You can’t share a trail with an obnoxious machine

  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.

Take 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. Damn.

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, catching up.

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.

I 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 smoke.

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 proposition.

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 irreconcilable differences.

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.

lan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelancer in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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