Monday, March 16, 2015

State of Wilderness and the Impact of Thru-hiking

I left Los Angeles, many years ago, because I saw the severe encroachment of the urban sprawl envelope the once beautiful surrounding hillsides. There became no place to truly roam free. You had to go elsewhere. Although I have since found beauty within that bulging metropolis, especially during my LA urban thru-hike, I left to develop a wilderness ethic. I believe that my ethic is stronger because I grew up in that urban environment. As I saw suburban housing tracts takeover natural grasslands, oak woodlands, desert expanses, and lush waterways I coined the term 'free dirt' as in rid the land of the concrete that binds, as in connect with the wild without human obstruction. As I am venturing on a route this year exploring public lands seldom visited I think of our overuse on popular trails and ponder the 'voiceless' wilderness and other wild places no one wants to go to visit and explore. Some places are even non-existent in public memory save for a few hardy individuals who choose their own path and keep wilderness alive and valid.

I feel we have a responsibility to walk, to explore. As I say that statement, we have a duty to not neglect our farthest to reach places. Our 'home' should spread wider than our walk to our vehicle or our jobs or around town. Our 'home' should also extend to the least popular places. Even as the Big 3 gains in popularity, which explores vast public spaces, many parts of the wilds remain neglected and overgrown, absent from public memory. This holds even more true out in the wide West. While the corridor of the PCT and CDT receive more boot prints, other wild places seemingly become farther away and the vestiges of trail vanish.


As thru-hikers we need to be the voice for wilderness. I get a sense there is a 'me' attitude in the community when in essence why we experience the wilderness is for ourselves and in the spirit of wilderness. Rick Potts, former Chief of the Wilderness Stewardship and Recreation Management Division for the National Park Service, wrote in an article:

The danger to wilderness is no longer from recreationists who are coming to wilderness, but rather from the vast majority of Americans who are not visiting wilderness.

I feel it is my duty as an American, as an adventurer, and just a plain human being to go into these faraway places and wild areas. In a way, I feel I am keeping the 'no-name' wild spirit alive, that I am validating the existence of wilderness in our world, because it is the freedom of our world. Within my career of thru-hiking I feel to be an explorer and a steward of trails and routes first. Public attention for what I'm doing serves no purpose, only my actions and my respect out in the wild. As I see hikers looking for that public attention or trying to be the cool kid, as I witness public arguments between reputed hiker figures, as I see things getting 'easier' for hikers with not-so-random trail magic, I think of the places faraway and the respect these wild places deserve. To explore means going where the herd is not, to explore means branching away. I think love can 'overkill' and 'over-populate' an area, while apathy and irrelevance can diminish the memory and love we have for a wilderness; wild places fade into the 'no-name.' If we do not use wilderness we will lose it.

Why has a lapse in wilderness ethic shifted to a more social experience? I have a theory. When the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) passed it put a lot of young people to work. A lot of those young adults served in AmeriCorps, in particular the Conservation Corps around the states that put those same young adults at work in our public lands. They were working in places faraway from local society. They worked and lived in the woods with a crew, a family if you will. Our job economy was pretty feeble at that time, yet ARRA employed thousands of young adults everywhere. During their service tenure, transformational experiences of great magnitude shifted the lives of adults that otherwise may have been left with a bleak future. I was one of them. I say to this day, a season in a Conservation Corps is very similar to a thru hike. So, fast forward about 6 years later and ARRA ended and Congress decided to cut back on AmeriCorps. Around that time, our job climate was in the shits even worse than before. Also, long distance hiking was gaining some popular momentum with books being published, bigger social media presence, the blogosphere, and speed record attempts. I correlate this popularity of long distance hiking with the U.S. experiencing a 'European shift,' in which young Americans forsook the tradition of graduating college, starting a career and a family, working until retirement, and finally traveling and exploring in the 'golden years.' With this shift, young Americans have been seeking some sort of transformational experience. Couple that with a jobless economy in which highly educated people cannot find work, then traveling seems like a plausible endeavor. Whether riding a bicycle cross-country, volunteering overseas, thru-hiking, etc. the common thread among the adventurists is the transformative experience one obtains.

My theory is not to naysay a transformative experience or to not hike a popular trail. In fact, I encourage folks to follow their dreams and live a life off instinctual impulses. My theory, if anything, is a call to action to spread the love. I may sound like a curmudgeon but these transformative experiences can happen anywhere and not solely on the Big 3. I have to say it: The land comes first. Wilderness comes first. The one thing I can say I have learned the most from long distance hiking is balance. Another valuable lesson that I cannot leave out is that wilderness has taught me that my actions have direct consequences. If we overload the popular corridors then more money gets filtered to those areas. Hiker and trail associations get bigger, hiker impact on trail becomes more crucial and noticeable; a veritable highway is developed. I see an eerie parallel to overcrowding our main corridors as urban development encroaching on wild lands. In contrary to overfunding, little used areas receive hardly any funding and become less accessible and overgrown. Only the seldom trail crew or a backcountry horseman clears the paths. Small trail associations go defunct or scrape by on the passion of the folks protecting the trail. But the job is too immense. We end up losing what we love. What stings even more to me is, nowadays, the access to receive thru-hiking tutelage and ethics is ever the more accessible, yet 'how to act' is not held accountable by other experienced hikers. A lesson or the awareness of the climate of the trail becomes a hiker rant. I am not looking to settle the field and condone actions, I am looking to hold thru-hiking in a special light. I am striving to protect our wilderness by being in wilderness. I think of all the ones before us that have enhanced our experience by simply following their heart into unknown territory. The trailblazers who had the vision and bushwhacked a route before it was a path; the researchers of places, maps, and local lore; the authors of guidebooks who painstakingly tabulate valuable information; the naturalists who investigate and scrutinize the world around them microscopically; the mapmakers who constantly read the land and translate what the world is communicating to us on paper; the wilderness fighters who protect what we love; the no-namers, the wildland firefighters, trail builders and trail grunts; all the work and workers going into a route is beyond comprehension. Yet we often choose the most popular path. The gist behind this is that people are seeking that transformational experience at the wilderness expense.

We take for granted the land and the wild by protecting it with closed arms and hugging it close to us thinking if we do not tell anyone then it will always be ours, when in fact, if we do not speak out loud and stand as stewards of the trail and the wild then it will vanish and be used up by big industry. I think, as thru-hikers, we need to be the assertive voice. We have an opportunity to answer the call of wilderness as it sits on our shoulders beckoning us with signs to recover it and to bring its true meaning and value to light before the greedy hands take over. That transformational experience will always be there. Wilderness and those faraway places, on the other hand, may not be. Understanding that our actions affect the land first and not our social constructs will help us make conscientious choices that balance out our land use and land neglect. 

I often think that in order to hike one of the Big 3 you must give back to the trail in the form of service. Maybe in order to get a long distance hiking permit 8 hours of trail work must be performed by the hiker on that particular trail with a certain timeframe. Understanding is gained through education, especially through experiential learning. Maybe then we can truly respect the wild places. Maybe then we can understand how much effort goes into the trails we love. Maybe then we will develop a wilderness ethic. Maybe then our furthest faraway places will be preserved through love rather than neglect and apathy.