Remoteness on the Trail
Lately Bighorn and I have fallen into a routine of hiking alongside one another. It’s created great opportunities for us to break away from our own minds and find renewed energy through conversation.
The other day as we weaved in and out of the desert hills, we both began to notice a heavy citrus smell. I commented on it and Bighorn remarked back, “it must be the ghost of the Anaheim orange groves.”
I didn’t immediately understand what he meant, so he elaborated. “Southern California use to have a bunch of orange groves, but as the song goes ‘they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.'” (In reference to the Joni Mitchell song ‘The Big Yellow Taxi‘). We spent sometime piecing together the lyrics of the song, singing it loud and obnoxiously, and enjoying the overwhelming fragrance of citrus.
Since that day, that conversation and the theme of that song has stuck with me.
The more I’m out here, the more I realize how little we’re ever really alone. Putting the throng of other hikers aside, signs of civilization are never far from the trail. Within any given day, you’ll pass under enormous electrical wires humming so loudly they drown out the harmonious chirps of the Stellar Jays. Airplanes are constantly passing by overhead, low to the ground as they get closer to their final destination. On some occasions, you can see the glowing lights from Los Angeles illuminating the night sky. Road walks or crossings seem to occur regularly each day, and in some situations we’ve been so close to civilization that throughout the night, we’re awoken by the horn of a train or whirl of an engine passing by.
One of my favorite podcasts, The Dirtbag Diaries, has an episode about finding remote locations (Project Remote). The episode is about a project started by a couple in 2010 to document the most remote locations in the United States. They travel throughout the US working to find the most isolated parts of each state, spending hours or overnight trips recording sounds, light pollution, and other variables that affect each location.
What they’ve found isn’t that surprising; remoteness in the United States is a fleeting find. There are very few places within the US where you can get further than 5 miles from a roadway or town, and the most remote locations in the US are often islands because the mainland is so populated with civilization.
On a shallow level, the impact of this is an inability to completely escape in nature. Everywhere we go we see signs of development, overpopulation, and civilization. In emergencies this is a good thing- it’s not too difficult to get off trail if need be. However, the true and raw experience of being completely surrounded by the natural world is slowly vanishing. Younger generations now more than ever won’t have the experience of finding complete remoteness as we continue to develop and make room for more, more, and more. For me, this means less opportunities to find peace of mind, to quiet the anxieties that exist in the “real world” and to feel truly safe, confident in myself, and whole.
On a deeper and more scientific level, the impacts of being surrounded by urban settings is profound. According to a study done in 2009 by the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, “nature is essential to the physical, psychological and social well-being” of humans. Through their research, they found that humans living in areas devoid of nature exhibit patterns of social, psychological, and physical breakdowns similar to animals that have been deprived of their own natural habitat. Some of these effects include “decreased civility, less supervision of children outdoors, more illegal activity, more aggression, more property crime, more loitering, more graffiti and more litter.”
The mind aside, nature has also proven to be effective in healing the body. One researcher, Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, found this with patients in hospitals. In his study, some patients had rooms facing brick walls while others had glimpses of trees and some natural landscapes. He found that the patients with views of nature left the hospital quicker, had fewer complications, and required less pain medication than the patients whose rooms faced a brick walls.
I had my own experience with these theories last summer. I worked in the Park Maintenance department in Northern Minnesota leading volunteer projects. We’d often do invasive species projects, educating volunteers about Buckthorn and Japanese Knotweed then working to remove them throughout city parks.
On one occasion, we worked with a group of families from across the Midwest. Most often, the kids we worked with were over the age of ten, but this time there was a mother there with her one-year-old daughter. The mother had a pack on her back with a child carrier, and she worked alongside all of us while her daughter sat in the carrier. I was immediately impressed with how quiet her daughter was throughout the three hour project. I kept forgetting she was there because she hardly made a noise. When I commented on this to the mother, she told me that this is pretty common for her daughter. Whenever we’re outside, she gets really quiet and observes everything, she told me. In that moment I could see the impact of nature working it’s magic on this little girl. While inside she might cry or scream or display typical infant behavior, but when she is outside she becomes calm and observant. That’s what nature does for us, it provides a healing power to quiet our minds and simply be present in the world.
It would be silly for me to imply that just because it’s harder to come by complete remoteness, we’re all more prone to agitation, decreased civility, etc. etc. I understand that in both of the studies I mentioned above, the mere presence of even just a few trees had a profound impact on the level of happiness humans experience, despite the presence of roads and civilization. It would also be ridiculous for me to imply that I think we shouldn’t have roadways and urban development. I understand that, with our growing population, certain amenities are necessary for sustaining the human race and inevitably that means taking away some natural settings.
That being said, I find us toeing a delicate line of development versus preservation. On the one hand, we have growth to match or exceed needs, creating more avenues in which we can sustain ourselves and thrive together. On the other hand, we’re encroaching on the resources that provide a completely different kind of sustenance, the kind of resources that nourish our minds and bodies on an individualistic level. We seemingly can’t continue increasing one without running the risk of significantly decreasing our access to the other, and unfortunately it sometimes seems like a dying battle to preserve natural resources over continued development.
When it comes to the Pacific Crest Trail, one thing is obvious for me. Regardless of the marks of civilization, the impact this trail has on individuals is so incredible that it must continue to be protected and preserved. Having the ability to wander through nature, challenging yourself physically and mentally, has a dramatic impact on personal growth. Maybe more for some than others, but already within 558 miles of trail I feel transformed. I feel less anxiety day to day, more confidence in myself and who I am, and more capable of achieving my goals. It’s just my own testimony, but for me it’s enough to solidify my strong belief in stewardship of this and all national trails. If not for myself, for future generations of backpackers to come. As a backpacker, we can all do our part in small ways to help further that mission; educate ourselves about Leave No Trace principals, volunteer on the trail, pick up trash we find along the way, pack it in and pack it out, learn about the ecosystems we experience along the trail, the list goes on. By doing so, we can contribute in our own way to helping protect this important element of America’s natural world even if just on a small scale. Every little effort helps and we owe it to the path that has already provided us with so much.
Two days ago as we were hiking into Tehachapi, I had a rare moment along the trail. There was a section of trail that dropped about 500 ft in elevation and then crossed a short valley to another mountain, just to continue the climb up once more. During this entire section, you could look across the valley and see the trail clearly behind you.
When I reached the peak of the climb, I found Bighorn and two other hikers taking a break. I sat down with them and within a few minutes they all put their packs back on and continued on their way.
I knew from my time climbing up the hill that there were no hikers behind me for at least two miles, so for the first time I was completely alone on the trail. I sat there for a few minutes, appreciating this moment and letting the feeling of comfortable isolation set in. The peak looked out over the Manzana Wind Farm, and across the desert floor you could see the peaks we had climbed just days before. The wind whirled gently by, there was a faint rustling in the bushes from lizards scurrying away, and you could look out over the valley to see birds soaring below.
That moment is so clear in my mind because it was a unique one that only I got to experience. The beauty and power of the trail was so evident to me in that one moment. I couldn’t help but think, “I wish everyone could experience something like this in their lifetime.”
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