How to be alone with a lot of other people
Since I live in Chaffee County, Colo., home to an even-dozen 14,000-foot peaks, I'm used to encountering what we call "peak-baggers" — people bent on climbing all 54 "Fourteeners" in Colorado — often in the shortest time possible. In recent years, the baggers have become so numerous that old trails have to be rebuilt or rerouted to handle foot traffic that was ripping up alpine meadows and tundra.
Recently, a review book arrived in my office, and it makes me wonder whether our wilderness areas are getting the same treatment — that is, they are not places to appreciate on their own merits, but as marks on a checklist.
The book is Wild Colorado: A Guide to 51 Roadless Recreation Areas Including the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Great Sand Dunes. Doubtless there are many others like it. This one delivers what its cover promises, and provides details about trailheads, relevant maps and more.
But while providing that information, it raises a bigger question: Why help people go to the isolated places that are most enjoyable if lots of people are there at the same time? The argument for Western guidebooks, whether they concern wilderness, ghost towns or waterfalls, is that by encouraging people to visit, they create a larger constituency for preservation. This was made explicit in the introduction to a guidebook, Waterfalls of Colorado, that came out more than a decade ago: "The only way Colorado's precious natural lands, its wildernesses, its wetlands, will be preserved is if the people in the places where the money is care enough to pay to preserve them." The counter-argument is that without the increased visits inspired by guidebooks, there's much less need for protection.
That dilemma appears in some of Wild Colorado's descriptions of wilderness areas, which point out that solitude is already hard to find in most wilderness areas near populated areas. Won't peace and quiet become even harder to find if lots of people buy and use this book?
That is, solitude-seekers might read that a given locale "is not a high-use area and thus provides good opportunities for solitude" or that "there are plenty of opportunities for solitude because this area sees little use." And thus informed by the guidebook, they head for those places, thereby destroying the solitude they sought.
We used to make fun of those pickup campers or camping trailers whose backs were adorned with decals from Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and sundry other national parks that the drivers had presumably visited, and wanted to boast about. With this approach to wilderness, there ought to be a similar market for sew-on embroidered emblems for each wilderness locale. Put them on vests, jackets, or packs, and hikers could size each other up immediately to determine relative superiority.
Soon, of course, it wouldn't be enough just to have visited each wilderness; someone will claim to have visited all 51 in less than 20 days, and the race would be on to get that down to under a fortnight, just as there are speed records for the 470-mile Colorado Trail — 5 days, 14 hours, and 55 minutes — and climbing every single one of the Fourteeners — 10 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes.
After all, in modern America, what's the point of going somewhere unless you can brag on it, and do it faster than lesser people? The whole notion of engaging our terrain for its own sake, whether it's official wilderness or not, starts to seem as quaint as hand-cranked ice cream, or the Bill of Rights.