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Frustrated? Take time to talk it over

An example of local frustration on display — a car is parked near Lake Placid's ski jumps telling tourists to go away. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

This Memorial Day weekend was, by some accounts, a rough one in the Adirondacks. In the most obvious cases, underlying tension felt between permanent residents and seasonal visitors here seemed to reach a boiling point against the backdrop of the angst and frustration that has built up over the past few months during the COVID-19 crisis.

This was another iteration of the drama we’ve seen unfolding across the country. Early in the pandemic, there was a sense that communities were truly coming together over the crisis, that gaps were being bridged and people were working to find middle ground. Over the past few weeks, though, the cracks in the facade are now being highlighted, and the result is worthy of dismay. Instead of continuing to seek unity in a time of hardship, we’ve returned to the same cancerous divisions that have come to define American culture.

I would love to say that we’ve been seeing debates over mask-wearing, constitutional rights and health care develop across the various media platforms, but they’re the furthest thing from debate. There is almost no visible sense of respectful disagreement, no weighing of arguments or considering their validity. Instead, we see a constant stream of vicious one-liners or roiling diatribes designed to belittle, instigate and shame “the other.”

It’s endlessly frustrating to see this crop up in the comment section of almost every media source. That said, its existence out there in the digital universe helps keep it at arm’s length. Recently, however, I’ve been watching it creep into the Adirondacks and spill over into discussions about the backcountry and recreation in wild places. While I respect the notion of standing up for our communities or our rights, the intensity of the anger being let loose around trails, in parking areas and online has been hard to fathom.

Illegal and inconsiderate parking, visitors refusing the call to recreate locally, gross misuse of wild places and teeming crowds on trails are all topics for serious consideration and action. But as of yet, they remain unresolved issues. While there are those out there working hard to educate people and protect the Forest Preserve, so many others insist on clinging to their opinions and shutting out all other perspectives.

Having spent nearly a decade working in outdoor education, I have seen some truly egregious examples of ignorance from people in the wilderness. This goes for both novices and experts. In all cases, though, I’ve learned that there’s one thing that never, ever works in an effort to correct that ignorance. That is being demeaning, aggressive, corrective or snide. Of course, there are times when seeing someone doing something truly awful in the woods leaves you feeling completely enraged. These are, after all, places so many of us love deeply and want to protect. But while I understand the urge to react in anger, the many incredible mentors I’ve had have each shown me, definitively, that patience and honest curiosity always constitute the best approach to resolving these problems. In my experience, few people are actually intent on causing deliberate harm, but if you challenge them angrily, they’ll respond angrily, and nothing will be gained.

Time after time, what has worked for me and for others is creating dialogue. Trying to figure out how certain assumptions led to certain behaviors is how ignorance is turned into a learning opportunity and then into a feeling of affinity. I’ve met hundreds of people who have held broad misconceptions about what wilderness is all about, but have come to love it in a matter of days because they were engaged in meaningful conversation about it while they experienced it. They were made to feel as though someone was actually interested in their thoughts rather than being attacked by some self-styled expert. Even if the result of all this is someone wanting to enjoy nature differently than how I would, at least they’ve felt a connection to it.

The truth is that no one has any more or less right to feel entitled to wild forest. We can doll it up with all the patriotic American individualism we want, but if wilderness is best defined as a space where humans are only visitors, then we need to keep that in mind as we consider whether to condemn other people for wanting to enjoy it as well.

Above all else, it must be remembered that the mountains are a place we go for healing, beauty and freedom, for a sense of accomplishment, adventure and a feeling of community. That applies to everyone. The fact that someone out on the trail thinks differently than you doesn’t make them somehow “less than.” If we can’t respect that and keep wilderness safe from the mindless toxicity of present public “discourse,” then maybe none of us deserve it at all.

So maybe, instead of launching into an angry Facebook monologue or loudly castigating people at a trailhead parking lot, just ask a simple question – not one laden with judgment or sarcasm, but an honest question. Express honest interest, even if they’re doing something you feel to be totally ignorant or wrong. After all, if someone is choosing to spend their time outdoors and you are too, chances are you have a lot more in common than you think.

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