Around my hometown, as in so much of this quality-of-life Western landscape, there is strong competition for recreational space, and strident discussions about how to allocate that resource.
In the debate, an occasional cry
for tolerance is expressed, a call for the equable sharing of
trails between practitioners of different forms of recreation.
Mostly, the conflict features motorized folk in one camp, and
nonmotorized folk in the other.
I find this impulse
towards tolerance, towards politeness, towards sharing country,
both tremendously appealing and eminently reasonable. It's a
response I'd like to foster in myself. I also admit that I'm
pessimistic about ever getting there.
Here's why. When it
comes to the test — on the trails — the contrast in
motivations and experience makes sharing almost impossible, at
least from the non-motorized perspective.
Now, I don't
want to get bogged down in which activities have more merit, which
demand more physical skill and stamina, or get pulled into the
swamp of polarization and generalization. I just want to explain
why sharing backcountry with motors is tough for me.
Bear Canyon, one of the trails just outside of Bozeman, Mont., that
I like to cross-country ski. It's one of the areas in our forest
plan designated for multiple-use. I like it best after a fresh
snow. I often go alone. I park the car, get the skis on, and start
off. For the first quarter-mile I'm finding my pace, getting a
rhythm, settling in. Gradually, I reach a comfortable state.
My body is working well, my breathing is steady, I've got
the right clothing layers on. I get into a groove. My mind lopes
along in that stream-of-consciousness way it does when I'm out like
this. I hear chickadees in the trees, notice moose tracks in the
willow bottoms, savor the familiar views.
Then, far in
the distance, the faint whine of motor, like someone has started up
a chain saw. Or like someone is coming up behind me on a
snowmobile. From that instant, the spell is broken, my focus
blurred. Now I'm caught in the web of this intrusive awareness.
The sound comes and goes. I can't tell for a while
whether it's getting closer or going elsewhere. Whatever thoughts
I'd been busy with are gone. No matter how I try, my attention is
riveted on the intrusion. Before long it's louder, coming closer,
My mood has completely altered. I'm just
biding time, waiting for the machines — there’s always
more than one — to arrive. The whine builds to a crescendo,
consuming the quiet. Finally, I pull off and wait for the
snowmobiles to pass, my head down.
They go by, four of
them. They are polite. They slow down and detour around me. Some of
them wave. Nice people, no question. Then they speed up, spewing
blue smoke, churning up the trail, and I start again.
work to regain that physical rhythm, the mental balance, to forget
the disruption. But instead I find myself listening to the fading
insect-whine. More immediately, I'm engulfed by the stink of their
combustion. I ski over the chunks of gray snow in their tread. The
sound eventually disappears, but the smell of exhaust lingers for a
long time. A mile later, I still pass through whiffs of fuel and
Rather than regaining that mental space, immersed
in a winter-held valley, now, in spite of my intentions, I'm
fuming. Perhaps, if I'm out long enough, and if no more snowmobiles
intrude, I might finally recapture some semblance of the quiet and
solace I began the day with. I might again fall prey to the
seduction of quiet woods and rhythmic exertion, but it's an iffy
It's the same syndrome when I'm on the
water, paddling a canoe, and am confronted by someone on a jet ski,
or when I’m out hiking when a dirt bike roars past. A case of
I'd rather not be this way. I
believe in tolerance, politeness, and good manners. But I've come
to the conclusion that nonmotorized and motorized experiences are
so utterly different that they transcend reconciliation when
confined to the same narrow strip of terrain.
So the next
time you're out enjoying yourself on your snowmobile and you
politely pass a skier who stands, sullen, off the trail, strive for
understanding. Don't take it personally. It's not you so much, as
what has just happened to his or her experience.