“You’ll never protect what you don’t love, you’ll never love what you don’t know, and you’ll never know what you haven’t experienced.”
It’s becoming the new narrative. Our trails are being “loved to death”. The trails of Colorado are seeing a record number of visitors, and some places are being impacted more than others. Blame it on the transplants, the millennials, and the beginners. You’ve read the articles and have probably fallen right in line with the “get off my lawn” crowd. It’s easy to do, and you do it because you care.
Nobody likes to see the negative impact that people can have. Humans can be destructive, careless, and absolutely maddening. And unfortunately, there is no place that carelessness is more apparent than in nature. Perhaps we don’t notice the candy wrapper on the sidewalk, but when it shows up on the trail it offends our sensibilities. We curse the collective “beginners” for their disregard for Mother Nature and secretly banish them to a life running on the treadmill and hiking in Wash Park. They can have fun, but just not on MY trail.
But this mentality ignores an important fact about the lifecycle of a beginner. Everyone starts from wherever they are. Beginners don’t have to stay beginners, and they usually don’t. It’s illogical to assume that anyone comes out of the womb mountain-ready. And it’s even more ridiculous to expect that everyone on the trail has read Hiking for Dummies and has a signed affidavit in their back pocket promising to do everything the right way.
Nothing works like that. We learn everything by doing that thing. Sure, everyone has an obligation to not be an asshole, but trail etiquette isn’t always as intuitive as it might seem. It might be ingrained in your DNA that the person hiking uphill has the right of way, but it might be equally inherent to a new hiker that he should always step aside for a lady, regardless of the situation. An act that could be met with reverence on the sidewalk might get you a sideways look on the trail. It just might not be intuitive to a beginner.
I was a beginner once.
My first real hike was a mess. I was ill prepared and reckless. I ate nothing but ramen noodles for four straight days. I stopped to snap a picture of two bear cubs in a tree without even considering that there might be a mom nearby. I carried a four-pound military trench shovel because it was the only thing I owned that could dig a hole to bury my shit. Hell, I didn’t even know how to shit in the woods to begin with. Not only was I lucky to survive, it’s probably a miracle that I didn’t destroy the entirety of the Smoky Mountains before I left.
It wasn’t because I didn’t care; I just didn’t know what I needed to know. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know whom to ask. And if I did ask, I was usually met with the tone that you always get from someone when they feel like you’re asking something you should already know. That has become the standard for nearly every online forum these days. People don’t want you to be stupid on the trails, but they also don’t want to answer your stupid questions….so….
You were a beginner once.
News flash. You didn’t come out of the womb mountain-ready either. You were stupid on the trails once. It’s a fact. You don’t have to admit it. But it’s reason enough to be gentle with other people. Answer their questions. Forgive their honest mistakes. A soft correction on the trail goes a lot further than a sharp rebuke. A beginner is probably on the trail for the same reasons you are, and their experience will eventually harden them into the seasoned expert that you want everyone to be.
You can avoid them anyway.
Colorado is big. Really, really big. I continue to hear how Colorado has become too crowded. Poppycock. It’s complete nonsense, and is nothing more than a false narrative being perpetuated by the “get off my lawn” crowd. I grew up in Indiana, and nobody in the world thinks it is crowded there. Because it’s not. But Indiana has about a million more people than Colorado and is only half the size. You would think they’re stacking people on top of people in the Hoosier state. Not at all. And it’s not like that here either.
Sure, there are some traffic bottlenecks. Yes, there are some exceptionally high visitation destinations like Hanging Lake that need some extra protection. But more than anything you just need to get out of the Front Range. Denver is getting a little tight, but there are 105,000 square miles in Colorado and you can explore almost all of it. With nearly 1,000 trailheads in the state, I’m confident you can find some solitude. Be creative.
You need them.
You want to protect public lands. You want to ensure that these wild spaces remain wild for generations to come. Here is the catch. You NEED the beginners to help make that happen. It’s never been clearer than now that public lands can be taken away, and it takes a critical mass of people to prevent that from happening. You can’t do it by yourself. The reality is that today’s beginner is tomorrow’s nature warrior. They’re slowly falling in love with nature right alongside you, and you know as well as anyone that to be willing to protect something, you have to love it first.
Therein lies the solution. We don’t need fewer trail users. We need more trails. We need more public spaces. To make that happen we need more nature warriors. More people to build trails. More people to support politicians that value nature. More people to donate to important causes. More people to volunteer their time. Simply put, without beginner hikers we’ll never have more advocates. Everyone has to start somewhere, and we all start there.
Educate them. Softly correct them. Pull them back on the trail when they wander off. But never discourage them. Even more, celebrate them. You need them to love your trails as much as you do, but first they have to use them. Sometimes that might be your favorite trail, and at the most inconvenient time. But the next time you show up to a trailhead and see a parking lot full of cars, just remember, they are the newly enlisted warriors in the battle for public lands, and you are going to need every single damn one of them.
About the Author
Jimmy is the founder and owner of Feral Mountain Co. When he is not exploring the hinterland of Colorado he can usually be found at one of his favorite Berkeley neighborhood watering holes with Sophie the shopdog.
Follow Jimmy on Instagram at @theadventuresoffunk.
About the Photographer
Brian J. Lewis
After growing up in upstate New York, I found my true home in the mountains of Colorado in 2005. I’m a visual storyteller, a four-season adventurer, an unapologetic coffee snob, a semi-competitive trail runner, a seasoned traveller and a new dad. Through it all is a never-ending quest to document the beauty of the world – from the wilds of my Colorado backyard to the far corners of the planet.