My new favorite trail
This past Saturday, my partner and I found a trail that was brand new to us. It had been on my list for a while, having heard stories about it over the last couple of years, and it fell within our local circle, so we finally wandered out to give it a try. It became clear by the halfway point that it was going to become one of my new favorite hikes in the region.
Anyone out and about on Saturday likely saw how packed the main trailheads were. We counted no fewer than 60 cars parked at Cascade and Pitchoff, for example. On our trail, however, we only encountered seven other groups. The trail was in decent shape, despite some minor blowdown and erosion. It was steep but rewarding and, to top it off, the views near the peak were incredible. For these reasons and more, I am hesitant to share the name of that hike in this article.
I don’t say that to be obtuse or because I’m trying to hoard this special spot for myself. In fact, it’s quite plausibly a trail that many readers have walked before. It’s not hidden away in some remote corner of the park or a trail-less bushwhack that few have discovered; in fact, it sits in rather plain sight. It’s just that I think we should consider how the near-constant sharing of data about wild places threatens to erode the wildness we seek when we go to visit them.
So many locations across the country and world have been severely impacted by the simple act of oversharing. If you’ve never encountered the idea before, search “geotagging nature” on Google and see what comes up. There are plenty of examples of spots that have been tagged in photos or posts being subsequently overrun by people trying to reproduce the picture or the adventure. I don’t think it’s fair to say that sharing is inherently bad, though. I have no problem sharing wild nature with other people — in fact, I’ve made a profession out of it. The important part to consider is how people interact with these wild spaces after they’ve discovered them.
So when I run into people on-trail (as I did on Saturday) who are confused as to why the view from the summit doesn’t “look like it does on Google Street View,” I find myself a bit dismayed. In that instance, the digitalization of our local wilderness seems to take something away from it. Following direction prompts from a phone is a wholly different experience than interpreting your progress on a printed map or trying to discern which way the trail in front of you goes next. What’s more, it endangers those places. It exposes them to behaviors borne of ignorance that, intended or not, can cause damage that lasts for years if not decades. For example, the person I mentioned above went on ripping at trees to slow himself down because his boat shoes didn’t grip the ice as he passed us. The person we passed before him had been blazing his own brand new trail because the official one “wasn’t as fun” going down. Its interactions like these that make me wary of sharing indiscriminately.
There is a fellow I know who has been wandering these mountains since long before the herd paths on untrailed peaks became easy to follow. He has told more than a few stories about adventures off into the unknown where he had to rely on his skills, his wits, and the experience of those hiking with him to find his way. These stories always raise the hair on my arms because of the incredible images he conjures; an untrammeled wilderness with barely a sign of human visitation beyond the maintained trails. He once shared a saying that he and his friends coined back then — “may the guide never be written.” That simple sentence has stuck with me ever since.
That quote bears long and careful consideration. It contains an ethic that I respect deeply, but not one that I live by. I constantly pore over guidebooks, looking for new bits of wisdom or hints about wild places I might like to visit or revisit. I make use of other people’s stories all the time. Further, I have the utmost respect for those who provide guidance for others to follow, as long as they teach a sense of responsibility to nature and help spread a conservation ethic. That’s the balance I seek when I’m asked for information on a hike or when I’m taking someone out on an adventure myself.
The line between sharing and oversharing is a fine one. Too little information can be exclusionary and limiting for those aspiring to learn more about wilderness recreation. Too much can lead to irreversible damage when people misuse or over-use a wild place. The danger comes from encouraging exploration without consideration for ethics or impacts. To everyone who shares their wilderness stories, remember that there will always be consequences. They will influence whoever hears them and they will bring more people to our favorite places, for better and for worse. And to those who are new to adventuring: please take the time to learn about what you see or hear. There’s a lot more to these mountains than can be contained in a post or a story and they deserve more consideration than that.