Tossing a Trashy Attitude
Convictions from a Colorado Trail Thru-Hike following the new year.
I realized I’ve been a hypocrite.
I’ve always frowned and sneered at the sight of trash on trails or at trailheads. “People don’t care, do they?” I’d say to my wife as an empty water bottle just downhill snapped me out of the dream-like state I often find myself in when hiking, and back to the harsh reality of how damning humankind has been on nature. To me, trash is anything from a banana peel, apple core, toilet paper wedged under a rock, dog feces on the ground, or even a dropped protein bar wrapper. It all counts. The definition is loose, and broad…basically, anything brought into the backcountry by anyone, that doesn’t belong there. Why is trash bad to leave in nature? Well, it can food-condition some animals, attract others to areas and places they normally wouldn’t travel, leech microplastics into our soils and watersheds, harm or kill some animals due to choking or similar hazards, and even a dog’s feces can release antibiotics or other chemicals into terrestrial systems. The same applies to human excrement as well, that’s why there are rules and guidelines for using “number 2” in the backcountry- keep it deep and away from water.
There have been plenty of times I’ve stopped to pick up bottles, wrapper corners, and even unopened snacks. Toilet paper is where I’ve always drawn the line, even if it appears “clean”, because you just never know. But to that, I’ve also excused myself from picking up trash in the woods more times than just taking the effort to pick it up. Excuses I’ve told myself sound a bit like:
“Oh, it’s pouring rain. I’d rather not get soaked just to pick that up.”
“Man, that’s gross-looking. I’d rather not, and who knows what might not be one it!”
“Picking that up would take me off trail and downhill! That’s just not worth it.”
“Eh, someone else can do it. I’ve picked up enough.”
“Whoa, that wag bag has been there since we started hiking, and that’s been hours. There’s no one else on trail behind us, but we don’t even own a dog. I’ll leave it for a dog owner to pick up. Maybe it will remind them to be more conscientious about it”
And the worst excuse of all that I’ve placated myself with is, “I didn’t leave it there so I’m not going to pick it up.” Even writing that sentence makes me cringe with guilty disappointment in myself. Last year in 2023, I hiked the Colorado Trail from late July to mid-August. During the 24 days that it took me to hike from start to finish heading south, I witnessed more trash on trail than I’ve ever witnessed before. Most of the trash was toilet paper, and usually within 1-2 miles of a trailhead. I picked up some trash along the 485 mile stretch across Colorado, but again, I left more than I picked up. Am I justified for not picking up spent toilet paper in the middle of the woods? Some might say that I am, but honestly, I regret leaving it there.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech summarizes the way I’ve felt about trash on trail when he states, “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.” While you may think this sounds a bit extreme, I think it entirely accurate. I felt a twisted sense of pride in the little bit I did to keep our wild lands clean, and sneered or criticized others who didn’t, or who I think didn’t, take care of nature as much as I did. How unhealthy of a mindset is that? For me to think I was better than someone who picked up no trash just because I grabbed a few pieces and left the rest? In the grand scheme of it all, it’s not about how many pieces of litter are picked up, but more about the mindset associated.
Snagging a few wrappers from the forest floor when hiking is great, and if everyone did just that, our wild spaces would be that much cleaner. However, if everyone had the mindset of, “I didn’t leave that there, so I’m not going to pick it up,” then nothing would be accomplished. Our trails and backcountry would stay littered, and all those people who love to get outside and hike, or participate in any outdoor activity, would be just as cynical as I was.
A few months ago, before Colorado was covered in several feet of snow, I biked from our apartment to the Gold Hill Trailhead here in Breckenridge, CO. It’s actually a part of the CT/CDT, which is pretty cool to live so close to. I locked up my bike at the trailhead, hiked up and down the climb about 6 miles total, and made it back to the parking lot before the sun began to set. There was trash littered over the area, but far more than I could fit into my small runner’s pack. So, I bagged it all up (Lipton tea cans, soda boxes, napkins, tin foil, old leather gloves, and even two zipped off pants legs) and sat it right in front of the trailhead sign. Admittedly, I forgot that I’d left it there until a week later when I was driving home. The thought popped into my head a mile from the pull-in, so I decided to make the turn and see if anyone else had been kind enough to grab it all and trash it. When I turned in, I was appalled. There, wedged between 2 rocks in front of the trail sign, sat the same pile of trash I’d left a week prior. At a heavily trafficked trailhead, for over a week, no one had been considerate enough to finish the job I’d started. I recorded a video stating just how disgusted I was, showing me bagging the trash into my car, and I wholly intended to post in on social media to get a rise out of viewers.
The more I pondered the whole situation, it dawned on me that my holier-than-thou mindset wasn’t healthy and blasting it to the world wouldn’t do a lick of good. I never posted the video, but rather I took a step back. I was raised on the idiom that “honey catches more flies than vinegar,” suggesting that polite kindness goes much further than aggression or bitterness. I realized that not only should I be approaching the situation with more of a humble kindness, but that I also shouldn’t expect others to do what I expected them to. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” states Gandhi. I haven’t made any significant changes or taken any action until now. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized I simply need to do that which I wish to see done.
With the dawn of the new year, and all the resolutions that come with it, I’ve decided to act on my feelings, instead of just feeling them. That means placing aside my unhealthy mindset for a more positive one. It will be a lifestyle choice and mindset change, for sure, but I’d like to forgo all that cynicism I experienced in 2023 and start by actually doing something to enact change. It won’t require much equipment. In fact, it will look like adding a pair of tweezers and a trash bag to my backpack and making sure I have hand sanitizer. That may seem small, but it could make a big difference, and positive energy promotes more positive energy. With that being said, I can only hope my testimony and evolution inspires others to follow suite. I intend to put out messaging on “Leave No Trace” practices, but even if that makes zero traction, I’ll still do my own small part and pick up what I see, when I see it. Even if no one else is motivated or inspired by my story, at the very least, I can pick up a few extra pounds of trash a year. It sounds a bit cliché to say things like, “it starts with one,” but I firmly believe that. Technically it starts with two in my case since I’m married. I write all this partly to inspire others, but also to hold myself accountable for how I’ve chosen to respond in the past, and how I now choose to change. So, cheers to 2024, and may it be a year of healthy change, growth, and enrichment for us all.
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