In the early ’90s, I was made aware, through my normal mud-covered journalistic channels, that what is now known as the Leave No Trace ethic/code/credo/religion was in the process of being formalized, institutionalized and, ultimately, canonized. Being a tried-and-true devotee of what had long been known generically as “minimum-impact” backcountry travel (carry your beer cans out; don’t pour your bong water directly into the stream), I was both enthused and made curious, even nervous, by the fact that, with the advent of Leave No Trace, for the first time ever, all sorts of entities — from our federal land stewardship agencies to wilderness education institutions to hiking clubs — would be landing more-or-less on the same philosophical page when it came to specifically telling folks how they ought to comport themselves while making their way through woods, over mountains, down rivers and across deserts.
As the LNT gestation process was transpiring, one of the potential tenets in particular caught my attention: “Travel upon durable surfaces” — meaning, of course, if you’re going to tromp through the backcountry, do so only on designated trails, jeep tracks and roads. As the original LNT tenets — there ended up being six, out of a potential pool of at least 15 — were being debated, I sat in my office with the same feeling in my gut that some wife-coveter sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses made the world’s most-famous first ascent must have felt. “Please, don’t let the simple fact that I covet my neighbor’s wife be a Big Time No No.”
Well, at the moment the “durable trails” tenet was chiseled into the original LNT stone tablets, I became something of an environmental transgressor, a backpack-wearing neighbor’s wife coveter. For, you see, I am, and have always been, an avid bushwhacker, one who goes out of his way to hike upon turf with a decided lack of “durable surfaces” (though, now that I ponder this, it seems to me that the main areas through which I have spent the last 36 years tromping — mainly the Colorado Rockies and New Mexico’s Gila Country — are pretty durable). Not only off the beaten track, but as far off as possible. Sorta like a hiking equivalent of off-off-off Broadway.
As a matter of fact, time was when I considered backcountry terrain that contained anything even resembling a “durable surface” to be contaminated, a place appropriate only for the visitations of pudgy families-of-four from some wretched Ohio suburb. In those days, if I accidentally came across a trail while making my way through the hills, even if it was long-abandoned and adorned with the desiccated skeletal remains of the last passersby, I beelined in a completely different direction, grumbling about the omnipresent evidence of civilization. In those days, such an attitude was considered nothing out of the ordinary among my gnarly and unwashed backpacking compadres in southwest New Mexico, where I then dwelled and where I now dwell again.
These days, however, bushwhacking is considered, if not a bona fide backcountry sin, then at least a major-league ill-advised decision, a decision that, in the eyes of the LNT Powers That Be, necessitates a visit to a re-education camp. Folks from Boulder (where, not surprisingly, LNT is now headquartered) who know (or even suspect) that you’ve been bushwhacking give you that nose-in-the-air disingenuous look that makes mountain dwellers want to skewer people from the People’s Republic with a trekking pole.
Since LNT adopted its “durable surface” tenet, I have, out of a combination of guilt and obligation, cut way back on my off-trail forays, though, like addicts of all stripes, I have been unable to totally break with my habit of straying off the beaten path. I try to persuade myself as I’m making my way into the High Country nirvana that surrounds my home that I should keep my Vasques firmly planted upon designated trails, thus following in the footsteps of thousands of hikers before me. Yet, often, I look down and notice that my feet are straying, seemingly of their own volition, from anything even resembling a durable surface. Along trail-free ridges, up arroyos and drainages, down into canyons. Then, several hours or days later, I notice that I’m in the middle of some wonderful boondock place that sports little if any evidence that anyone has ever before been there.
Like most sinners, I make my way through life with a combination of justification, rationalization, denial and a fruitless search for philosophical penance. I understand that, according to the high priests of Leave No Trace, the most significant impact a place feels is when the first bootprints blemish it. I understand that, in many places — such as the cryptobiotic-soil-rich regions of southern Utah — even one flirtation with bushwhacking can irreversibly harm a part of the natural environment. I understand that, by limiting our backcountry experiences to established trails and roads, we leave wildlife with islands of habitation relatively undisturbed by human scum, such as yours truly.
Still, eyeballing the Leave No Trace tenets that are posted at near-bouts every trailhead these days, I know that, as I hoist my pack and begin making my way into the backcountry, there is a better-than-even chance I will stray — literally and figuratively — from the path of righteousness. And I reflect upon the experiences I have had in the backcountry that came about solely because I had left the trail. Like the time I came upon a bear momma and her two cubs frolicking in a sun-dabbled meadow in northern Arizona. The time I found a long-abandoned cave dwelling that had not been catalogued before in the Gila. The time I stumbled — almost literally — upon a wild tribe of skinny-dipping co-eds in Shenandoah National Park.
I will always bushwhack; I can’t help myself. But, while so doing, I try to minimize my presence and my impact. (Or at least I tell myself I do.) If I’m in the Utah desert, I’ll avoid cryptobiotic soil like it’s acid (battery acid, I should say). In the tundra, I generally bushwhack by my lonesome, and I rarely relate my itinerary or destination to my muchachos. I avoid bushwhacking through riparian areas. I never build fires when I’m away from established fire-building areas. Etc. etc.
In the end, of course, it all becomes a pain in the ass. We can only minimize our presence in the natural world so much. When bushwhacking, it’s important to be on our very, very best backcountry behavior. I know how lame that may sound, but, without bushwhacking, without straying from the trail (again, literal and figurative), there is no real exploration, and, without real exploration, many of us spiritually wither away and die.
And, besides, rarely do wild tribes of co-eds skinny dip in close proximity to durable surfaces. Damned shame.