Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Here is a beautiful place, a stream cascading between the emerald mountainsides of a deep, wet summer, a world dripping with sparkling green, water falling from rocks, sunlight hung like gossamer between the leaves, spiders spinning, trout swirling.

First, tiptoeing in, come the naturalists, careful and quiet, here only to observe. They find spiritual satisfaction in the bridges of tree roots and the trickle of water. They are purists, wanting to believe that they alone seek the wild places and understand their sanctity. They want solitude and peace, an escape; they want the gentle murmur of wind through the trees to soothe them into forgetting chaos and violence and stress. These initiated know that the natural world is meant to hold us in wonder and reverie, always, every piece of it a work of art, never to be desecrated by the base, ignorant pursuits of the sex- and adrenaline-starved masses.

Then, roaring in on dirtbikes to an AC/DC soundtrack come the recreationists, those who believe that hills and valleys exist to be conquered, that kayakers are speedbumps and tree-huggers are grizzly fodder, that government regulations are the root of malaise. The “great outdoors” is a playground for the rugged, existing for submission and pleasure. Though they love the natural world as much as anyone, their reason for protecting it lies largely in the value of its recreational benefit, for its capacity to set the stage for hunting and fishing and four-wheeling. Who needs wolves in this picture? There is no need for apology. Survival is not for the weak of heart.

Far on the other side of the political and social spectrum are the human-powered recreationists. They come sauntering in with Bob Marley on their earbuds. Better educated, they thus find themselves superior. They work all week in the city to buy the gear they need to get away to the climbing routes and rivers. There are rules here, some unspoken, some loudly broadcasted. Above all, leave no trace. No trace – we are separate from this place. Hike as quickly as possible carrying the lightest possible load. Anyone caught wearing cotton is to be silently scoffed at. Knots are practiced with religious fervor. There's a sense of awe and wonder, but it's overshadowed by the drive to be the first to ascend a particular rock face, to be the first to lay tracks in deep powder.

Once the idyllic emerald grove has been sufficiently trodden down, the paths worn deep, the parking lot made easily accessible – then come those who spend precious little time outdoors but like it anyway, and descend upon it in great droves. They wear Reeboks and carry a disposable plastic water bottle, a camera and a cell phone. Which is a good thing. They end up calling 911 because they took the wrong trail and didn't bring a headlamp and can't get back to their car before dark.

When they arrive, we start to look elsewhere, furtively, telling only the kindred spirits we've met along the way, hoping no one else will discover our new location. We begin again with the next great unspoiled place. But we can't help but see each other out there. We recognize each other. There are as many rifts among those who love the outdoors as there are religions among those who love god. But we rarely speak when we pass on the trail. 

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