lake powell invasive mussel shells

New West vs. Old West

I’ve been struggling with thoughts about conservationism, conservationism against the prevailing tide, and my tiny place in the thick of things, as well as a sore knee, since I got back from walking Utah in early June. Some reading, and going through my photos, is helping me finally collect my thoughts.

I can’t remember where I was when a friend forwarded me a link from the Canyon County Zephyr, but I was definitely in Utah. I was probably in the backcountry still somehow indulging in LTE “connectivity,” but unable to read much because I was busy walking. But with a few clicks and paragraph licks, I distinctly gleaned a sense of being the outsider where I was. I looked up from the phone and had lost my bearing, my confidence. I suddenly felt woefully ignorant of the vast soulful and intelligent history—as well as current politic—which are obscured by unfamiliarity. It was a practical wake-up call, one whose voice reminds me of my place, which is only right where I sit, and not necessarily where I show up.

Bewildering, because on the surface, it looked this Spring like I’d shown up in the Southwest quite a bit. I had walked through the Utah and Arizona twice, alone, slowly, poking around in hidden corners and initiating conversations with native strangers. I had covered about 1700 miles between Moab and Kolob in two years, Spring and Fall, westbound and eastbound. This Spring I was back to walk another 800 miles, on a route I’d chosen based on fantasies I’d reared the prior two years, linking together narrow canyons and other question marks using the Colorado River for answers. I can close my eyes and recite how all my walks linked ruddy canyons, surprise peaks, powerful snaking rivers, the cattle-gorged glens and hung-to-dry towns, often overlapping one another. My memory walks over them again and again.

For an outsider, I sure felt in it.

Something out there in the desert woos me, makes my heart ache. My tear ducts pulse when I think about it. I fantasize again about a return, about getting closer and closer. But closer to what?

Powell reservoir giant tumbleweedsThis Spring I packrafted a couple significant portions of “Lake Powell.” Not to sound dramatic, but it was intense and I’m still not sure what I think.

I might be able to say I’d done more walking in the wilds of Utah than most Utahns, and had seen more of the hidden corners of Utah than most Utahns. But it’s become clear the more I know the less I know about Utah, the Southwest, much less… anything. Every time I get a notion, I meet a local or read something they’ve written and it’s back to the drawing board. That’s what happened when I started to read from the Canyon County Zephyr.

In general, when it comes to the way the Southwest has been impacted by humans, things are the way they are for a reason. Utah is the way it is now for a reason. Contrasted with the blithe chaos of its natural world, which seems to function perfectly well without reason other than survival, the human influence seems intrusive, destructive, and misplaced. As Katie Lee puts it in her wonderful, wonderful 1998 book All My Rivers Are Gone:

Only one element seemed in conflict. The scale was so huge that a photograph couldn’t describe it, and I would try placing a person in the frame somewhere to give it perspective. In the end I gave up. WE were out of harmony.

I’ve realized with some embarrassment how naive it is to proclaim love for a place (an idea, an ideal?) without knowing much more about it than its inanimate features and wildlife. Not with 7.5 BILLION people on the planet. I walked deep into very remote corners of Utah alone, trying to escape the human influence (at least the modern one), but in vain. I have fallen for everything but the human element of the Southwest, while being a human element in the Southwest. I felt tuned to Nature, but in grief (and thereby, denial) over human (my) impact on it. This paradox puts me right at the center of perhaps one of the biggest dangers to the wilderness right now:

Too many humans in the wilderness.

It could just be that with more people on the planet, there are also more people in the wild. But it also seems like there are more people in the wild who have no place being in the wild. Admittedly, I was/am one of those people. I had never backpacked before I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail one summer, and I used to bury my toilet paper. I even hashtagged, contributing to the death of the PCT as we once knew it. Reformed by some education in outdoor ethic and conservationism, and solid ass-kickings by Mother Nature, I hope. Sorry. But anyway, I’m surrounded by outdoorsy types who comment on how crowded the out-of-the-way places suddenly are with litter and city folk on their phones. I blame something other than ennui. I blame social media.

Clear to conservationists who keep up with social media is that interest in “opting outside” seems to have blossomed riotously in the past 5 years or so, and rather inorganically. Folks are under the influence of social media as if it were a drug. Until about a week ago when I deleted Instagram from my phone, I found myself staring at (mostly strangers’) photographs several times a day. Strange “friends” of mine seem to believe that visiting hip and beautiful places, promoting those places as if our own personal travel agent or board of tourism, and garnering the most followers and likes (mostly strangers’) is harmless and meaningful.

I beg to differ.

Most social media is meaningless and very harmful. Harmful to our mental health, harmful to our natural environment.* Not to mention how social media outlets (chiefly Facebook and Instagram) place advertisements which should be respected as propaganda dangerous to our democracy. Please go back to showing me photographs of your morning latte, your baby, your new tattoo, your dog in the yard.

While humans definitely do benefit from “opting outside” (when they’re not falling off cliffs taking selfies**), the outside–wilderness–certainly isn’t benefiting from humans. The argument that hashtagging wild places draws more attention to them, thereby stoking citizen concern, doesn’t pan out in an economy which prioritizes defense spending over public works and education. Disastrously, parks and land management agencies find themselves de-funded as interest piques. No amount of letter-writing, petitioning, or protesting will help protect the land from misuse by folks who know no better, and who certainly don’t write letters, petition, or picket. Again, Katie Lee nailed it in All My Rivers Are Gone,

…[I] sang river songs wherever possible, certain that if more folks saw the beauty of that place and understood what would be lost to everyone, there’d be no way the Wreck-the-nation Bureau could build their damn dam. The people would not let them. I was blindly unaware, of course, that I was pooping in my own parlor, introducing a multitude of strangers to my wonderland, where I didn’t really want them at all.
        The ecological Catch-22: Saving a wilderness takes enough people to ultimately ruin it.

Utah slickrockCrossing slickrock and into slot canyons under threatening weather, unwise but very solitary.
Once upon a time, nobody would have dreamed of fish in Glen Canyon. Nor would they imagine the red rocks losing their color. Then they dammed it.

I sometimes wonder… If it weren’t for the need for a “perfect photo,” how many folks might stay home? If only hunting the “perfect photo,” are they missing the real benefit of spending time outside? While walking through the big national parks of Utah and the Grand Canyon, I cannot count how many times a car would pull up beside me, someone jumping out with a camera to take a shot, jump back in, and drive away. Folks used to share these photos as pieces of paper, or in slideshows with friends and family, people they loved. Now we show and tell a tiny fraction of the photos we take, only the very best ones, with strangers. To prove how deserving they are of love. Who needs the love, though: us or Nature?

We crave attention. We distract attention from Nature.

We honor reality by remembering we are not exceptions to any rule. There are simply too many humans for all of us to use the excuse “I’ll only break the rule this one time.” In order for there to be any wild left at all, we would all have to follow a clear ethic, every time we visit. We need to educate ourselves, and one another, even if it is humbling and means we need to make uncomfortable changes.

With 7.5 billion people on the planet, we might do better to disperse more widely into the woods and not congregate in popular areas, mindful of our impact on the wild (using the Leave No Trace ethic), and not do it just for the “perfect photo.” In fact, we would do better to not share photos at all, at least not in such a way that we are accidentally (or purposefully) promoting bad practices or sharing the exact GPS location of sacred or delicate places. The Leave No Trace Center recently released an unexpected add-on to their 7 principles: a social media ethic.

About four years ago, as the conservationist in me burst forth, and the programmer in me grew concerned about nefarious API usages, I intuited geo-tagging and hashtagging were becoming a problem.*** I stopped doing it. I also made my social media accounts private. I noticed no change in my number of actual friends or frequency of activities I enjoyed with them, and my self-esteem actually improved the less I cared about my online profiles. I’ve only shared slivers of the entire planet that is my affair with Utah, and my other desert hikes. I’ve gotten to do some pretty amazing shit and could rattle off stories for ages. But I have nothing to prove. And very few people care. Unsurprisingly, when I didn’t geotag or hashtag, hardly anyone asked where my photographs were taken. They’re beautiful, but not too important. I’m learning that the fewer photographs I take, the more time I spend looking, really looking, appreciating the moment – and the more fulfilled I feel.

I got caught in a thunderstorm while crossing Lake Foul in a 35oz dinghy and thought I’d die but instead this double rainbow happened.

Perhaps by hiking across Utah repeatedly and turning ideas over in my mind, talking with folks, reading on the subject, I’ve fine-tuned some thoughts about the Hayduke and Leave No Trace in general. I can tell you why I got annoyed when I found “Hayduke Lives” scrawled in the Red Benches sand by a social media influencer Hayduke hiker. I can tell you the wild roundabout I’ve made ruminating over the vast cattle empire that rules Utah, from being fairly oblivious to riled up, to somewhat placated (thanks again, Jim Stiles). And I can tell you how these two things that rattle me are interconnected, and a simple way out. But it shakes the foundations and you might want to hear it.

Or would you?

To be continued…

* It is being argued that social media APIs could be used to gather data about land use and funnel funds correspondingly, but does this sound like something our government is going to jump right on?

** This was almost me in 2016, off a 600-foot cliff in the Grand Canyon attempting to take a picture of myself. The camera timer went off and snapped a dark candid of me trying NOT to fall backwards. It can happen to anyone.

*** Around this time I also started noticing Leave No Trace gaffes in online and print advertising. Still happening every day. Ads that irk me most depict decorative cairns and campfires, and tents near water. Please call this out when you see it, as they are not good examples to set.

Recommended reading

Especially for Hayduke hikers: Brave New West by Jim Stiles