Looking out on top of the highest peak in the Big Snowy Mountains in Montana, I cannot help but think about how I got here and the privilege that led me on this path. I was raised in an upper-middle class family in Portland, Oregon. Growing up in a big city in a wealthy neighborhood influenced who I am today and in many ways shaped my path to get here, to Montana. I did not fully appreciate Portland until I left for college and came back with a fresh set of eyes. The place you are from can have a very big impact on your identity and shape the way you live your life. I believed I grew up in a small town. It was not until I got my driver’s license and was able to drive around neighboring cities that I realized my mistake. I thought most people in America shared a similar lifestyle to me, and being raised in a liberal bubble in a big city influenced that thinking.
For the past month and a half, eleven other students and I have been marching in uniform lines through beautiful landscapes, trying our best to reconnect with the same nature that humanity is actively destroying. We are only here because we met certain requirements that relate back to our upbringing and the monetary value associated with our families’ economic backgrounds. Ultimately, money defines what we do and where we can go in this world. I chose to be here, to join this course, but a lot of people do not get that choice, that privilege to choose if and how they earn a college education.
The rock formations that rise thousands of feet above our heads are reminders of the earth moving below us, while the falling leaves from the quaking aspens are reminders that change is natural and inevitable. It is early October here in the Snowies and the cool wind bites my skin as I write this under the shade of an evergreen, while a trickling stream talks to me as it runs by my feet. Today, I would guess, it is around 65 degrees and sunny, with not a cloud in the sky. Around this time of the year four years ago, the great basin we are camping in was covered in a thick blanket of snow. A previous WRFI group got caught in a snow storm in the same area we are camping in today—they had to evacuate and end the section early. The climate is changing and the Big Snowies are a perfect example of that.
While I am out here, I have to remind myself that this is a one-of-a-kind experience and that I would never be able to come out to Montana, float on the Missouri, hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and meet with so many locals on my own. With climate change being an imminent threat to the natural landscape, appreciation for our surroundings is more important now than ever. Privilege and appreciation do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, but when you get the chance to backpack and kayak through Montana for two months, you are forced to appreciate the land for what it looks like today by also recognizing your role in it. Being privileged in America allows me to have experiences that other people do not have access to and because of this, I have the ability to use my privilege to make a difference in the world. Recognizing my privilege and using it towards a greater good is one thing I can do to make a difference. We have to be appreciative of the environment that exists today because we do not know what it will look like and how it will change from this point moving forward. Each and every one of us in this group carries guilt associated with our privilege, but as the climate changes, we have a voice in how we want to deal with that change, and that would not be possible without appreciation for the land we reside in and the world around us.
Ellie Williams is a student at Oregon State University where they study Natural Resources with an emphasis on Restoration Ecology.