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Walking in the Woods

Essay by Tom Lynch

Outdoor Recreation – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Most of us, if we watch much TV, have seen the Coors Light “Tap the Rockies” commercials. A shot of snow-capped peaks appears. Then the forms of several young men and women, vastly over-sized, loom above the mountains. They are engaged in a sporting activity — tossing a football or Frisbee — and, of course, drinking Coors Light.

The message of the commercial, in addition to the obvious plug for the brew, is that the vast Rocky Mountains are really just a big playground.

This attitude, just fantasy in the commercial, becomes fact in the “recreational” vehicle industry. All-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, jet skis, and snowmobiles serve, like the Coors commercial, to diminish the mountains or desert and exhale the hyper-animated human. (I am tempted to add to this list of blights such non-motorized activities as mountain biking, rock-climbing, and high-tech mountaineering. Any activity in which the relationship to place is primarily in terms of thrill-seeking machismo, in which the place is valued only as a terrain to be conquered, a place against which to test oneself, is an activity that ought to be suspect.)

In addition to the very real ecological harm these machines do — the air pollution, noise intrusion, ground disruption — they also pose a danger because of the attitude to nature they celebrate. The purpose of mechanized outdoor recreation is not to put the user in closer contact with nature, not to develop an intimacy with the environment, not to foster respect and care for the world we live in, but to manifest the skill of the user at conquest. It is an attitude of contempt.

We can allow people so handicapped — but only such people — the privilege of using these machines. We can treat their use like handicapped parking spaces. If you can demonstrate a need, you receive a permit. Otherwise, get out and walk.

Not all of us have the ability to go everywhere. I doubt I’d get too far up Denali. But I don’t feel discriminated against because society hasn’t provided me with a paved route I can drive to the top. Indeed I’m glad there are inaccessible places. We could use more of them.

Yes, I admit, I drive a car. I tried to live without one, but in my mid-twenties gave up. We just don’t live in a society that enables one to live easily without owning a car. So it’s true, my family drives to the mountains for our hikes. But the fact that we have roads to get us many places doesn’t mean we need roads to get us every place. I’m glad when the road ends.

Am I suggesting an infringement on personal freedom? You bet, but a necessary one. Environmental historian Donald Worster has written that, based on his research, societies that have managed to live in long-term ecological stability with their environment “have had one dominant characteristic, they have made rules, and many of them, rules based on intimate local experience, to govern their behavior…. they have accepted many kinds of limits on themselves and enforced them on one another.”

Based on my own intimate local experience, such as it is, I would suggest that one of the behaviors we need to limit is the widespread use of all-terrain vehicles on the public land. If we are to survive in a world worth surviving in, each of us must make our presence as minimally disruptive as possible. Barring motorized vehicles from public trails is a small but useful step in that direction.

I realize not everyone cares about such sensations, that many are not even aware of them, but why oh why then, I ask, do they insist on coming into places where such sensations abound?

Motorized recreation — in nature-riding all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, jet skis, snowmobiles — is an act of contempt for nature. However well managed and however “ethical” the practitioners, this point cannot be skirted.

Government agencies endowed with the care of our natural lands should have no qualms about severely limiting and even outright banning the presence of motorized recreational vehicles. We can provide a few sites that have already been degraded as places people hooked on their own adrenaline can get their jollies off. Old strip mines might serve well.

Pueblo, Colorado, where I live, provides a motor sport park where like-minded folks can gather to enjoy the roar of each other’s engines. But please, leave the trails over mountains and deserts for those of us who aren’t so jaded as to need the addition of multi-horsepower of bellowing machine to enhance our experience.

Through some convoluted logic, people who prefer to walk along trails with nothing more expensive than hiking boots are considered elitist for challenging the presence of people who have the luxury of purchasing $810,000 toys, often several to a family. I don’t intend to lock anybody out of the mountains. But if Margaret and I, with a 3-year-old and a newborn, can get down the trail without the aid of an internal combustion engine, then surely most people can.

The suggestion that these machines make the outdoors accessible to the handicapped and elderly is almost too bizarre to deserve attention. But if it’s even remotely true, I relent.

We were hiking in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado, along Davenport Creek, Margaret and I, with our month-old infant lugged a bit awkwardly in a sling and our 3-year-old son trotting ahead. It was a typical outing for us: tossing stones in the creek, waling a stick down a hill for the dog to chase, perplexedly trying to identify the wildflowers, and pausing to hear an occasional bird.

In the distance we noticed the high-pitched whine of an engine. Was someone cutting wood with a chainsaw? Perhaps some sort of small plane was passing over? As the sound came nearer, we suddenly saw three helmeted and armored riders astride dirt bikes-extras from a Mad Max film-snaking their way along the trail toward us. We stepped aside from the trail as the buzz of noise grew louder and closer.

I will give the riders credit. They were as polite as they could be, given their obvious disruption of the moment. They slowed, nodded a greeting, and waved. No doubt good for PR, but I will allow them their sincerity as well. I felt a bit churlish frowning at them as they smiled past. But really, regardless of their demeanor, I felt violated. I had not come to the mountains to be forced from a trail by a roaring machine. I had come, in part, to escape such abuses.

These machines do not — cannot — bring a person closer to nature. Physically insulated by helmet and protective gear, surrounded by a bubble of bellowing engine, and suffused by the fumes of exhaust, these riders had shoved nature away, not drawn closer to it. Psychologically, they were stiffening the callouses, already rough enough from modern life, that grow over the senses and separate the mind from the world. The clatter of creek on rocks, the twitter of juncos, the scent of sun on pine, the sky blueness of aster petals, were all remote from these riders.

Tom Lynch teaches English at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo.