughout the country were forcibly evicted from what are now our Wilderness areas–all in the interest of protecting these spaces from human disturbance. 

Shandiin Nez [00:27:34] But for me, being of this land–my people are of this land–it feels like, I guess, a continued exploitation of land in, like, the name of “purity.” And again, “purity” being a staple of white supremacy and colonization. 

Roman Mars [00:27:52] This pursuit of purity is a big part of what influenced the Wilderness Act of 1964 because coated within the language of preservation was that Wilderness landscapes should be free from human presence. 

Lasha Madan [00:28:04] Ultimately, uninhabited Wilderness as a concept had to first be created before it could be preserved. 

Roman Mars [00:28:15] Despite its colonialist underpinnings, it’s undeniable that the Wilderness Act’s passage was a shining moment in American environmental history. It set millions of square miles of valuable land aside for the sake of protection from American capitalism. And in doing so, it said, “We value what’s already here.”

Lasha Madan [00:28:35] And yet it’s unclear whether the Act’s “leave it be” philosophy is still useful when it comes to land management. And some ecologists are pushing for a different approach. It’s an approach that more closely echoes how Wilderness Land had been tended to by the indigenous people who lived there long before it was ever thought of as “Wilderness”–low intensity human intervention. 

Roman Mars [00:28:58] Here’s an example. Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico is an area that’s been ravaged by a century of fire suppression and livestock grazing, and it led to really damaging rates of soil erosion. Much of this land is in capital W Wilderness, which means workers are limited to primitive tools. But in 2007, they made a bold decision. They decided to take chainsaws to nearly 5,000 acres of land. 

Lasha Madan [00:29:25] Sawyers cut small juniper trees and mulched the ground with their branches. This kind of action–using chainsaws instead of crosscuts in the wilderness and at such a scale–it was a rare exception to the Wilderness Act’s rule against motors. And it worked. In the 15 years since, rates of erosion have fallen by at least an order of magnitude, and the population of native grasses increased threefold. It’s hard to imagine crosscut saws being able to wield such exponential results so quickly. Ultimately, these questions about wilderness, who and what it’s for, and how we relate to it–it’s a debate that will continue to rage on because at the heart of it all, wilderness doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. And it probably never will. Last summer, I hiked into the John Muir Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. At around 10,000 feet along a quiet trail, the sign at the wilderness boundary laid out the rules simple enough to understand–“CLOSED TO MOTOR VEHICLES AND MOTORIZED EQUIPMENT. VIOLATIONS PUNISHABLE.” It was August–too early yet for full sun, but the fog poured from the stony peaks beyond the tree line. I crossed the threshold into wilderness, suddenly very aware of how much effort went into creating an arbitrary border that I had only recently begun to understand. As I plodded along, my eyes cast downward on the trail, I thought about all the sweat and precision that goes into carving trails like this out of mountainside–all the trees that were chopped with cross cuts to make a path like this possible. The way we’ve romanticized our country’s wilderness–I’m wary of it, but I’m also prone to it. I think about how easy it can be to fall into the idea that there are sacred lands, protected Wilderness, like this one, and perhaps more disposable lands, like the changing cities many of us return home to. I catch myself clinging to the romantic idea that when I step into the wilderness, I’m heading somewhere better than us–a place that’s protected from us–that there are some places where we can still walk a dozen miles and not find a gas station or a McDonald’s but instead a glistening lake. 

Roman Mars [00:32:16] Coming up, we learn that when the Wilderness Act stated that no machines are allowed in the wilderness, they really meant it. Stay tuned. As a business-to-business marketer, your needs are unique. B2B buying cycles are long and your customers face incredibly complex decisions. Isn’t it time you had a marketing platform built specifically for you? LinkedIn Ads empowers marketers with solutions for you and your customers. LinkedIn Ads allows you to build the right relationships, drive results, and reach your customers in a respectful environment. You’ll have direct access to and build relationships with key decision makers, 875 million members, 180 million senior level executives, and 10 million C-level executives. You’ll be able to drive results with targeting and measurement tools built specifically for B2B. Make B2B marketing everything it can be, and get a $100 credit on your next campaign. Go to to claim your credit. That’s Terms and conditions apply. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Getting to know yourself can be a lifelong process, especially because we’re always growing and changing. Therapy is all about deepening your self-awareness and understanding because sometimes we don’t know what we want or why we react the way we do until we talk through things. BetterHelp connects you with a licensed therapist, who can take you on that journey of self-discovery from wherever you are. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. It’s designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Literally, every important person in my life has benefited from adding therapy to their health and wellness routine. Discover your potential with BetterHelp. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX. This time of year means spring cleaning. And it’s also your annual reminder that you need more storage space. Article has everything you need to organize your bedroom, living room, and dining room with dressers, nightstands, sideboards, and more. I think my favorite piece of furniture in my house is my Geome sideboard. It’s where I hold my records and CDs. And I’m going to anticipate your next question–yes, I still have hundreds of CDs. You know why? Because if I did not have the CD of Bob Mould’s Hubcap album, I wouldn’t be able to listen to it. It’s not really available for streaming, but I don’t worry about that because I have the CD in the upper right corner of my Geome sideboard. Plus, Article has all the other furniture you want to get your space looking its best. Thanks to their online-only model, Article has some really delightful prices too. Article offers fast, affordable shipping across the U.S. and Canada. Plus, you pick the delivery time. They’ll send you updates every step of the way. Their knowledgeable customer care team is there when you need them to make sure your experience is smooth and stress free. Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit and the discount will automatically be applied at checkout. That’s for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. And we’re back with Lasha Madan. Hey, Lasha. 

Lasha Madan [00:36:57] Hey, Roman. 

Roman Mars [00:36:58] I love this episode so much. I love thinking about wilderness as kind of a design space. Like, it’s still something that’s in the purview of the show, but it is almost completely the opposite of the show. 

Lasha Madan [00:37:10] Yeah, and, you know, in this episode, there were so many interesting rabbit holes that I wish I could have gone down as a reporter. You know, there’s so much more to say when it comes to crosscuts themselves to conservation–which is its own can of worms–land management, indigenous rights, land back. But I wanted to share just this one extra, tiny tidbit with you that I ended up leaving out of the episode, but I still find myself telling people at parties. 

Roman Mars [00:37:39] Okay, I’m ready. Go for it. 

Lasha Madan [00:37:41] So do you remember some of that language that’s used to describe what is and what isn’t allowed in Wilderness according to the Wilderness Act? 

Roman Mars [00:37:49] Yeah, I mean, the key things I remember are: No motorized objects, no mechanical transport, that kind of thing. 

Lasha Madan [00:37:58] Yes. And I find the language and choice of words in this piece of legislation really interesting, especially because the language kind of oscillates between the highly precise and poetically vague–sometimes even within the same paragraph. And there’s these lyrical descriptions where wilderness is described using the words “untrammeled” and “primeval,” describing it as a place for a visitor who does not remain. And people are always referring back to this exact text–this weirdly poetic document–to try and sort out what is and isn’t allowed in capital W Wilderness. And one of the biggest debates has been about wheels. 

Roman Mars [00:38:40] Whoa. Okay. So, I mean, I know wheel and axle is the sort of original, simple machine–but I would not have thought that would be banned. 

Lasha Madan [00:38:47] Yeah. Wheels are technically one of the simplest machines. And because of that, they’re not allowed in the Wilderness–any kind of transportation with wheels, any tools with wheels. So generally, Wilderness areas can only be accessed by horseback, backcountry skiing, kayaking or canoeing, hiking.  

Roman Mars [00:39:05] I had no idea. 

Dolly Chapman [00:39:07] The language says, “No mechanized or motorized equipment shall be used.” “Mechanized” means machine. 

Roman Mars [00:39:15] We could have a whole podcast about Dolly, as far as I’m concerned. 

Lasha Madan [00:39:18] Yeah, and Dolly says that back when the Wilderness Act first passed and there were these new rules to work with all of a sudden, trail crews would still use wheelbarrows to move material around. 

Dolly Chapman [00:39:28] But then, as managers began interpreting the Wilderness Act a little more strictly, they said, “Well, wait a minute. A wheelbarrow has a wheel. Therefore, it’s mechanized equipment, and we shouldn’t be using that in the Wilderness.” 

Lasha Madan [00:39:43] So the Forest Service, where Dolly worked, decided to stop using wheelbarrows in trail work altogether, mostly to set an example for hikers and people coming into the Wilderness recreationally. And their perspective was if land managers were seen using wheelbarrows, what argument would there be to prevent other forms of wheeled transport on the same trails, like mountain bikes, baby strollers and deer carts? 

Roman Mars [00:40:05] Wow. 

Roman Mars [00:40:06] What’s a deer cart? 

Lasha Madan [00:40:08] I think it’s a cart that’s used to haul your game. 

Roman Mars [00:40:12] Oh, I see. Okay, but how did they do their work without wheelbarrows? I mean, you know, second to a saw, it seems like the most important tool for a labor intensive, earthmoving job. 

Lasha Madan [00:40:26] Yeah, this is one of my favorite parts. So instead of wheelbarrows, they use shoulder bags–tote bags, basically–sometimes known as dirtbags–to haul dirt and rocks from one place to another without using any form of machine, even if it’s simple machinery. And isn’t that just a delightful image?

Roman Mars [00:40:50] It is. I mean, I’ve never had a positive connotation to the phrase dirtbag before, but now I do. It is amazing. But it does seem very hard if you’re just hauling dirt on your back. That seems incredibly difficult. 

Lasha Madan [00:41:02] It’s incredible commitment. And today, there is one big exception to the “no wheels in Wilderness” norm, and it’s wheelchairs. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was able to negotiate with the Wilderness Act. So, people who use wheelchairs for everyday indoor mobility are allowed to use them in a Wilderness area. 

Roman Mars [00:41:24] Oh, that makes sense. I’m glad they made that exception. But so, you mentioned mountain bikes, though. What about them? 

Lasha Madan [00:41:32] So in regards to mountain bikes, this is where things get a little bit spicy. 

Roman Mars [00:41:38] Okay. 

Lasha Madan [00:41:39] Because mountain bikes–they aren’t motorized, they are mechanized in that they provide a mechanical advantage with their wheels, and they are human powered. And they have a very large following. So, they’re ambiguity kind of puts them in an awkward spot when it comes to Wilderness access. 

Roman Mars [00:41:58] Yeah, I bet. 

Lasha Madan [00:42:00] So several mountain biking groups have been pushing for decades for mountain bikes to be allowed in the Wilderness. And a big part of their argument takes us right back to that vague, open-ended language in the Wilderness Act. People who say that mountain bikes shouldn’t be considered mechanical transport say that the Wilderness Act could have explicitly banned bicycles in their language–they could have been specific–but they weren’t. 

Roman Mars [00:42:24] I mean, that’s a good point. The Wilderness Act was from 1964, right? And so, were mountain bikes even a thing then? 

Lasha Madan [00:42:31] Mountain bikes weren’t even invented at that point. 

Roman Mars [00:42:34] Okay. Okay. That’s what I thought. 

Lasha Madan [00:42:36] Regular road bicycles were around and were used. But the first mountain bikes came around over a decade later. So, some people say, you know, how could the writers of the Wilderness Act possibly have anticipated that people would have wanted to take their bikes into the Wilderness–into the mountains? 

Roman Mars [00:42:53] So their point of view is that the authors of the Wilderness Act never specifically intended to ban bikes, and therefore bikes should be allowed in the Wilderness? 

Lasha Madan [00:43:02] Exactly. And I will say this is only in regards to Wilderness areas. You can use mountain bikes in state forests, state parks, national parks, things like that. But in regards to Wilderness areas, another element to the argument that mountain bikers make is that they feel that they do less damage than hikers and equestrians who are both allowed on wilderness trails. And I mean, in 2006, the National Park Service released a study supporting that claim. The study was about what mode of travel affects trails the most. And the results showed that horse trails led to the most severe levels of erosion, then hiking trails, and then bike trails, which showed very little signs of erosion. And on the other side of the debate, people argue that bicycles can damage habitat, disturb wildlife, still lead to some levels of erosion, and also that allowing bicycles in wilderness areas has the potential to increase conflict with hikers and limit the hiker’s ability to enter that dreamy Wilderness mindset–just kind of harshes the vibe. 

Roman Mars [00:44:05] Yeah, I am sympathetic to this because I’m a hiker more than a biker. And bikes are very cool, but they totally harsh my vibe when I’m hiking. 

Lasha Madan [00:44:18] In any case, this debate about wheels and Wilderness–it came into public conversation in a really big way in 2017 because that year there was an attempt to pass a bill literally called The Wheels Over Wilderness Bill. 

Roman Mars [00:44:31] Okay. 

Lasha Madan [00:44:32] And this bill advocated for federal Wilderness areas to allow not just mountain bikes but all kinds of wheels. It didn’t pass, but it did set anti-wheel advocates off. So, I found dozens of fiery op-eds published in 2017 with headlines like–and I’m quoting my favorite one here–5 Lies Being Told to Get Mountain Bikes Into the Wilderness.

Roman Mars [00:44:56] Okay. So, yeah, it is getting spicy. 

Lasha Madan [00:44:59] It’s a little contentious, yeah. And, you know, to each their own. For now, though, all wheels besides wheelchairs are still banned. And hikers and trail workers alike just navigate their way around that rule. And all this makes me think of this one hilarious anecdote that Dolly told me from her time working on trails, and I just have to share it with you. So, this one time when Dolly was leading a trail crew, her manager told her that there was a giant tire down in a Wilderness area that had probably rolled down from the top of a ski hill. 

Dolly Chapman [00:45:35] It was, like, a tire that went to a big loader machine or something. Sure enough, down in the creek bed was a six-foot diameter, huge rubber tire that probably weighed 300 lbs. And my boss said, “Can you get it out of the Wilderness?” 

Lasha Madan [00:45:48] So Dolly tried to crowdsource for the best solution. 

Dolly Chapman [00:45:51] And some people said, “well, wait till the Air Quality Board says it’s okay and burn it.” I thought, “Oh, gross.” 

Lasha Madan [00:45:57] Other people were like, “Why don’t you stretch the tire between two trees and then cut it into little pieces and haul it out?” 

Dolly Chapman [00:46:03] And I thought, “My God, that would take forever.” And then one person said, “Well, get a big volunteer group or a Boy Scout troop, tip it on edge, and roll it out.” And somebody else said, “No, that would be illegal. That would be using a wheel in the Wilderness.” I said, “But it is a wheel in the Wilderness.” It was hilarious because they were saying it would be okay to carry it out, but not to roll it out because that would be using a wheel in the Wilderness. And I said, “That is just going too far with being a Wilderness purist.” 

Roman Mars [00:46:37] Oh my goodness. So, what did they end up…? They couldn’t use it as a wheel. They couldn’t use a wheel as a wheel. That is so funny to me. Okay, so what did she end up doing? 

Lasha Madan [00:46:47] Nothing. Nothing. 

Dolly Chapman [00:46:50] I transferred to a different forest. I don’t know what happened. 

Lasha Madan [00:46:54] But if Dolly had her way, she said she probably would have buried it, which… We all know burying your problems isn’t usually the best way to deal with them. But in this case, I get it. 

Roman Mars [00:47:04] Wow. That is such an amazing story. Well, thank you so much, Lasha. It’s so much fun. 

Lasha Madan [00:47:09] Yeah. Thank you. 

Roman Mars [00:47:21] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Lasha Madan. Edited by Kelly Prime. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Sona Avakian. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Vivian Le, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Dolly Chapman, Adam Sowards, and Shandiin Nez. Thanks also to Jo Sorrentino, Chas Robles, Kyle Trujillo, and Robert Parks. 99% Invisible is part of Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Dolly Chapman [00:48:37] And now and then I meet someone who thinks I’m going to play the saw. You may have heard of people playing a crosscut saw as a musical instrument, and I don’t quite know how it’s done. I think you need a bow–like you play a violin–and you bend it. And that’s something I still have to learn. I have no idea how to play music on a crosscut saw. 

Storyteller [00:49:04] There on the banks, Marlena sang. And then Marlena sat down, took out a saw from a case, and played it like a violin. It sounded exactly like this. 

Ed Vance [00:49:52] Hola. Ed Vance for Advance Auto Parts here. Welcome to Ed Talk Radio. Today’s episode: Why I Love the Advance Parking Lot. Inside the store is awesome, obviously. But amazing things happen in the parking lot. Expert team members will test your battery there–free. They’ll install a die-hard battery there–free. If you have a pesky check engine light on, they’ll find out why–free. Oh, and you can park there–free. Thanks for listening to my Ed talk. 

Advance Auto Parts Jingle [00:50:19] This is how we advance. 

American Express [00:50:23] You finally made it happen. Lunch with friends. Synced up schedules and booked on Resy. Found the perfect spot right by the water to catch up over eggs. Catch of the day. When you’re sharing more moments together, that’s when you’re with Amex. American Express. Don’t live life without it. 



This episode was produced by 99pi’s own Lasha Madan.

  1. Marc

    Loved this episode. I was absolutely astonished to learn about the ban on wheels. Doesn’t the same logic apply to all simple machines then? Shovels are just levers attached to wedges, saws are just a bunch of wedges in a row. By the logic given basically existing in the wilderness should be banned.

  2. laura folger

    This is really a fabulous episode!
    I’ve sent it along to tons of family and friends.
    Absolutely brilliant job by all your participants. Great storytelling and so unexpected. Thank you so much.!!

  3. Luke Whiteside

    Great episode, but I couldn’t contain myself hearing that wheelbarrows were not allowed because the wheel (and axle) is one of the six simple machines!
    Because the cross-cut saw is nothing other than a long line of tiny wedges, so is an axe. A crowbar is a lever, and skis and sleds use an inclined plane to reduce friction. I’d be surprised if they don’t use a hand-brace for screws and pulleys to round out all the other five simple machines….
    Call me an Australian that doesn’t understand your wilderness rules when it comes to wheels…, but otherwise I just loved this story and plan to look out for an old cross-cut saw to join my tool collection!

  4. Paul G

    In your journey down the rabbit hole for this one, I’m curious if you ran into anyone arguing that use of saws and axes should also be disallowed? Since technically, they both use wedges, another type of simple machine. Maybe I’m “splitting” hairs by reading into the simple machines discussion too much. :-)

  5. Adam Pillard

    Great episode as always! I wish you had dug in a little bit more on this idea of simple machines and specifically wheels not being allowed in Wilderness areas. The wedge, as in a saw or axe is also considered a simple machine but clearly the forest service has no issues with those. Just wondering how they came to this odd definition of “mechanized” that includes wheels but not wedges.

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