Despite the time-wasting, short-attention span nature of scrolling through my Facebook feed, I did stumble upon an article about hiking that I not only read, but read closely. Well written and full of useful tips, long enough to be a decent treatment of the topic but not in the TL;DR category, I should be extolling its virtues, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to tear the whole thing apart. Come on, you’d expect nothing less from me. Here’s the link: http://hubpages.com/sports/Tips-for-Hiking-Trails
The article does a nice job of promoting and encouraging new, out of shape, and inexperienced hikers to stay with it and bag those peaks. The tips pass muster and the tone is positive and upbeat. But — why can’t we be ok with the fact that some folks don’t like hiking, don’t want to hike, or CAN’T hike back country trails? Why do we have to promote, encourage, heck – browbeat – nonhikers into joining us in our endeavor? If we need to promote the activity to people who find it stressful (first paragraph, hiking is described as “incredibly challenging” and in the second paragraph – “stressful”), maybe we’re on the wrong trail.
I completely agree with efforts to encourage “unplugging” from devices and the internet. I completely agree with promotion of being outdoors. But you can do that while you pick apples, go for a swim, sit and read a book, or doze in a hammock. Promotion of outdoor recreation doesn’t have to mean the back country. In the Catskills, we can enjoy the benefits of being outdoors “in nature” on rail trails, village sidewalks, and our own front porches. Speaking of the benefits of nature, I’ve seen a few articles about the so-called benefits of being in nature – mental health benefits, “spiritual” benefits, etc. In every single study, when you look at the specifics, the benefits gained could have been gained in one’s own back yard, a town park, or similar nonbackcountry outdoor area. The notion of nature walks somehow being a jumpstart to human spirituality is fodder for another blog post, but all I’ll say here is nope. Visit a few gorgeous places that are littered with beer cans, broken glass, used condoms and diapers (yes, that’s what I picked up in the woods at a litter picking event at the Blue Hole, formerly one of the most pristine and sublime places in the entire Catskills) to understand that folks are gonna do what they do. Being out “in nature” isn’t going to take anyone to Spirituality Central unless they were already on that bus.
I completely agree with promoting and encouraging children to get outside and play, and adults can find their version of outdoor recreation (grown up play) that works for them. Unstructured free play outdoors is something I think all kids can find a way to enjoy. Some will be incredibly athletic and run around, build jumps and ride bikes, skateboards, go karts, etc. over them, climb trees, and explore their own kinetic extremes. Some kids will sit still on a stream bank and daydream, listening to the brook sing. Some kids will be in that brook, on their hands and knees, catching crayfish and marveling at caddisfly larvae. [Confession – more than one child was forbidden from playing with me because they came home too dirty. I was perpetually covered in mud. Still am.] All forms of enjoying time outdoors, unplugged, and away from adult “supervision” (i.e. control) are good for kids. Letting kids choose what works for them is by far the best way to build enjoyment and help kids develop a strong positive association with being outdoors that can last a lifetime. Similarly, letting adults gravitate to the activity that resonates for them just makes sense. When I read the encouragement provided by the article referenced above I felt like this is all about trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Why push hiking? There are so many different ways to enjoy being outdoors, why herd folks onto the hiking trails and then coach them on how to enjoy it? Seems like wasted effort to me. And, dare I say it – potentially dangerous, both to the hikers but also to the fragile mountain ecosystems. Inexperienced people are innocently ignorant and do ill-advised things (like cutting down trees and branches for all kinds of weird reasons). They also tend to get lost, ill, or injured. They trespass and make for problematic relationships with adjacent land owners — here in the Catskills this has resulted in loss of access in several places. But to me the single most important reason to NOT encourage people to enter the back country? They don’t have fun. They endure it, survive it, damage themselves and the nature they are supposed to be inspired by, and all too often require rescue. All of that could be avoided if folks didn’t hike unless they actually love hiking. Why not follow your bliss (yeah, I hate that phrase too) and do something that you enjoy? Yes, climbing mountains offers some great rewards for those who love doing so, but that cost-benefit analysis has to make sense.
Ultimately, the article made me uncomfortable. I don’t want to encourage people to push themselves. I want to encourage people to be happy (and yes, some people take great delight in pushing themselves. Those folks need no encouragement and they sure don’t need an article telling them how to push past discomfort. They do it all the time.). I want to encourage people to feel good about themselves and embrace who they are. We are not all the same. Yeah, hiking is popular. It’s trending (I just threw up in my mouth a little). But really, it isn’t for everyone. Hauling your mass up a mountain is just not comfortable, period. Not everyone enjoys being uncomfortable. And that’s ok. Miles of trail are boringly similar, and the viewspot is a blip in an otherwise endless sea of sameness. There are ticks carrying Lyme disease and other debilitating diseases, there are gnats, mosquitoes, blackflies, and no-see-ums, and they all bite. There are amazing amounts of stinging nettles and blackberry canes. There are bears and coyotes, which seem to scare the sense out of most people. There is no latte at the summit, no frozen snickers bar, no craft-brewed IPA. You need to go into the villages for those things.
If we care about economic development, we need to stop promoting the wilderness and start promoting the villages. If we care about environmental protection, we need to stop promoting the wilderness and start putting our money where our mouths are in terms of protecting it. And we need to figure out how we’re going to deal with the ever increasing numbers of people who do come visit and hike the back country – because parking areas are full, the back country is littered and chopped, and the reports of rescues clearly demonstrate that at least some of the folks coming out here and getting into trouble are neither prepared for nor enjoying a back country experience. I don’t know what the answers are, but I worry that the right questions are just not getting asked anywhere near often enough or loudly enough. The din of promotion, no matter how well written and kindly the form it takes, is shouting over what I believe is common sense.