Posted on December 31, 2009 by
It’s New Year’s Eve, so it must be time for some sort of year-in-review, this-is-who-we-were post, or maybe a series of mailing-it-in top ten lists. If I were smarter, I would have done both of those, and ahead of time, but that’s not my style. No, sitting here at the keyboard on the eve of the Eve, I’ve decided not to look back on the year most recent, but I’ll be looking backwards nonetheless.
Yesterday I watched the first two installments of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and, as a sometimes employee of the National Park Service, I was fascinated by the attitudes of the people during the formative years of the national parks. Basically, upon the creation of Yellowstone Park, nobody knew how to behave there. There were no rules or laws in place telling people what they could or could not do and there was no precedent in the entire world for that type of publicly owned land. Today we are dumbfounded to hear about poachers or marijuana farmers or people putting their kids on the backs of bison in national parks (true stories all), but back in the early years those may have been perfectly reasonable activities simply because there would have been no real reason to think otherwise (common sense aside, where it belongs.)
Of course today we know better (or most of us do) and it’s easy to scorn those who do things like litter, or feed the animals, or deface ancient petroglyphs, or put their progeny atop wild beasts for a photo op. And they deserve that scorn, because that’s how we all learn a lesson. Sometimes, though, I like to remind myself that morons are people too, if only because we’ve all been morons at one time or another. In fact I’m rather dismayed when I imagine all the moronic things I’m sure I have yet to do in the Great Outdoors. So here are some examples of times, before I became the fully formed being of environmental enlightenment I am today, when I screwed up.
-Returning from a backpacking trip in the Tetons one time, I had my pack in a garbage bag in the bed of my pickup… or at least I did when I drove away from the trailhead. The bag disappeared on the highway somewhere in the vicinity of the Jackson Hole Airport, making it the only time I’ve ever knowingly littered in a national park. My only consolation is that the highway and the airport are far worse blights on the landscape than any plastic bag blowing around in the sage.
-I suppose as long as I’m talking about littering I should mention all the times I’ve wittingly left gear behind when climbing mountains, or, more accurately, when descending them in the face of a storm. Sure, it was always a matter of life and probably death, and I’m only talking about a few nylon rappel slings here and there, but as a firm believer in “leave no trace” ethics, these transgressions are no less excusable. Crestone Needle in Colorado has some gear I’d like back, as do some of the Tetons, but I’d say it’s a trade I’d make again if I had to, qualms aside. But littering is littering.
-When I was a young teenager just beginning to experience the joys of hiking in the mountains, I took several trips to a place called Raven Cliff Falls in north Georgia. A clear, tumbling creek sporting several dramatic falls and rapids leads the hiker upstream to the titular falls, a plunge coming down through a crack in a cliff face. A beautiful place. I peed in that creek once. Right in it. Stood at the top of one of the falls and just let it go. I’m not proud of it, but I just didn’t know any better. To compound the present-day embarrassment, I also drank from that stream, untreated. If there were any justice in the world I would have picked up an intestinal parasite in the process. But karma let my ignorance slide. And now I’m telling you, the shame glowing red from my face (take my word for it.)
So what did yesteryear you do that would horrify your current, greener self? Surely I’m not the only one who has marred the landscapes of our national treasures or befouled previously pristine water sources. Come clean, sinners! You will not be judged here.