Illustration by Chad Bassett
Off to the north of a trail I have hiked, biked, skied and snowshoed more times than I can remember lies the approach to a side/tributary gulch (I’ll call it Pilgrim Gulch), which is, if not exactly hidden, is at least not blatantly obvious. From below, the mouth of Pilgrim Gulch looks to be nothing more than a depression in a ridge finger descending from a massive headwall and lying perhaps 500 vertical feet above the main valley. Pilgrim Gulch is accessible from the trail — actually a rugged four-wheel-drive road that is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the very busy Colorado mountain county I called home for almost two decades — only by crossing a willow-choked creek bottom, followed by an aerobically captivating bushwhack to the ridge finger.
For many years, I had looked up toward that ridge and its tempting depression, but had never gone through the tedious process of actually visiting it. Then, one day, I found myself interviewing for a news story a local Forest Service employee who was talking about a recently filed application for a mining permit clear on the other side of the lofty mountain range in which this part of the story takes place.
Knowing that the proposed mine site was essentially inaccessible except via self-propelled means along a sketchy section of single-track, I asked the Forest Service employee, “How would the applicants access their claim?” He then made mention of a gulch I had never heard of. I pulled out my maps and — lo and behold! — as far as I could tell, the Forest Service employee was talking about that depression in the ridge finger I had been eyeballing for all those years. He was talking about Pilgrim Gulch.
I did not dally. Very next day, I hiked up the popular, rugged four-wheel-drive road to a point where it looked like the willow traverse would be easiest, or at least less skin-ripping. Then, while making certain no prying eyes witnessed my impending bushwhack, I began the trudge toward what ended up being one of the most astounding places I had ever visited in a county that boasts beaucoup astounding places. Though the mouth of the gulch, like I wrote earlier, was modest, it soon opened up to a broad expanse that included glacial tarns galore, expansive vistas, astounding rock formations, nearby mountain summits and thick wildflowers. It was like I had stumbled upon a mini-Shangri La that, stunningly no one seemed to know about.
Pilgrim Gulch became one of my regular hiking destinations, and never once did I ever tell anyone about it. Never once did I ever consider the notion of telling anyone about it. Let the huddled masses continue on their merry way up the rugged four-wheel-drive road in the main valley below. Let them be blissful in their ignorance. Let them eat cake.
Then, one day, I slogged up the steep incline to what I until that point considered my personal kingdom of alpine bliss. And what did I then see? I saw a series of diminutive rock cairns erected through a place where Pilgrim Gulch tightened up a bit as it followed a crystal-clear rivulet. My heart sank, for I knew what was next coming. It seemed like a form of corruption, not solely because other boot prints now existed in soil where I had seen literally none before, but because whoever it was who had traversed these parts since my last visit had felt compelled, even entitled, to leave behind near-permanent evidence of their passing.
But I did nothing, save sulk. During subsequent visits, the cairns became more numerous, larger and more elaborate. And the tundra through which those cairns were constructed started showing signs of wear and tear. Though I never saw another person in Pilgrim Gulch, it was obvious more and more people now knew about it.
Then, one day, I saw some orange peels, eggshells and a candy bar wrapper next to one of the glacial tarns. And I lashed out: I destroyed every single one of those goddamned cairns. I mean to say, I obliterated the motherfuckers. This was no subtle carnage. I made no effort to aesthetically replace the rocks used to construct those cairns to their natural environment. As I kicked those cairns, I cursed the people who had built them.
With regards to Pilgrim Gulch, I was likely too late. I ought to have disassembled the very first cairns I saw. I vowed then and there to never again make such a mistake.
And thus began what to this day remains a love/hate relationship with cairns and all they represent, both literally and figuratively.
Admittedly, what they literally represent is likely nothing more than some well-meaning person or persons who simply have a different opinion than do I regarding the placement of route markers upon heretofore-virginal landscapes. That person, or those people, likely feel it is better on all levels for folks out and about in the boonies to be both well oriented and following the same line of travel.
But what they figuratively represent is the concept of order and management and linear thought — all concepts that, while perhaps valuable down in civilized realms, have little if any value in the heart of wild country — and, worst of all, the concept of encouraging and directing people to backcountry locales that, wherever period of time ago, were relatively unpeopled and untrammeled. The building of cairns in places lacking system trails is akin to guidebooks and magazine destination stories that reveal “secret places.” (One of these days, I swear I’m going to write a guidebook and/or a series of magazine destination articles specifically designed to get people lost. It would be the best favor I could ever lay on those people, though it might take them a few years to realize the good turn I have done them.)
Before proceeding any further, let me be upfront and clear: Many have been the times in my long and extensive hiking/backpacking career when I have been mighty thankful for the existence of cairns. For instance, I was once on the Continental Divide Trail between Kite Lake and Stony Pass experiencing weather as bad as weather can be at 12,000 feet elevation in mid-August. It was blizzarding and blowing a gale, and there was not enough visibility to even measure. The only thing that kept my disoriented, teeth-chattering self on target was a series of six-foot-tall cairns delineating the venerable San Juan Stockway, which was contiguous with the CDT at that point. I likely would have been in trouble had those cairns not been there, as there was no shelter from the storm that I could see, or, in this case, not see.
This is far from the only example of cairns saving my personal day. But — and this is a noteworthy “but” in this context — those cairns (I’ll call then the “good cairns”) have all been official, U.S. Grade-A trail markers, markers placed alongside existing system trails, trails that actually appear on maps, trails designed, as much as anything (in my mind at least) to keep the huddled masses on track and off whatever untrammeled (and, thus, more uninteresting) terrain that might lie nearby. The “good cairns,” in my considerable backcountry experience, are constructed by Forest Service and Park Service trail crews, who, presumably, know what they’re doing vis-à-vis trail location and construction. They were not constructed by Joe Blow the Ragman hiker who took it upon himself to expose a particular primitive route by building a series of “bad cairns” just because he felt like so doing. In this regard, the “bad cairns” are nothing more than litter and ought to be treated as such.
I have long been perplexed, as well as red-faced angered, by the numbers of times I have ventured forth into the great outback untrailed unknown, only to find that someone has erected series of bad cairns to either direct those who follow (like, who’s to say that the cairn-builder actually knows where he or she is going?) or as a sign that Kilroy was here. These bad cairns were not constructed by Forest Service or Park Service employees; they were, rather constructed by people like me (but not like me), people who obviously were originally attracted to places sans official routes, people inclined to explore the hinterlands rather than simply following established systems of trails. What would possess people inclined to visit the untrailed unknown to then mark the way, to mark their passing, like dogs pissing on fence posts? What is this goddamned inexplicable attraction to orientation?
Understand, please, that I am not herein castigating those who build bad cairns simply because they have visited a place I have also visited. Sure, I wish I were the only person to have ever interfaced with the myriad off-the-map destinations that over the years I have been blessed enough to interface with. But there is obviously more to it than that. Given my bushwhacking nature, I am happy that most backcountry enthusiasts most of the time access the forests, mountains and deserts via established, official, marked trails, many of which are delineated by cairns. I, too, generally access the backcountry via official trails, though, often, for reasons that have to do with both inclination and the influence of some sort of inexplicable metaphysical/gravitational/inertial force, it is not unusual to look down and notice that my boots have detoured their way into unmarked, un-delineated, sign-free, trail-free, cairn-free realms.
One of the least-publicized and least-appreciated negative environmental impacts associated with the outdoor-recreation industry is the impact that simple, seemingly benign trails have upon the natural world. I once proposed a story on this subject to Backpacker magazine back when I was a contributing editor at that publication. The editor reacted in such a way that he obviously thought I had lost my goddamned mind. “Yeah, right, let’s make our readers start feeling guilty about the very trails upon which they hike into the woods. Our advertisers will love that.”
I guess his response was understandable, if not somewhat lacking in the kind vein-opening honesty that I feel makes for good journalism, even if that honesty sometimes amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, or, worse, if it amounts to taking a long and hard look in the mirror.
Still, based upon several peer-reviewed research projects I am familiar with, there is no denying that the existence of trails and trail construction results in many of the same kinds of negative impacts associated with roads and road construction. The clearing of trees to accommodate a trail causes more sunlight to hit the ground, resulting in the establishment of microclimates. New trails instantly up the erosion ante, especially if they are open to mountain bikes. Trails, not surprisingly, cause more people and, worse (from the perspective of the environment) dogs to venture forth into the backcountry. Species that do not take well to the presence of man (and dog(s)) start moving away from the trail, replaced by species that tolerate human activity. The habitat fragmentation that defines human kind continues unabated.
There are certainly those who argue, and argue well, that, if you are going to have human visitation in the backcountry, it is better to concentrate that visitation on established trails, rather than having a whole bunch of stoned reprobates like me traveling in willy-nilly fashion hither and yon.
There are also those who argue, and argue well, that the most significant impact a backcountry locale feels is when the first human passes through, and that every subsequent human visitation is incrementally relatively less impactful. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument against bushwhacking.) And, thus, if there is going to be human visitation in a given area, it is best for all concerned if those humans pass along the exact same route. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument in favor of cairn building.) That’s a great point and all, except that it does not entertain the impacts of aggregate visitation, which is often exacerbated by the existence of a trail, and which often in turn causes the existence of a trail.
This is where we get back to the bad cairns. There are of course many ways that backcountry trails are born and raised. Many have historic roots — they were old pack train or livestock routes. Many were constructed specifically for recreational use. And many sprang into being via “unofficial” means. This latter category, often referred to as “social trails,” begin, for example, when someone — a hunter, maybe, or a bushwhacker, or a rancher on horseback looking for strays — comes across, as a random example, the biggest juniper tree anyone has ever seen. He takes a few of his friends out to see it. Those friends take a few of their friends, some of whom might be inclined to place a few humble rock cairns to help those who follow, and, before you know it, there’s what looks for all the world like a real trail to that tree, a trail that some people who have no idea it leads to a giant juniper tree start following just to see where it goes. Those people might start adding a few stones to the cairns lining the route. The Forest Service will sometimes institutionalize such trails, granting them “official, status” — meaning they get marked on maps, get trail signs, get regular maintenance and maybe even get a whole slew of cairns.
Other social trails are established or even built in extra-legal fashion by mountain bikers or hikers. I recently heard of a lady who has been working tirelessly for years to build a new trail to the summit on one of our local mountains. (I would love to meet this lady, to give her a piece of my mind.) The national forest trail system I visit most often (because it is closest to my house) was started by a man who thought it was OK to go out onto public land, ax, adze and chainsaw in hand, and start blazing away, like Daniel Boone heading toward Cumberland Gap. Sometimes the Forest Service will come in and obliterate such ex officio trails. Sometimes — as is the case with the trail system I visit most often — the Forest Service throws in the land-management towel and institutionalizes those trails, and, in so doing, brings them up to construction standards.
And, once those trails are institutionalized, they are publicized and, as a result, more and more people start using them, and more and more negative environmental impact results. Trees alongside the trails start to die. Birds move into less desirable areas to nest. Water hole accessibility is compromised.
There is more to it than that, though. There is a certain difficult-to-quantify concern with the psychological repercussions of having more and more marked trails running through our mountains, forests and deserts, even if those markings take the form of modest sets of bad cairns along little-visited social trails. I believe it’s important for those of us inclined to tromp through the backcountry to get disoriented as often as possible, to have no idea where the fuck we’re going, to run the risk of getting lost and by so doing maybe finding something valuable that likely does not exist along a marked route. Most times, we find nothing, save experience and time alone with the trees and cactuses and birds and bears. And that’s fine. But sometimes we stumble upon something wonderful — a small natural bridge made out of Gila conglomerate, a new way to descend into a slot canyon, a cliff dwelling, a giant juniper. And whatever those wonderful somethings may be, they are made even more wonderful by the fact that we found them on our own. We did not follow a trail, and we did not torpedo the sense of wonder the next person who finds them experiences because we decided to build a line of cairns in our wake.
The words “explore” and “adventure” are so over-used and misused in these days of ziplines, eco-tours and travel insurance that most folks, even those inclined to venture forth into the backcountry, have forgotten their true meaning. Whatever tattered remnants of their true meaning might still exist do not include guidebooks and destination stories and existing trails and even seemingly innocuous little systems of cairns constructed by people, even well-meaning people. This much I truly know and understand.
These days, when I pass “good cairns,” I will often add a rock to them, if for no other reason than we have arrived at a time when cairns are being treated by passersby as art forms as much as directional devices. Whenever I pass “bad cairns,” I obliterate the motherfuckers, and I encourage you to do the same. I figure it’s my civic duty to help keep the backcountry as wild as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to play a small role in making sure that my fellow backcountry travelers have every opportunity to get disoriented, befuddled, discombobulated, bumfuzzled, bruised, battered and as scared as I have many times myself been while trekking through realms that lack trails and signs and cairns. And, in so doing, I hope those people, like I have, will find bear cubs frolicking in fields of wildflowers and pottery shards left by the Ancient Ones and entire fields of undisturbed crystals glimmering in the dappled sunlight.