Archive for Anna’s Blog

Get Outside!

A couple of weeks ago I visited Zion National Park in Utah and it was an amazing experience. Every National Park is different but they all teach us similar things: get outside! One impressive thing about the way Zion manages their park is that they flat-out refuse to sell plastic water bottles. They have signs posted at their lodge and dining areas stating that they will not sell plastic water bottles because that would contribute to the 1.5 million tons of waste produced per year by plastic water bottles alone. I thought that that was a very bold thing for them to do and something that must make a difference.

When I saw those signs posted, I thought: “Why doesn’t every National Park have that policy?” I think that it would be one small step in the exact right direction. Are the National Parks supposed to cater to the visitor’s every want or are we supposed to push the visitor into different habits?

I suppose, like most things, a balance must be struck. But I have gotten the feeling that the less-popular areas of National Parks have more freedom in pushing visitors in the “green” direction rather than making compromises. Or perhaps it is the people that go to those places that are okay with being pushed.

I used to think that Kings Canyon was a backpacker’s best-kept secret. But I recently went on a trip to Mineral King that has made me think that that is the best-kept secret of National Parks. It is on a whole different level of seclusion and you can really feel the rawness of the land out there.

Throughout this experience, I have constantly been confronted with a contradictory idea that lives inside my head: I want to share these beautiful places with others so that they will value them, but at the same time I want to be selfish and keep them a secret. Is that the way all of us feel when we discover something special? Do we always have the dual impulses to share our new favorite thing with the world but still keep it for ourselves? Or is this feeling intensified when land is involved?

There is definitely something about wide-open spaces that is different from anything else. Isn’t that what brought people to the West in the first place? It was the unclaimed land and freedom that brought people across the country and across the world. We are running out of that unclaimed land every day, so perhaps it has become more precious than ever before. But can the select few who use and value it also have the luxury of keeping it a secret?

 

Vacationing in a National Park

Maps are fun to look at. As soon as I open one up, my heart starts to pound and I am immediately flooded with inspiration and a ridiculous amount of future plans. As I hike, I often think of the thousands and thousands of hours spent creating trails and maps, and I am so grateful to those who put in the work. To make the unknown accessible is a spectacular thing.

Another staggering thing is the fact that you can still see trash thrown on these trails that were meant to create a new experience, not resemble a busy city street. It makes me so angry when I see trash on the trail, and I see it all the time. Yes, some of the time I am sure it was just an accident, but some people must do it intentionally, or at least are ignorant enough of their actions that they are still at fault for a grievous crime.

I have a theory. It’s called: people who are on vacation want to relax. They want to be a little selfish, a little too comfortable because the day-in, day-out grind of normal life can be exhausting. So, while on vacation, people become lazy, even whilst in a National Park. They don’t want to get out of the car because they are tired. They might drop a piece of trash because they are not paying attention or they just don’t care. (But how can they not care?)

I too go on vacation. But I have never gone to a National Park with the intention of relaxing. What am I vacationing from? I seek to get away from the day-to-day grind, but the grind is not exhausting because of simple exertion. What is exhausting is the monotony of it all. So I come up to the mountains to get away from the monotony. I seek to escape the simplicity and expedience that you experience when living in a city like Los Angeles.

But perhaps I am a dying breed, or just an endangered one. I don’t know. I would like to think that the typical park visitor does more good than harm to the park. The fees they pay to support the park, the educational programs they go on that instill valuable knowledge, the adventures they have that they will hopefully share with friends and family; these are all good things. I just try to remember them when I see a candy wrapper on top of Little Baldy.

What makes this place so special?

As I have spent more time in the National Parks my love for these places only grows. What do I love? I love the fresh air, I love looking at the rocky peaks, and I love the smell of pine trees. I love how food tastes better at higher elevations after a long day of hiking. I love the stripped-down feeling you get on the trail and how I feel like myself in my truest form. I love the feeling when you take off your hiking boots at the end of a long day and you can almost hear your feet go, “ahhh.” And of course there is that perfect moment when you return from the trail and you take one giant, slow bite of a cheeseburger. The list goes on and on of the endless treasures to discover in these places.

I was in Kings Canyon again this past week on a backpacking trip with two friends. We went up the Copper Creek Trail at Roads End and stayed out for a few days. By the time we had reached 8,000 feet, we lost the trail in the snow and spent the next day adventuring around in the upper part of the valley. We did not meet a single person the entire trip. And we enjoyed that solitude.

What makes Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks special? There is a certain rawness to the country that you can only get when less people visit those places. You feel quite removed, especially in Kings Canyon, from everything and everybody else. You do not get that feeling in places like Yosemite Valley. Many employees I have talked to are happy to work in Sequoia and Kings Canyon instead of Yosemite, because less people come to Sequoia. Everyone wants the parks to have public support, but that wish quickly disappears once you have to sit in traffic in a National Park. It is as if Kings Canyon is a secret that every backpacker wants to keep.

In his book The National Parks Compromised, James M. Ridenour asks the question: “How many people can visit Yosemite Valley before the very features for which the valley was granted park status are ruined? Can you cut the trees but save the forest?” In a word, no. You cannot cut the trees but still save the forest. Once again, sacrifices must be made in the National Parks.

Ridenour states that our nation’s natural and cultural history has a base in these parks. But it is a history that is becoming just that: history. Our nation is developing a new culture, one that does not necessarily have a base in the national parks. Do people still value the same things as they used to? Do people value fresh air, or does air conditioning suffice? Do jagged peaks look as beautiful in a picture as they do at 10,000 feet elevation? Do people want to feel stripped down by the trail and know what it is to be hungry?

It is hard to believe that values would change that much in the past twenty years. After all, you can read a novel written in the early 20th century and will still be able to relate to the character’s emotional and physical struggles. Has our nation’s culture changed more in the past twenty years than it did in the previous hundred? I think that maybe, it has.

Sliding into Spring

Even though it is the middle of June, Sequoia National Park is just now sliding into spring. I got a little taste of this a couple days ago when I was on the Middle Fork Trail out of Buckeye Flat. Instead of the usual greens and browns one sees in the foothills, I was seeing pinks, yellows, and purples in the wildflowers that were just starting to bloom. Life buzzed around me and the trail rolled out easily beneath my feet.

The trail starts off fairly exposed to the heat and sun, but once you pass Panther Creek, a tunnel of trees shades the trail as you wind your way along the hills. My destination was Redwood Meadow, a good thirteen miles from the trailhead. At the beginning of the hike, I could look a little ways up the hill to my left and see Moro Rock jutting out magnificently. As I continued on, it was entertaining to look back over my shoulder and see it become smaller and smaller.

As I walked, I contemplated something a park employee had recently told me. She has been working in the National Parks for nearly twenty years holding a number of different posts, from a volunteer to a backcountry ranger. I asked her what one of the difficulties was of having a career in the National Parks. Her answer was that the longer you stay here and the higher up you move in the ranks, the easier it is to lose track of why you came to the parks in the first place and what you wanted to accomplish. She said that the best way to remind yourself of your initial inspiration was to get back out on the trail and have an adventure.

As I walked beside the wildflowers and listened to the roaring of the Kaweah River below, it was easy to see why the trail never fails to inspire. I began to contemplate the difference between hiking alone and hiking with others. I enjoy both immensely but they are extremely different. There is a power you find when you hike alone that you cannot get when you are with other people. When alone, you are confronted with the fact that you are completely responsible for yourself. And that can be scary, but once you get over the initial fears, your own self-empowerment can be quite inspiring.

Right before the Mehrten Creek crossing, I met four young men resting on a rock. As I passed them, they were shocked that I was alone on the trail. “You’re backpacking by yourself?” I simply smiled, nodded and tried to figure out a good way to cross the creek (there was no bridge and the water was quite high.) Before I could formulate a plan, one of the guys came down to me and engaged me in conversation. He said, “I don’t mean to be sexist or anything, but I have never seen a woman backpacking by herself before, so I just had to come down here and congratulate you. Would you like a Clif bar?” I laughed and accepted his offer, but his words stayed with me for the rest of my trip.

My thoughts continue to drift towards one idea: women and the woods. There is that classic phrase: “like babes in the woods.” It’s really quite condescending if you think about it, because it implies that women have no idea what they are doing when they find themselves in the mountains. That has not been my experience. I have certainly met a lot of mountain women over the course of my life, but it is true that I meet more men out on the trail than women.

When talking about underrepresented groups in the wilderness, one could argue that women are among the least represented. So, how do we get women more excited about hiking? It starts with little girls in schools. However, all the Girl Scout programs I heard about as a kid seemed to be more about doing arts and crafts or selling cookies, while boy scouts got to go out on backpacking adventures.

The only reason it is more dangerous for a woman to be out on a solo backpacking trip is the trouble she could get into if people she meets along the way see her as a target for wrongdoing. The actual skills of backpacking and the strength it takes are well in a woman’s reach. And as long as you keep your wits about you, there is no reason why a woman should not go hiking alone. Instead of garnering fear in women about potential dangers, we should prepare them to be strong enough to take care of themselves in the backcountry. I have found that once you become knowledgeable about something, you are no longer afraid of it, but are simply prepared to meet any challenges that come your way.

Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

I recently started reading a book called The National Parks, what they mean to you and me, by Freeman Tilden. What is interesting is that this book was published in 1951, but what it discusses is still relevant today- perhaps even more so today than sixty years ago. One of Tilden’s first points is that it is much easier to explain to someone why a resource should have a commercial use instead of being used as merely a beautiful thing to marvel at. As he says, “The first human impulse is always to take the cash and let the credit go.”

You can see this conundrum in the park. For example, in Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park visitors are guided through the grove and are allowed to get quite close to some sequoias- enough to be able to touch them- but are not allowed that same opportunity with others. For instance, one cannot touch the General Sherman tree, the largest tree in the world, but one can touch two of its neighbors. This is an example of a sacrifice. Are these sacrifices worth it? Do they contribute to spreading the parks’ message of conservation to visitors?

The other day while sitting by the General Sherman Tree parking lot, I heard a visitor complain about the 0.7 miles on a paved walkway that he would have to travel to see the tree. Can the parks’ message of conservation be received by someone who comes to a national park and wants to walk as little as possible? It is as if for some people, the joy of the park is not found in the trails that you hike but in the pictures that you take. Can you really experience the freedom and vastness of the parks from inside an RV? Does that even matter to people?

It ultimately comes down to what we are willing to pay for and what we are willing to sacrifice. The problem is that many sacrifices in the national parks go unnoticed by visitors. However, on the tours and park programs I have participated in, I have been very happy to hear the guides lecture visitors on the human impacts on the natural resources found here and what sacrifices have occurred over the years. What’s the youngest thing in Crystal Cave? The human impacts. What do we need to protect the parks from? Human beings. Leave no trace. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

In Tilden’s book he talks about what he has experienced with the national parks and why he has kept coming back for more. The visual beauty is stunning, but that is only a sliver of what the parks have to offer. He discovered that “behind the visual was the soul of the thing” and that “the deeper meaning of what is seen will come in [its] proper time.” It is that soul and spirit that keep a person coming back for more. I can only hope that the deeper meaning in these places can be discovered in more ways than one, including walking as little as possible or driving in an RV. But more than that I hope that people are looking for that meaning at all.

Anna’s Blog

What is it about the wilderness that keeps me coming back for more? I think back on my own experiences and how I came to love the outdoors and recognize it as a familiar, comforting place. My parents started taking my brother and me on backpacking trips from a young age. I am convinced that I learned things from backpacking that I would not have had the opportunity to learn anywhere else. Most important of all, these trips have instilled the belief in me that not everything that is worthwhile doing is easy. The only instant gratification you find on the trail is the gorgeous view, but even that is not enough sometimes to block out your aching quads or heavy pack. But that is okay. I am comfortable with the uncomfortable. I was taught to climb up a mountain and be okay with the fact that even if you make it to the top, somewhere out there, there is another peak to climb.

Technological advances favor expedience and aim to minimize the effort expended by an individual. I believe that this has begun to affect people’s psyches by teaching them to favor instant gratification over an investment of time and energy. But you cannot speed towards every goal and discovery in life. Sometimes it is the experience that comes with time that allows you to eventually reach your goal.

Our national parks need society to continue cultivating the adventurer in young people, so that they will be more open to taking chances. We encourage adventuring into the unknowns of academic and technological fields. We should do the same for the physical and spiritual adventures a person can take.

Paradise Valley

The first multi-day hiking trip I took this season was in Kings Canyon National Park. Looking on a map, Kings Canyon has got to have some of the best names for its features. Two that immediately catch your eye are Evolution Valley and the ever-uninspiring Disappointment Peak. For my own trip, I chose to hike along Paradise Valley. The trail begins relatively flat until you start the climb to Mist Falls, a magnificent waterfall 5 miles in from the trailhead. Mist Falls is yet another feature that certainly lives up to its name.

While on this trip I met two young hikers who had come up to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend. We ended up hiking a good ways together and spending some time around the campfire that night talking about everything from top five favorite movies to personal philosophies. I asked them what they loved most about being out on the trail. Any hiker you ask will give a slightly different answer but a common thread connects them all: the exhilarating feeling of freedom. It amazed me how comfortable I felt around them, but after thinking more about it, I realized that it was not that extraordinary. For the most part, whomever I have met in the backcountry has been kind, aware, and on a similar quest: to get away from routines for a while and have an adventure.

From these two individuals I not only received suggestions such as: use chicory root to make delicious tea, or a few titles of must-see documentaries to watch, but was reminded of the magic of the outdoors. It can bring people together and slow them down long enough to allow true connections to be formed.