Today, while a global pandemic unfolded, I took my dog for a walk. It was the only 30 minutes of the day I was disconnected from the news, and it was deeply calming to listen to birds singing and to breathe the chilly spring air, washed clean by two days of rain. And then I noticed fresh mountain bike tracks on the muddy trails. And more than one pile of dog shit.
I was out for a walk because I’d turned down an invitation to meet some friends at a brewery. As I write this, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in my county or any of the counties touching it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not here. Schools, daycares, libraries, ski resorts, and community spaces have proactively shut down, and people are being asked to practice social distancing—meaning we should not be going to bars, restaurants, or other social gatherings. This isn’t for our own sake. It’s an urgent request to slow the spread of the disease, saving the lives of elderly people and those with compromised immune systems, and lessening the burden on our healthcare system. It’s the only proven strategy for decreasing the death toll. And yet in a corner of the world where the disease is not yet definitively present, social distancing can feel overreactive. It was difficult to tell my friends that I would not be meeting them at the brewery, and, further, that I didn’t think it was a good idea for them to go. I felt like Chicken Little. I felt alone.
Our own personal choices may feel like they don’t matter in the face of something so big; or it may simply be easier to dig in our heels than admit we were wrong.
All this was on my mind when I went for a walk and saw the mountain bike tracks in the mud. Around here, bikers are supposed to stay home when conditions are wet or muddy, because their tires tear up trails and create ruts that persist long after the mud dries. Those ruts can cause people walking or running to twist an ankle. Plus, biking on a muddy trail makes the trail even muddier, which leads people to move onto drier terrain, which widens the trail, hastens erosion, and kills flowers and plants.
It doesn’t rain often here, so mountain bikers don’t often have to sacrifice their stoke for the greater good. But again and again, I see evidence that bikers have ridden trails when they should have stayed home, choosing short-term, personal gratification over the health and safety of the environment and their neighbors. It’s a small thing, and not one that’s restricted to mountain bikers—it’s the same mentality that leads to trashed backcountry campsites, trampled alpine tundra, and climbers who disregard closed routes. It’s the same mentality, too, that allows people to rationalize a visit to a bar in the midst of a public health crisis. If people are unwilling to give up happy hour to save someone’s grandmother, how can we hope that our fellow trail users and outdoor lovers will make personal sacrifices to ensure we have intact natural spaces for future generations?
The only way I know to change people’s behavior is through stories, so maybe it will help if I share mine. I’ll start here: I, too, was an asshole.
Like most assholes, I didn’t realize it. I grew up in New England, and moved to Idaho in 2009, Alaska in 2010, and to Colorado, where I still live, in 2013. Compared to where I’d come from, the public lands of the West were so vast and free that they felt limitless. It seemed impossible my puny personal actions could lessen their grandeur. So I acted as though they didn’t.
In the Southwest, for example, campers are often asked to poop into little bags and carry them out of the wilderness, because waste decomposes slowly in arid environments and so many people travel down the same narrow canyons every year. Same with urine. If everyone peed right outside their tents, the most popular backcountry campsites would smell like a toilet and be overrun with mice.
I knew this, and yet if I woke up in the middle of the night on a desert river trip with a full bladder, did I walk all the way down to the river to pee like I was supposed to? I did not. If I knew I could dig a good cat hole and pack out my toilet paper, did I deal with the unpleasantness of carrying around a bag of human shit? Again, I did not.
Then I began seeing the impacts of my behavior. Once, I hiked nine miles uphill at 11,000 feet above sea level, hoping to find a quiet hot spring to camp at. Instead, I found the backcountry equivalent of a frat party, with dozens of ill-prepared people pumping music and tossing back beers. There were so many piles of human feces sitting on the forest floor that it was difficult to find a spot to put our tent. (The U.S. Forest Service later counted 334 piles of unburied human waste in a single trip in that area.)
Still, I told myself I was the exception; that because I dug a cat hole and carried out my toilet paper, I was better than the people leaving surface turds and used toilet paper strewn across the forest floor. But I’m not better. The number of people using the West’s public lands has, by one estimate, more than tripled since the year 2000. If everyone did what I did, the desert canyons and high alpine would be utterly spoiled. So now I carry my shit in a bag, like everyone else who cares about these places.
I used to walk off-trail, too. I thought it was my god-given right to wander any place that looked enticing, and to let my dog do the same. Then I learned that it takes just five human footsteps to kill the delicate alpine plants that grow above treeline in Colorado’s mountains, and that an inch of topsoil there takes a thousand years to form. As more people climb Colorado’s peaks, more of them wander off-trail, killing the plants, eroding the soil that their roots held in place, and leaving streaks of bare dirt visible for miles. So now I reluctantly stay on trail when I can, especially in the alpine.
The hardest change has been deciding to keep my dog leashed in the alpine as well. I absolutely love from watching her run free, her dumb tongue hanging out of her dumb grinning face, and she has excellent recall. But she has a weakness for rodents. Her DNA urges her to chase pikas and marmots, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve let her. Recently, I was talking with Loretta McEllhiney, a Forest Service trail designer who’s spent much of her adult life in the high country. She explained how ground-dwelling alpine mammals have few natural defenses against a charging dog and that their populations are already stressed from climate change. McEllhiney loves the high country deeply, and I believed her when she told me that seeing loose dogs there causes her pain.
So I’ll keep my dog leashed when we’re in sensitive environments this summer. I feel ashamed that it took me this long. But I’m learning.
We humans are always learning, and I genuinely believe that most of us want to do well. When we’re faced with something bigger than ourselves—from climate change to species extinction to COVID-19—it can be hard to change our behavior. Our own personal choices may feel like they don’t matter in the face of something so big; or it may simply be easier to dig in our heels than admit we were wrong. But amidst the hoarding and disregard for social distancing that have come with the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve also seen incredible signs of beauty and hope. There are neighbors running errands for those in quarantine, choruses of isolated people singing in harmony from their apartment windows, friends sharing beloved poems to keep each other sane. And let’s not forget the birds, still singing in the springtime air. Let’s hold onto that. Let’s keep it going, even after we return to normalcy. Let’s extend this newfound sense of social responsibility to the way we treat the planet, and each other, for the rest of time. If I can stop being an asshole, we all can.
Photo: Patrick Hendry