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Know the West

The trail less traveled

The trail less traveled


I decided to leave the trail and return by a different route — straight down a talus slope, on the cheap aluminum rubber-tipped crutches that I used full-time. I was young, and I wanted to avoid the herds of hikers pounding the pulverized granite trail into California’s Desolation Wilderness. Besides, I could see my destination, the blue waters of Upper Echo Lake, where I’d left the rowboat a couple of hours ago. How hard could it be?

An hour and only a few hundred feet down later, I realized: really hard. What looked from a distance like a set of natural stairs was actually a hazardous geologic jumble. When the first rock shifted unexpectedly under me, I suddenly envisioned a crushed ankle, a broken crutch. What would I do? There was no one in sight, and only a bag of gorp and half-bottle of water to get me through a cold night outdoors. Going back was impossible, so I improvised, tossing my crutches ahead of me and then scrambling like a monkey over the rocks to retrieve them. In this manner, I slowly inched downward. A few nerve-racking, sweat-soaked hours later, I reached the trees and walked on blessedly soft duff to the lakeshore. At dusk, I reached my friends’ cabin, exhausted, chastened — and utterly exhilarated.

That hike was three decades ago, and I can still feel its emotional and physical rush. It’s the same feeling that has lured millions of people to the West’s vast public wildlands for a century. But the ways we experience that landscape are changing, as this special issue explores. For one, there are simply more of us competing for limited space. So we no longer confine ourselves to the Yosemites and Yellowstones; we’ve discovered hundreds of new hotspots, such as the national forests outside Sedona, where HCN Fellow Sarah Tory reports on a mountain biking boom that has forced federal land managers and bikers to confront the uncomfortable fact that even quiet recreational pursuits can overrun the land.

And then there is technology. From flying squirrel suits and ever-burlier bikes and four-wheelers, to GoPro cameras and cellphones with apps that monitor every footstep, gadgets accompany us into the most remote places. Too often, we use them to buffer us from a direct encounter with the wild, even as we “share” every second with hordes of unseen strangers. As Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson observes, “We’re not just rock climbers, backpackers and trail-runners; we’re performers and entertainers.”

It can be disturbing, but it’s not destiny. In the stories here, people still experience the elemental West, whether it’s Krista Langlois swirling down a frigid Alaskan river or Nic Korte confronting his own mortality in the Grand Canyon. For no matter how much fancy gear we carry, or how many people we meet, with just one step off the beaten path, we can enter a new and exhilarating world.