A few months ago, I was making my way up Notchtop, a spire of rock in Rocky Mountain National Park. Just below the summit, I squatted over a thumb-sized piece of black and white rock and picked it up. I took a quick glance around to see if anyone was watching -- besides my climbing partner, I'd only seen three other people all day -- and slipped the rock in my jacket pocket, zipping it closed.
Sometimes when I do this, I feel like a kid pilfering a pack of baseball cards from the drugstore.
I became a hiker and a climber long after "Leave No Trace" became a household phrase. I pick up any trash I see on the trail, rarely light campfires, bury solid waste, pee on rocks when I'm at high altitudes, walk through puddles instead of around them, and I don't touch wildflowers. But I have one habit that I readily admit is pure outdoor sacrilege.
I steal rocks.
I take them from everywhere. I've picked up pocket-sized stones from every backcountry area I've visited: Black rocks from a waterfall on Crow Pass in Alaska, multicolored stones from slot canyons in Utah's San Rafael Swell, broken sandstone in polka-dot red-and-white colors from the Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas, Nev., the lightest rock I could find at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and more rocks than I care to admit from the Rocky Mountains in my home state of Colorado.
I grew up in Iowa, where rocks aren't something you appreciate that much. I had a couple of summer jobs picking them out of cornfields so they wouldn't destroy a combine come harvest time.
I moved West in my early 20s to reinvent myself, like a lot of other folks did, and my adventures in the peaks and desert canyons out here made me want to save it all. I've come to appreciate and value our gift of public lands, and I understand why access to them should be preserved. But I can't help myself when it comes to rocks: Whenever I'm on a trail or a mountaintop, when no one's looking, I slyly slip small samples into my pack -- a backcountry abomination, a direct violation of the "take only photographs, leave only footprints" ethos that keeps our great places great.
I have an excuse, though: The rocks aren't really for me. They're for my niece, my brother's kid, who's growing up in Wisconsin, a place a little more scenic than my native Iowa. I'm hoping she'll grow up realizing that all of this glorious public landscape is out here in the West. And that's what the rock collection is for.
The idea is that she'll come out here someday and return the rocks to their places of origin -- maybe with me, maybe without. She's got her work cut out for her: She's not yet 2 years old and already there are dozens of rocks spanning seven states, each in its own Ziploc bag, labeled "Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming," or something like that. After enough stones pile up in my living room, I mail them to Wisconsin, care of her mom and dad. I hope she gets a chance to see a few of the places I've been, and have the opportunity to feel small on the surface of the planet, something I do as often as I can.
A lot can happen in 15 years, though. My last visit to Canyonlands, driving down Highway 191, I thought I noticed a new gas well on the eastern horizon. Sales of oil and gas leases threaten the now-pristine views from Arches National Park. On late-night drives from Denver to Moab, I take note of all the lights from natural gas wells dotting the hills on either side of Interstate 70, from Rifle to Parachute.
In the past couple years, I've become a sensible environmentalist; I bike to work and everywhere within three miles of my home. I don't eat meat, I recycle everything, I drink out of a reusable coffee mug. But I also understand that I can't have hot showers and lights that turn on with the flip of a switch, and still save every parcel of non-urban land in the West for my recreational enjoyment. Some of my favorite landscapes contain the very elements and minerals that make my home life comfortable.
But I wonder if there will be a mine tailings pond at the base of Washer Woman Arch when I come back with my niece. Will the dark skies over Goblin Valley be dotted with the lights from gas wells? If so, will a couple of missing rocks matter?
Brendan Leonard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a climber, cyclist and writer living in Denver, Colorado.