There’s a non-system/social trail that follows a creek I have hiked beside more times than I can count. This trail is known by local residents, but, because of its unofficial status (there is no signage, it does not appear on national forest maps and the equally unofficial parking area can accommodate only three cars), it is not used as much as some other nearby trails. Yet, mainly because of the inability of many social media addicts to keep lesser-known places lesser known, that diminutive parking area is starting to see more vehicles, many of which bear out-of-state license plates. Word has spread.
What most visitors to this non-system/social trail thankfully do not realize is that, about halfway down to the most common turnaround point, they will pass a side canyon that accesses an astounding mesa — I’ll call it Arrow Mesa — several hundred vertical feet above the creek. To proceed up that side canyon, you have to, first, know where to go (its boulder-choked mouth is not obvious), then be willing to negotiate loose rock and thrash your way through sections of dense, overhanging brush, much of which bears thorns. The reward takes the form of astonishing rock formations, remnants of Native American habitation, a wide array of unhabituated wildlife and views that extend for more than 50 miles.
And solitude. Only one time have I ever seen other people on Arrow Mesa, and they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them.
I learned about Arrow Mesa decades ago by asking myself, “I wonder what’s up there?” And answering that orientational interrogative the hard way — by scrambling, bushwhacking and slowly piecing the topography together over the course of many scratches and abrasions to form my own mental map. Close as most of us ever get to integrating the word “exploration” into our personal vernacular in these dark Google-Earth times.
A few years back, I noticed some rock cairns next to the non-system/social trail that follows the main creek. Come to learn, those cairns delineated the easiest route to Arrow Mesa. Having seen many times in my life what can happen to a locale once that first series of cairns is placed, I could not knock them down fast enough. I hoped that whoever built them, upon his or her next visit, would take the hint. They did not. Since those first mounds appeared, I have been engaged in an ongoing battle with the unknown cairn-builder of Arrow Mesa. The process of eradicating those cairns has become something of an obsession, as, I’m certain, the process of building them anew has become an obsession with my nemesis.
I would love to meet the cairn-builder (who I am sure is very nice and well-intentioned) of Arrow Mesa to get a grip on his/her thought processes for continuing to point the increasing number of people hiking alongside the aforementioned creek to a place they otherwise would not know about.
While there is a distinct possibility the conversation might get tense — especially if we were to meet while he/she was building cairns and/or while I was knocking them down, I will set this imaginative chitchat on neutral ground. In a bar of the cairn-builder’s choosing. Over a convivial pint of ale.
Me: OK, you butthead SOB POS MF, what’s up with all the cairns?
Maybe that would be a textbook example of getting off on the wrong foot. Call it a mulligan. Start over.
Me: I am very curious what compels you to continually build cairns showing people how to get to Arrow Mesa. Why do you do it?
Cairn builder (CB): I would ask what compels you to tear them down?
Me: Yours is the underlying action, so you first.
CB: It helps people find the best way up there.
Me: But your cairns often delineate less-than-optimal routes.
CB: They didn’t used to. Before you started knocking them down, they without a doubt showed the best, least-impactful route. Now I have to establish lines I hope you do not find.
Me: So, if, for whatever reason, they don’t delineate the best route, why continue?
CB: Because it’s a beautiful area that I’d like people to know about. And, even if the routes I mark are not the best — because of you — they are still environmentally relatively unimpactful. I’d rather people follow routes I establish than have them wandering willy-nilly up there and tromping riparian vegetation, expediting erosion and maybe getting lost or hurt.
Me: If you didn’t bring people’s attention to the area by building your cairns, then they wouldn’t go up there in the first place. At least most of them. That would be the most environmentally unimpactful option.
CB: You go up there, right?
Me: Yeah, but I don’t drop a line of bread crumbs behind me.
CB: What’s wrong with showing people the way to a beautiful area?
Me: The more people that go up there, the more environmental degradation will occur as a result. I have seen it with my own eyes many times. There will be more trash. Campfire rings will ensue. The wildlife will retreat. More than that, though, you eliminate the sense of exploration that people feel when they go to a place that is relatively untrammeled. It’s a subtle point, I know, but an important point. Finding your own way into and out of a remote area is far more rewarding then following a line of cairns. And, besides, it’s borderline illegal for someone not affiliated with a land-stewardship agency to mark a route.
CB: I don’t think our local Forest Service personnel would consider this worth their time. They would likely consider it a net-positive safety issue, that my cairns make it easier for people to stay found. And, again, I line out routes that are on durable surfaces. I consider the routes I have lined with cairns to Arrow Mesa to be near-perfect examples of Leave No Trace ethics made manifest. Under any circumstances, given the remoteness of Arrow Mesa, I don’t think we’ll have many people going up there. Besides, it’s not legally designated Wilderness, of which, as you know, there are many hundreds of thousands of acres nearby. I think the more people we can attract into the backcountry, the more people we will have fighting for land preservation. I think it’s worth whatever minimal trade-off we — you — might experience on Arrow Mesa. Besides, they’re small cairns. You have to be an experienced backcountry traveler to even notice them.
Me: I assure you that, if those cairn routes are left untouched, Arrow Mesa will see increased visitation and that people — maybe you — will start brushing out a trail, which, in turn, will attract even more visitation. There was a time when hardly anyone knew about the social trail that follows the creek down below. Now, it has become well known and gets trampled more each year. Like I said, I have seen it too many times to stand by and watch it happen to yet another relatively pristine backcountry gem.
CB: Well, you have your opinion and I have mine. In any case, I will continue to erect cairns on Arrow Mesa. And I assume you will continue to destroy them.
Me: I do not consider it destruction. I consider it returning the area to its natural state. The most salient point I can make, though, is that I have at least as much right — legal and philosophical — to knock those cairns down as you have to build them. Before we continue this conversation, though, could you point me to the men’s room?
CB: Find it yourself.
RFWJ Editor M. John Fayhee was a long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine. “Kill the Curmudgeon” appears whenever Fayhee gets pissed off enough about something to attack his keyboard.