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[pct-l] Off-season literary contributions
- Subject: [pct-l] Off-season literary contributions
- From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Brett Tucker)
- Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 13:16:47 -0500
This is an essay based around a particularly eventful day in my summer of
2000 PCT journey. It’s quite lengthy, is heavily influenced by a favorite
author of mine (no comment), and it is a true account. All events described
actually occurred, minus the literary embellishment. This is also a story
with a message, although the message may seem ungrounded or superfluous to
some people, depending on their experiences along the PCT, on other trails,
or simply on their own aesthetic or personal outlook. However it may speak
to you, it speaks of something that I feel needs expressing, and I thank you
for giving it your consideration…
"With Liberty, or Justice for All!"
by Brett "blisterfree" Tucker
Emerging from the woods at a dirt road crossing cryptically dubbed "The A
Tree," I wandered around fruitlessly for a moment, there at the southern
boundary of Plumas National Forest, California, USA. The northward
resumption of PCT tread was, per usual, cryptic in its own right.
Nevertheless, I had at last determined to walk eastbound along the road, and
was proceeding on blind faith, when suddenly I was certain I heard a choir,
away in the distance singing to me, and off key at that. My guardian angels?
At first I ignored them, those voices of higher authority and several men in
green or tan suits back at The Tree. But upon deciphering their giddy, pious
mantra, "Over here, boy! It’s over here!" I at last swallowed my pride and
returned to the cloud of dust in which I had left them moments earlier. One
middle aged saint, a summer volunteer with an honest, well-weathered face
and an impeccably clean, forest green uniform, stood apart from his fellow
choristers. He now approached me with eager interest.
Spying the trail at last, I tried shuffling stealthily on by within a
concealing veil of ruddy forest service road dust. But no such luck.
"Excuse me, sir, but I see you're walking the Pacific Crest Trail. I'm here
all this weekend asking our Forest Visitors for their input regarding the
experience we're providing along this National Scenic Trail, and what
changes they might like to see us make in the future. As a long distance
hiker, you are, in my opinion, a professional. We value your feedback."
"Get rid of the horses," I snorted, inhaling the thick air.
An hour earlier I had been strolling sublimely down the trail when suddenly
there approached an equestrian outfit, southbound. I had stepped off the
tread to let them pass – de rigeur – at which time the leader of this
contingency announced a most unusual decree. He had suggested I remain on
trail while he led his group instead around me. I shrugged, with effort
under the enormity of the situation, and then watched powerlessly as perhaps
a dozen head of stock broke new ground alongside the beaten path.
Nonchalantly, with well-honed pretense, the lead cowboy explained that his
posse had been fixing to head cross-country anyway, in this case down to one
of the pristine glacial tarns in the Lakes Basin area. And so they did, high
horses adroitly turning eastbound toward the rising sun, purging their
bowels all at once, then plodding, gouging, excavating their way slowly down
and out of sight. Never did they actually pass me. Instead, I had served
more or less as their imaginary walking roadblock – a good excuse for an
early morning equestrian trailblazing ceremony.
The dust still lingered as my interview with Ranger Rick heated up.
"Sir, the Pacific Crest Trail is managed so as to afford a multi-user
experience, in this case to the benefit of hikers and equestrians alike.
Typically neither group much cares for the other, we understand, but clearly
it would be unfair – in fact unlawful – to discourage one group and allow
the other free reign. The federal Wilderness Act provides for the protection
of such places as the PCT here in Plumas, allowing for a non-mechanized user
experience in step with the needs of the sensitive ecosystems through which
the trail passes. More often than ever, we're hearing from users that they
prefer this primitive, lightly-on-the-land type of experience, and so WE are
managing not just the PCT but much of your Plumas National Forest
accordingly. For instance, we're greatly reducing the amount of logging that
occurs up here."
"Get rid of the roads. There's too many of them."
I thought for a moment, squinting at the green figure through our dusty
pall, then continued with this new, broader line of reasoning. This user
"It seems to me that many of the problems facing our forest lands we can
trace back to a pre-existing set of troubling circumstances: too many roads.
With the roads comes easy access, and especially in active or onetime
logging country this easy access comes in the form of countless haul roads
snaking into the hills from every imaginable direction. This encourages, not
just overuse of the forest, but blatant mis-use. Environmentally unsound
use, by equestrians who haul their animals high into the hills with no
appreciation of the fragile surroundings. And of course by mechanized
transport such as mountain bikes, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles,
which are nearly impossible to regulate due to these innumerable points of
access. I say close the roads, and let them revert to nature."
My green words of pathos (however eloquent prior to editing) now elicited a
peculiar expression from the face of the officer, the pained look of a
sympathetic soul decked out in the restrictive garb of a middleman.
"Well, you're certainly correct in thinking that bikes and vehicles of all
kinds have no place up on this trail," he seemed to say. "They aren't legal,
and we try our best to keep those users aware of that with signs and so
forth. But if we deny them the trails, then we must give them the roads. And
so we do, except as expressly stated, at locked gates for instance. Thank
you for your feedback."
My ranger friend clearly was duty-bound, and doing a fairly good job at his
duties considering the hand he had been dealt. An ambassador to the US
forest service, one whose assigned task it is to lend the public an
attentive ear, could easily become a scapegoat for the many ills of the
hills. But I couldn't bear to see that happen, not in my company. And it was
now apparent that he was too government-grown for such badgering anyway. So
I wished him a pleasant weekend, thanked him for the directions. Turning
away, I made an offhand remark about the need for more trail signage at
these nutty road crossings, and then I relieved myself of his company. He
let me go.
Now with Plumas (feathers) I glided north along the trail a ways, lost in
thought. I thought about what I had said, and what I should have said to
that ranger. I contemplated the possible meanings of The A Tree… still
befuddling. And then I recalled a dusty old book, written by a fellow named
Hawthorne, back in the day, and what the letter A had symbolized in that
story. And then it all became clear…
Every road the trail intersects is, in fact, an Adulteration of nature. Each
bulldozed swath, however earthy in demeanor, is a line describing the place
where the natural world loses its continuity and becomes an assemblage of
"things" instead of a seamless whole. These are fitting places to lose a
wilderness footpath, to poke about in vain for some sort of sign, showing
the way. Good places to meet our Ambassadors from Washington (the one back
And what about the Pacific Crest Trail herself, for that matter? Does she
not wear her own letter A (perhaps attached to the end of her acronymic
name)? Is the PCT not likewise an inherent intrusion upon nature?
No, we must focus upon intent here. The Trail is for the common good.
The common Human good, perhaps?
No, the trail’s highest intent holds no such selfishness. Like the noble
forests through which it passes, the PCT requires protection, true
conservation. Indeed, the Trail may represent our best means of learning to
appreciate and thus conserve her majestic native surroundings. Dust-choked
logging roads and wilderness freeways full of speeding tourists cannot do
this – cannot imbue a stewardship ethic within the masses – nor can a trail
abused, polluted, diminished by vehicles of conveyance. And a vehicle, let's
remember, is always something bigger, heavier, and usually faster than our
own two feet, a creature we ride in or on. How to convince the big, shady
authority types that this fragile path drifting underfoot must be designated
only for those who would come here to walk?
Interludes. Halcyon daydreams. All philosophical hooey, you say. Perhaps,
but can’t be helped. You see, long distance hiking breeds the stuff like
soft, fuzzy rabbits. And most of these grand notions – however living,
breathing, full of potential – never reach maturity, either. Biomass
conservation, world peace, sensible sympathetic leadership – the list goes
on. With nurturing and protection some might flourish, but sadly most of our
innate idealism is hunted down by the dogs of so-called human progress. Make
love, not war. And for heaven's sake, please walk.
The PCT took a turn and then tackled a long, steady rise, heading for
anticipated first views of distant Mount Lassen. I climbed along, lost in
thought, and then suddenly realized that I was hiking in a motor bike rut –
had been since leaving the last road crossing. As ruts go, this one wasn't
particularly capacious, yet. In truth it was more of a wide knobby track
through the dust just then. But it's the thought that counts, and I couldn't
help but think that I was on the path of a big, howling, smelly beast,
definitely non-native. El visitante non grata.
I was wrong. The creature was after me, and as I heard it looming angrily
from behind, my brain swelled with the sea of vindictive comments I might
use in assailing it. These damn kids need to be taught a lesson. Where's the
“tree fuzz” when we actually need them? I stepped off the trail and awaited
my date with destiny, again. The bike rumbled steadily, deliberately
forward, and then lurched to a stop alongside of me, idling shrilly. The
poor thing looked ancient, like vintage junk. It was wide and stocky yet
with a clear aura of meagerness, and it was green. As its driver cut the
engine, I sputtered forth with a few choice words.
"Not sure whether you know, but right now you're on the Pacific Crest Trail,
which is closed to bikes." And then, on reflex, came my verbal self-arrest,
stopping me just shy of a potentially rocky outlook. "I want to make sure
know, so you don't have a run-in with the forest service. They might hand
you a stiff fine, of course."
“We are, er well, I am the Forest Service!" trumpeted the man behind the
helmet, already in the process of substantiating this astonishing claim.
By golly, the standard weathered saintly face, the mirrored sunglasses,
crisp button-down work shirt, all plainly spoke the truth. The tools of the
trade – an arsenal of equipment for "managing" and "improving" – all bundled
in tow and eager for work. And of course (how could I have suspected
otherwise?): the Government-Issue forest green motor bike – the singletrack
workhorse – vehicle of choice for all national scenic trials courses. Beep
"I'm sorry,” I said, still in shock, “but I didn't realize that you folks
get around the trails on those things. They are illegal on the PCT, aren't
they? I mean, we thru-hiker folk couldn't make our way to Canada on one, for
instance. Could we?" (Admittedly the idea did sound appealing for a moment,
at least in order to put some quick miles between me and the feds.)
"No, no," he chided happily. "These things are definitely not legal for
everyday riding. Had to apply for a special permit. Took weeks. Luckily I
got it, 'cause it would be damn near impossible to do this work any other
"What sort of work?"
"Have you been seein' them flaggin' ribbons tied to branches and whatnot?"
Indeed I had, often along the trail, and privately I had always wondered
about such things.
"Well each one of those ribbons is flaggin' a work site, and there's many
more up ahead that I haven't got to yet. Ever' day this week I have to go
back and forth along this section of trail, flaggin' and diggin' and doin'
brushin', and it's almost five miles each way."
I did the math in my head: five miles in, plus five miles out, totaled ten
miles round trip.
"And then there's all these tools I need to bring."
I eyed his array of belongings: thirty pounds, max. Not including the bike.
"I need the bike. It's essential equipment for this type of work."
As gently as possible I tried conveying a rough sense of irony about the
matter. I had always presumed that motor vehicles can, and do, cause a good
deal of damage to our nation's vulnerable backcountry trail network. The
Tehachapi Mountains, off to the south, were practically synonymous with a
long, wild weekend of ATV riding and roasting hikers on giant spits over the
evening bonfire. And both the mountains and the hikers carried the scars to
prove it. Imagine the trouble one might bring upon oneself donning a
ranger's cap and straddling a green Suzuki, buzzing up into those hills to
survey the trail damage. No way to win new friends: the hikers take you for
the bad guy, the bad guys take you for the good guy. And no way for a
reconstructive surgeon of sorts to mend an ailing trail – ripping it wide
open on your way into surgery. Not for nothing motor bikes are banned from
the PCT. Right?
"Actually," clarified Biker: forest ranger, "it's my feeling that these
machines cause very little damage to the trails. It's all in how you ride
'em, see. But the hikers and the horsemen don't like the bikes, period. Most
of these kids ride their bikes loud and fast. They're a nuisance and a
danger. So of course bikes aren't allowed. But we need to get some work done
up here, and I ride this thing real careful... real careful."
And with that he replaced his concealing headgear, stabbed his crank with a
dusty boot heel, raised a work gloved hand to his throttle, through me an
ambiguous halting nod, and took off northbound up the trail. Real careful.
And real slow, too. I felt a passing urge to trot alongside his two-wheeled
tonnage, snidely demonstrating the possibilities of lightweight backpacking.
But probably best not to wear him out, I figured. So I let the two of them
win, watching with amusement and anguish as they lumbered away, threw their
outsized mass awkwardly about, proceeded on government time.
Geologic time is even slower, I reminded myself; nature will forgive us
these sins one day, and transgressions far, far worse. But will we – you and
I, reader – be here to witness that redemption?
On another trail, in another time and place, I had upon occasion come eye to
eye with the simplest solution to all the world's troubles. Up there, high
in a strangely accommodating land, I found instructions – a simple diagram –
that purported to teach us how to share the trail in equity, with
tolerance – for the benefit of all. It depicted a triangle, with a symbol at
each of its three vertices: a hiker, a horseman, and an offroad enthusiast.
Connecting these points and completing the triangle were three arrows, and
each arrow pointed from one symbol toward another – from one user who ought
yield the trail to another, for the benefit of all. The rules were
straightforward: the hiker yields to the horseman; the biker yields to the
hiker and the horseman; the horseman defers to no one (no surprise here).
And everyone lives happily ever after. Yet throughout that journey I
encountered little enduring contentment. The equestrians would become either
suddenly pious in my company, or, like their horses, skittish. The bikers
screamed past just slowly enough for me to catch their fixed gaze of
arrogant ambivalence. And the hikers had allotted themselves too much time
for pondering the absence of justice.
Absence of justice, or objective truth? We visitors of the forest may read
signs and acknowledge their rules, yet deep down we often still believe the
trail is rightfully ours, lawfully or no – an innate liberty. Truth,
objectivity reside in the center of the triangle, out of reach, and we
revolve around and around the outside, forever pointing blame at the other
fellow, while defending our so-called liberties. Meanwhile the trail remains
unobtrusively beneath us, impartially observing the games we play, keeping
score though we fail to see. But day by day that trail grows wider as our
tolerance for one another slackens, and deeper as we fail to seek higher
ground. Then one day our trail at last becomes as a road, a wound, a lasting
scar, marking a place where nature has lost her seamless continuity; she’s
become a "thing" for our possession. And with that her beauty is likewise
lost, buried with the hope she held for us.
If truth really exists here, at least truth in action, then it may lie in
deference, not to the other users we meet along the trail, nor to some
well-meaning triangle of hope. And not to the feds and their endless
doubletalk. Rather, deference to nature. Maybe in yielding the path to
humility and compassion, and with a new respect for the ecology, with an
urgency to defend what remains of wilderness, our selfishness finally steps
aside and allows our higher selves to stride confidently past. And this now
begs of us the recurring question, does our “higher self” stride, with two
legs, or does it ride? Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is for each of
us alone to determine, a policy to be fleshed out through a dialog with our
well-cultivated environmental conscience, irrespective of law, popular
opinion, or rhetoric. Including mine.
We play, we re-create, while the trail keeps score. It will win or lose by
our own actions, and ultimately so will we. Play fairly and the truth will
But still – I thought to myself, admiring snow-capped Lassen Peak, away to
the north and now radiant with the effect of a setting sun – they really
ought to close some of those forest service roads. Keep out the
unconscionable types, or at least make life a little less easy for them.
Yes, let us barricade a good number of these roads, spread some grass seed,
strategically position a few wind-felled trees, increase the population of
native carnivores, cougar for instance – any vital creature that enjoys
chasing and pouncing. Give Nature back the power to inflict a conscience in
us, when necessary, and to remind us of how we got here, and to whom we owe
our Allegiance. Give her the kick-start, the giddy’ap, she needs.