In outdoor pursuits, we tend to celebrate the individual: The person who bags the 14ers, crushes an FKT, or walks thousands of miles.
And in our American cultural archetypes, the person going off into the wilderness to overcome obstacles is up there with apple pie and hotdogs. Meaning it is part of who we are, at least in the popular imagination. We see ourselves as rugged individualists who thrive in the outdoors and accustomed to doing our thing.
But by strictly acting on this feeling of individualism, do we impact the community with our choices even in the backcountry?
The people able to travel 100 miles round trip, or more, for a camping vacation are a small minority. Only 10% of the population have the resources of time, money, and ability to make these kinds of trips.
Financial or cultural capital (or both) allows people to experience the outdoors far from home. And this privilege often comes with occupations with set schedules, vacation time, the ability to work remotely, and financial compensation to make these trips a reality. And because of these resources, restrictions in place that adds inconvenience or curtails their plans, are not a reality of their life during typical times. And thoughts on the greater community are absent from thoughts about these actions.
Though there is a so-called soft opening of Moab to lodging on May 1st (and economic, not health, interests being the driving factor it seems), the ban has routinely been ignored by Hayduke hikers as a small, but visible, example.
And of course, the many tourists driving from other places to recreate here overnight even with the current bans are a more visible example. One employee at the town liquor store came down with COVID 19 already.
The argument is that “I’m young, healthy, and following proper social distancing techniques. I’ll be fine. There’s no better to place social distance than the outdoors!” shows a view that seems to ignore the fact while traveling, you’ll be getting gas, food, supplies, etc. In addition to not understanding how leaving population pools transmits diseases to other population groups.
If you are asymptomatic, you might pass on the infection to others who pass it on in turn. Hitching, getting supplies in close-quarters such as small stores or post offices commonly found in rural areas all lead to easy transmission. And though we all want to think we’ll never make a mistake in the outdoors, Mr. Murphy has a way of raising his head: An accident could put SAR, EMS, and other first responders at risk because of your actions esp in the more remote areas where many of our long trails and routes travel.
In other words, a very limiting view of “I’m fine, so everything must be OK.” Or, to put less mildly, a very selfish idea.
That’s not to say DON’T go outside, but keep it local.
Put off your #EPICADVENTUREOFSELF for a bit for the greater good.
But this view of self over the greater good is nothing new within the outdoor community with some vocal people.
Consider some common examples:
Trying to find loopholes to using alcohol stoves because their obscure cottage stove would never cause a fire. And forgetting the regulations are for the population as a whole and their knowledge, gear, and skill set, and not the special “you.” Afterall, using another stove for cooking some glop du jour ends up being a massive inconvenience! 🙄
Railing against mandated bear canisters in high uses areas since “I can do a bear bag just fine. Why should the rules apply to me?” as again ignoring the fact that bear hangs rarely works efficiently for most people. And a bear canister is the easiest and most standardized item to use. Again, the population as a whole and not the special you.
Saying a potty trowel is not needed for anyone; when any trail maintainer will tell you that the magical stick people use does not seem to be used at all. Turn some rocks, and you’ll find a TP blossom and “stuff.” I do not doubt that some experienced people can get by without one, but for the vast majority of people, a sub-1oz trowel or even a multi-use snow stake makes life a heck of a lot easier. Meaning, what do you gain by not taking one? For most people, the answer is “Nothing.” And based on what I, unfortunately, found during my trail maintenance activities, you’ll gain a lot, too.
I could go on, but I see a view endemic to people who are typically high achieving and have the economic and cultural privilege to experience the outdoors: An idea of self being more important than the community as a whole.
Oh, a person can justify their actions easily esp by an astute reading of the regulations and laws. We all do that to a certain extent, myself included.
But when the letter of the law enables you to break the spirit of the law, does the self-interest outweighs the community interest? We are getting to the point where your individual needs outweigh the needs of the community. If you are breaking both the spirit and the letter of the law at the expense of others, there is no excuse.
And does your community encompass more than just people who share your views and actions? It is self-limiting to have a viewpoint formed in an echo chamber.
And though we celebrate the individual in the outdoors, the community is what created, and still creates, the outdoor experience to a large extent. Our parks are maintained for the greater community and generations yet born, an army of volunteers create, support, and protect our scenic trails. Even guidebooks and map sets would not be available if people did not put in the work to give you the information you use to recreate in an outdoor area. The creator could easily create information for themselves and not share.
The current situation indicates we need to celebrate not just the individual, but a paradigm that takes into account not only what our actions mean for ourselves. But also for the community as a whole.
We give lip service to those who give back to the community while lionizing the individual.
Perhaps it is time for a culture that celebrates not only those who are the first, the fastest, and the largest quantity of miles hiked. But also recognizing that by putting the community before self, we all benefit in the longer term.
We sang this hymn at Mass during the school year. As with the singer in the video, I am no longer Catholic. But the sentiments have not left me.