I’m Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt
I like to have a good time, and I don’t care who gets hurt
“Mr. Bad Example” – Warren Zevon
A lingering frustration with how people treat the amazing and beautiful world around us came to a head this summer as we traveled. Switchback cutters, trail hogs, and trash trolls were out in full force across the United States, and I am going to spend this post dissecting their bad behavior. Since I generally don’t take pictures of trash on the trail, I have mainly filled this post with pictures of places in the way we’d prefer to see them.
Links to the corresponding hikes are beneath the photos. The featured photo is the view from the South Rim in Big Bend National Park.
Here in the U.S., we talk a lot about our rights and relatively little about our responsibilities, even though they go hand in hand. We tend to get bent out of shape when admission fees go up, when permits are instituted, or when trails are closed for renovation and yet rarely seem to connect these inconveniences to their cause, usually our own carelessness with our communal areas. My gripes concern behaviors, whether illegal, against the rules, or merely discourteous, that reduce the enjoyment for the next hiker down the trail.
First up: cutting switchbacks.
The Switchback Jack(ass)
We’ve all seen it. The trail is zig-zagging up (or down) a mountain. As you you approach the switchback point, there is an ugly, eroded rut through the brush cutting off the tip of the zig or zag. Recently, some Doctor of Thinkology looked at that switchback and posited:
“The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.”
The Scarecrow’s Pythagorean butchery aside, this theorizing thinkster realized that the remaining side of an isosceles triangle is often shorter than the other two and, secure in the knowledge that he just invented the shortcut, trampled his isosceleic idea into the brush, mangling delicate, local flora and bludgeoning Earth Science half to death with Geometry. What was the impetus behind these mental machinations?
Guy: “Gosh, I love hiking. It’s so great to be out in the fresh air, enjoying the splendor of this pristine wilderness!”
Guy’s brain: “Dude! You gotta find a way to cut this short … there’s a jumbo bag of cheese puffs at home and the couch is lonely. Jersey Shore isn’t gonna watch itself!”
If you don’t want to hike the trail, why are you there?
Cutting switchbacks damages local flora and exacerbates erosion. Once that shortcut trail has been established, it becomes a channel for rain and snow run-off, and soon an unsightly ditch replaces the path. This not only diminishes the natural beauty of the area but costs money to fix – money that ultimately comes out of my pockets … and yours.
Conservation workers were doing work on the Hope Lake Trail, near Telluride, CO, during our recent hike there; the trail was replete with signage blocking shortcuts. They read, “Revegetation in progress, please stay off”. Not every rutted shortcut had a sign, though. As Lisa and I descended, a tall, lanky man, dressed all in black, was on his way up. At the switchback point, we stepped off the trail to allow the gentleman to pass. We needn’t have bothered. Although he was a man in black, he wasn’t the Man in Black; this guy wasn’t “walking the line” – he was drawing new ones. Fifteen yards before reaching the switchback, Cut-rate Cash jumped the tracks and high-stepped it up through the brush to the next level of trail. Fed up, Lisa called out:
” ‘Scuse me … sir? Cutting switchbacks can really mess up the environment!”
Non-genuine Johnny, without stopping or even looking back, responded. Since there was no sign, he asserted, he was free to do whatever he wanted. We shook our heads – there was nothing else to do.
I’d like to think that folks are capable of being responsible even when there’s not a sign telling them to do so. Again, if you don’t want to hike the trail, why are you hiking the trail?
McAfee Knob. The single most photographed spot on the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine. A lone boy sits, engrossed. Mesmerized by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the sun-dappled valley. Entranced by the hazy, purple mountains beyond. Face upturned to the watercolor sky.
Nope. He was playing Minecraft on his phone. Or checking his stock options. He was definitely not enjoying the view.
Seriously, this happened. A line of people stood waiting while Mr. Me sat unaware, checking to see if he had enough signal to stream PornHub.
This exemplifies a long-term complaint of mine: many people seem to believe that where ever they are belongs exclusively to them for however long they choose to occupy it, with no thought for others.
This summer, on the Hope Lake Trail (a hike we loved, by the way), we nearly tripped over a family that had chosen, as their lunch spot, a trail junction from which two waterfalls could be viewed. They were literally sitting in the middle of the trail! How did they arrive at this decision?
Mom: “Honey, the children are hungry.”
Dad: “What? Again? They’ve had three snacks already and we’ve only gone a mile!”
Mom: “I know, dear, but …” (Nods at children, who are shoving each other)
Dad: “Fine. Where do you wanna sit?” (Children are now punching each other.) “There’s a log down by the creek … or that little knoll over there in the grass?”
Mom: “How about this nice, flat, clear spot right in the middle of the trail? Can you think of any reason not to lay our blanket here?”
Dad: “I literally cannot think of a single problem that would pose!”
If you can, welcome to the human race. To top off this conspicuous display of self-absorption, they were not even acknowledging other hikers. We tightrope-walked the edge of the trail to get by and received not so much as a hello for our trouble, let alone a concession that they were passing the potato salad in the middle of the *%^*ing trail!! Making matters worse, they had not brought enough for the whole class.
Update: Three months later, mom and dad were stunned when the principal called to say that young Timmy was eating his lunch at the top the sliding board and refused to move. Where could sweet, little Timmy have learned such appalling behavior?
The I-do-what-I-want mentality carries over into some people’s behavior even when they’re upright (not sitting) on the trail. I must admit to feeling somewhat resentful. I follow the accepted rules of the trail – stepping off on narrow sections to grant the right of way to hikers on ascent – and expect to be afforded the same when I am climbing. What I found, was that 99% of COVID-era hikers believe that stepping six inches off the trail and wheezing their potentially virus-laden breath in every direction represents adequate distancing. My response has been to simply take responsibility for my own welfare and step six or more feet off the trail for every other hiker regardless of right of way. On a crowded trail, this quickly becomes exhausting.
This one really sticks in my craw. I have come to expect it near trailheads where the area is riddled with social trails, where teens go to drink beer and smoke pot, but especially at trailheads close to popular points of interest where hordes of athleisure-wearing day-trippers determinedly march their children down the trail to see a thing, angrily assemble for a picture with the thing, drop a 48-ounce, polystyrene, Super-Slurper cup next to the thing, and then leave. Rarely, however, do I find trash five miles into a ten-mile loop, where the more serious hiker treads. Usually, if you’ve hiked five miles into the back country, you’re there because you love the nature and wouldn’t dream of sullying the scene with a Snickers wrapper. Well, most of us, anyway. Oh, by the way:
ORANGE PEELS ARE TRASH!
Sorry for shouting, but I suspect that many of us are just as annoyed by that little pile-o-peels as we are by the Cliff Bar wrapper. Sure the peels are organic, but they violate the principles of Leave No Trace just as effectively as Aquafina bottles and sandwich baggies.
Now I’m going to have to take a moment to pick on Kentucky. The Nickel Branch Campground and trail system in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area were literally covered in refuse. One site in the campground was trashed beyond anything I’ve ever seen. In. My. Life. Someone had pulled an entire bed liner out of a pickup truck and left it in a campsite, along with ten or twelve bags of trash. There were beer cans and bottles everywhere; food-smeared paper plates dotted the site, and rotting food lay half in/half out of jars on the ground. It was more like camping in a dump than dumping in a camp. I don’t know if one can be charged with aggravated, malicious littering, but if so, this was the time. It was an assault on Mother Nature. That was the worst of it, but almost every campsite was peppered with food wrappers, cups, and cans. There was so much trash on the Canal Loop (read here) that it was sometimes hard to get a picture sans garbage.
Kentucky is certainly not the only offender. I recently took a hike on the Mason Dixon Trail in Pennsylvania that was inexplicably littered with trash. It’s sad and frustrating, but fortunately these instances are much more the exception than the rule. Still, if we want to hike in unsullied natural areas there are only two ways to achieve that goal. We have to clean up our trails and, more to the point, we have to stop trashing them in the first place. If we wreak havoc in our parks, trails will be closed, fees will be raised, and permits will be instituted. When that happens, access to the beauty of the natural world becomes more difficult for everyone.
Our nation’s hiking trails belong to all of us. While our taxes provide support for our state and national parks, as do entrance and permit fees, a better trail experience begins with you and me. The most basic of good behaviors give consideration to the next person down the path. Sure, packing out waste is a pain in the butt and increases the weight we have to bear on a hike, but to my mind, it’s much better than arriving at a stunning overlook to food wrappers on the ground and plastic bags tangled in trees. I get tired too, but, while shortcuts are tempting, washed-out trails end up as closed trails. My hiking dreams have been crushed enough times because of natural occurrences like tornados, floods and landslides. Let’s not compound those disasters by creating preventable destruction. Let’s make our trail maintenance prophylactic. And if you do use prophylactics on a hike, please, for the love of all that is good, don’t leave them on the trail! ♦
BIT|Hiker acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Ute, Mississauga, Erie, Manahoac, Monacan, Peoria, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Shawnee, Osage, Yuchi, and Susquehannock.