Skip to main content

A Rant Against "Improvements" on the Trail

Some years back I knew of a Tucson hiker who told of a member in his hiking club who always dismantled rock cairns on hikes. "What a kook or hothead!," I thought.  So it is ironic that I find myself doing the same thing, these days.  It brings to mind some Old Testament prophet smiting idols or graven images.  That is not quite the right analogy. 

What was the cairn-builder thinking, anyway?  Is building cairns the moral equivalent of spraying rocks with graffiti?  Or maybe the cairn-builder actually thought they were performing a public service?  What comes next, after the cairns:  brown carsonite stakes, and then hand-rails?  A paved trail, caches of emergency supplies, and a motor vehicle shuttle, waiting at the far end?  And of course, fees and a reservation system.

If a hiker got lost in the canyon, they would not die; it would just take longer to walk out of the canyon than they anticipated.  So what?  Besides, anyone seriously lost or injured should always backtrack rather than try to finish a loop.

Walking is a slow-moving and unexciting sport.  Something has to happen to get the animal spirits to kick in.  It can help if the air is chilly and their dog runs wild and off-leash.

At the moment I am reading Peter Gay's "Enlightenment."   In Chapter 1, Greece: From Myth to Reason, he refers to Kant: "The task of philosophy, [Kant] added a little sententiously, is to trim rather than to cultivate the luxuriant tree of imagination."  Indeed that might have been good advice for philosophes in the 1700s who wanted to free themselves of myths and superstitions and push in a scientific direction.

But it isn't good advice for a walker.  The walker needs to escape a world of equally-sized and equally-spaced rectangles of land, over-priced, over-populated, and over-regulated.  They need to unlearn the habit of running to the internet or map with all the answers.   

The walker needs uncertainty, surprises, and even a hint of danger to feel genuinely alive.  The cairn-builders and brown carsonite sign-installers are invoking habits of phony pragmatism and helping land become a tiny bit more civilized, thereby destroying the mood of wildness that the walker needs.

What a walker needs to escape from.


Anonymous said…
Don't feel bad. We don't just tear down inappropriate cairns, we also tear down fire pits! We always try to make a spot look like it's never been camped in.
Anonymous, I have occasionally torn down a fire pit that kept me from maneuvering my van in a campsite. These days, with boondocking involving dog-eat-dog competition, tearing down a firepit that is too close to you might dissuade some undesirable from camping there. They will move elsewhere.