Spiraling In Old Hachita

Another piece from the intimidating whole, this one is an old one, a strange one, I wrote some years ago about the first few days on the CDT that spirals into some difficult times preceding the trip. 

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The ruins of Old Hachita appear like gravestones out of the haze. The air is full of dust and obscures the horizon where it meets the low darkly featured clouds that crawl above it, threatening but not yet delivering rain. My handkerchief is over my face, tied behind my head. I clench it in my teeth to help filter the sharp walls of sand kicked up by the wind. I weave through the creosote and sagebrush. The pillars and crumbling walls of the ruins begin to take on more three-dimensional forms as I gain on them.  Behind the ruins the volcanic ridges of the Coyote Hills rise, their granite spurs protruding and hovering over their shallow passes.

Ancient rusty cans, cookware, and pieces of rotting steel begin to appear in my path. Most of the structures have been reduced to piles of rubble on their foundations. Some have walls, partial and deteriorating. A few of the old wooden mining structures still stand sturdily, having somehow endured a century of erosion with grace. The remnants of the old copper mine and surrounding town appear solemn and lifeless. An old mine shaft descends into the ground. Beside it the wooden skeleton of something once purposeful hovers over piles of debris . Walking among the ruins I witness the  wrathfulness of the lonely Hachita Mountains (a name derived from Sierra de la Huachita or Mountains of the Orphan Girl) .

Imagining this place filled with people living out the hardships of remote desert life is like seeing an old gnawed elk bone sun bleached in the dirt and knowing it once belonged within some majestic grazing animal. The harshness of the lives lived in this place jumps out from the wreckage: a confined life of mining, loading ore onto trains day after day, living in dirt, raising kids in dirt, not knowing exactly how one ended up in these hills.

The structures that were once homes, a bar, a dance hall, are almost entirely disintegrated into the landscape. In them great personal dramas once unfolded. Merry and intoxicated nights were stomped on dirt floors to the sounds of dull violins, weathered letters from New England or the Virginia coast were read by candlelight with a sense of incredible distance, dreams of different lives were had, dreams of having made different choices, smoke rose through chimneys and disappeared.

Venturing into a little roofless mud-brick structure with all four walls still standing I take shelter from the winds. Sitting down with my back against the wall opposite the doorway I see all the vegetation of the desert thrashing about wildly. The upper boundary of the doorway before me has long since fallen and it seamlessly meets the open trapezoid of sky where the ceiling once was. Exhausted I sit there staring out and listen to the sound of dust and sand being whipped against the walls.

It happens so quickly. One moment I’m getting rushed to an airport in the middle of the night, long terrible goodbyes, and the next I’m hopping barbed wire fences in enormous unpeopled expanses. It is a shock to mind more so than the body. It is disorienting to the point where for brief moments I wonder if my timeline has been skewed, or if I’m experiencing some conscious glitch. Everything takes on the qualities of a dream.

It is only day two of this journey and my mind is still acclimating to these sudden changes. I have achieved isolation, but the faint hum of contentedness that comes with this victory is still weak and easily overthrown. Somehow I am still a sad, confused entity, overwhelmed by all the crippling trivialities that accompany being human. The wounds of having abruptly torn myself from my life back home are still fresh, painful, and difficult to manage.

My thoughts still clings to Massachusetts, to the social mess, the faces, relationships, and routines. The elation I initially felt in my stupor is subsiding. I get on my feet and through what is quickly becoming a daunting storm I navigate northeast towards a distant jeep track that will lead me to much needed water.

The ruins are soon behind me and thrill of exploring them is brief and I can’t prevent myself from drifting into the anxieties and feelings of longing that seem to reach from some internal void in an attempt to drag me back home. Do I have enough money to complete the hike? Will there be water in tomorrow’s cache? I’ll surely come home to nothing again this time. Where will I live? This is the time I won’t make it. I’ll probably quit when I get to the snow. I won’t be able to make it through, not alone. Is this really what I want to be doing? Everyone back home is beginning to think I’ve lost it, they think I have a problem; I like people, I enjoy being around people, I am undeniably social, I want relationships, and I want a bed, a comfortable place to call home.

I stare at my feet as I walk and wait for the wave to pass. In an attempt to retaliate against the negative mental trend I recollect the circumstances I so desperately wanted to distance myself from; how often I was miserable! Unending compromises were made in order to save a few thousand dollars. Everyday was a machine burning up my blood. Clocking in eight or more hours a day, washing dishes, carrying things around, living in filth with strange friends in the small room of an old warehouse, squirreling money away by avoiding real living situations and eating terrible cheap food, the drama, all of the putrid emotion, my psychosis, their psychosis, unnecessary talk, endless talk, the days feeling more like walking against sandpaper than they do here in southern New Mexico.

The social chaos sucks me in like an undertow. My unusual living places slowly become crackling ice. The landlords are quiet if they get the rent. The toilet is broken, the heater is broken, will the repair man keep his damned mouth shut?  Anything to get away from the madness I’ve surrounded myself with. On crowded buses and trains closing my eyes and humming loudly I picture some dramamine sunset in a futile attempt to drown out the deafening cries of the masturbating Americans that are everywhere, fucking everything, and chanting for the pennies saved. Late at night I meander the streets observing the girls as they walk by glitter-boned with crystal lips. I mull over all the TV shows, music videos, magazines, and peers that conditioned me to desire such belligerent and obnoxious beings. I watch them as they apply glossy creams to their faces and blend their features together as they stand half naked and half drunk waiting in the cold to be let into some shit college bar. They purse their lips and stare at their reflections. I cringe at the sound of their giggling and shouting. But God damn, look at those incredible asses! Show me a mind with depth accompanied by an ass like that. It won’t be found in a February mini skirt screaming about pickletinis, or maybe it will, I do not know.

I move along block by block and It can be seen like embers burning in the city night. The slithering whispers of intoxicated schoolgirls kick up silt in the stagnant pools of the frustrated male pedestrians that pace up and down Commonwealth, Harvard, and Brighton avenues. Everyone is at their wits end, looking to release something, prove something, gain something. Is it Friday night again? In the eyes of these men and women I see the vague empty fever of the American dream; a never ending scramble up some slippery mound of shit. Everyone’s American dream is to be obliterated and I’m no different from them in this way.

I need to get away from this too so I head off the main drag and down the quiet road that parallels the freight line and the highway; quiet dark brick buildings and dilapidated garages lay in between the road and the tracks. When I feel the painful sting of the cold slush as it seeps through my shoes I receive flashbacks to the most frustrating and hopeless days of navigating snow in the Sierra Nevadas; an endless white, a man broken, stabbing the frozen ground with an ice ax, screaming “fuck snow! fuck snow!” I want to be broken like him, slashed down, a brave adventurer one minute, a broken man the next; I want to be broken, but not by this cyclotron of a city.

I quicken my pace. I hate cold feet and so it’s time to warm up. Maybe no one will be around and I’ll get to close my eyes. Turning here and there, dodging puddles and black crusted snow piles, I find my way to the old warehouse. Climbing up cement steps, angular graffiti tags scribbling shoulder level along the walls, cacophonous noise bellowing from behind door after door. People shouting and doors slamming echo through the cement hallways. The room is not empty. In a crowd I sit and watch faces yap away, but my mind begins drifting away from the madness, touching on some distant places I’ve been; a range under an endless blanket of snow, some cold and black valley guarded by steep silent walls and threatening peaks. These faces, the filthy hallways, bloody murder raves that boom through the walls, and all of it is paving the road back to where I’d much rather be. 

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I’m Sorry, You Can Go Home Now

Time for a new book of poetry. This is the first one I’ve compiled since my 2016 “19 POEMS AND A STORY ABOUT LOSING.” This new book contains 25 poems that detail my chaotic and intermingled relationships with people, nature, and traveling. Below are two samples. These are self published. Payment info is at the bottom of this post.

book is $8 including shipping. Email nathanxventura@gmail.com with your mailing address and Venmo or PayPal name. I will request payment and promptly mail purchase.

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Assimilation, Bad Histories

The following are a few excerpts from a larger work that has slowly been accumulating since 2016. This work is not in any way intended to be a cohesive story about thru-hiking. It is more a conversion of my journals into a more readable format, a sharing of experiences and ideas. Since it has been such a sluggish struggle to complete the project I hope to start sharing pieces of the work in progress on here. 

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The beauty of a place can always be tarnished by its proximity to a parking lot.

*  * *

Like our minds these landscapes are intricate machines. They are complex and can change, get sick, heal, be desperate, fierce. They take a while to get to know. A person does not just plop down in the middle of a vast wilderness, look around, and know the lay of the land or understand its tendencies. It takes some investigating, traversing, some getting lost. A person has the ability to let their surroundings in, but this means more than simply appreciating and admiring them. There’s a committal element to it, like the point in a relationship where a person decides (consciously or subconsciously) to fully let their guard down. It means submitting to a degree and becoming vulnerable.

It seems to go against human instinct to fully embrace realms as inhospitable as nature. Not just anyone will find themselves attempting to. It takes a person with a preexisting fascination with the non-human world and a repressed desire to shed oneself of their civilities. Through seeking this sort of isolation an assimilation of sorts can take place, letting an animalism move in as our civilities are subsequently jettisoned. Imagine having all preoccupation with the hubbub of everyday life dissipate like one enormous exhale. When immersed in these landscapes for such extended periods of time the elements of our non-hiking lives become irrelevant. There is less need for the 24 hour day, obsessing about the trivialities of everyday life, or the gruelingly complex systems of morality we impose on ourselves. The concepts of time, space, and life in general become more like that of an animal’s, achieving a quiet, simpler plane of thought.

Through endless hours of walking in nature, suffering its hardships, and overcoming its many obstacles this does happen. If alone, it is only natural. The psychological ties to home will be slackened and released, and a ferocious desire to be alive is unshackled and runs about the mind. Only through these means will one be lucky enough to find themselves slapped in the face by an enlightened aphasia, shocked and overcome with awe, sensing oneness and a contentedness with the circumstances of their isolation.

This is how long distance hiking changes people or “ruins” their lives.

*  * *

This mountain is sacred to many native tribes of the area: Navajo, Zuni, Acoma, Hopi. It was known by its Navajo name, Tsoodzil, or Turquoise Mountain before it was renamed by whites. To the Navajo it is one of the four sacred mountains that marks the boundaries of the Dinetah, their range and homeland. The fact that this place was renamed after Zachary Taylor, a man responsible for decimating the natives of the region during the Mexican American War, sinks like a brick in my mind as I climb towards its peak.

The intermingled history of  the white pioneers and the indigenous peoples of the west walks with me. As a kid  I worshiped the outlaws and the frontier because it was intriguing to me. I liked watching westerns that were full of gunslingers, train robbers, cowboys and Indians.  In grade school I wrote essays on the history of the west. I found it all fascinating, which it is, but I glorified people and ideas that in reality were not glorious at all.

As an adult who has spent years in the places where this history unfolded it didn’t take long for the fetishized blindfold of this time period to fall.  The “wild west” and the westward expansion of the United States was soaked in blood and reeked of gluttony, ignorance, cowardice, exploitation. The westward expeditions were military and political conquests focused on acquiring land more than exploring it. They were fueled by the delusions of manifest destiny. Even Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was focused on determining the best ways in which to profit off of the Louisiana purchase.  At bottom the history of the west is far from being a grand tale of exploration and discovery. It is the story of aboriginal cultures being murdered, displaced, and having everything taken away from them. Most Americans learn the history of our country through textbooks that aren’t entirely honest. This sort of brainwashing isn’t easy to overcome, but immersing oneself in the environmental and cultural aftermath of this history does the trick just fine.

One foot in front of the other I pass the railroads, the battlefields, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, the Oregon Trail, the highways and interstates, barbed wire fences, dams, houses, hotels, Walmarts the size of towns, entire downtown strips composed of chain restaurants, prisons, military bases, border patrol checkpoints, alcoholism, addiction, poverty, dusty featureless reservations, wind farms, strip malls, summer homes, homeless camps. 

 Somehow in between these things are the wildernesses that still exist. The few places untouched, unpolluted; I see them shrinking.

Alongside this exposure to a first hand American history is an all too real look at humanity’s relationship with nature.

A long distance hiker sees first hand landscapes overgrazed by cattle to the point that there is nothing but dirt as far as the eye can see. We cannot blind ourselves to deforested mountains, to rivers dammed and bubbling with scum, tires steeping on the shores, to garbage of every kind found everywhere; shotgun shells, clothes, cigarettes, shit, and toilet paper; smog drifting east through the Mojave from Los Angeles, Superfund sites, dead dogs on the medians of  highways, endless fences, decaying deer entangled in barbed wire, and the thousands of no-trespassing signs that mark where one person’s land begins and someone else’s ends.

I didn’t “find myself” or find God, I found a brooding misanthropy.

A cynicism pertaining to the outer lying world was ever growing in me as I walked. In many ways a transformation was undergone as I first truly experienced nature. It changed me in many ways, good ways, but ways that made it harder to go back to the real world. I did not emerge from the chrysalis with a renewed appreciation for humanity. Instead I emerged as a moth that insists on clinging to the tattered gown this world once wore when it was young and beautiful.

My experiences on the trails were often blissful and mesmerizing. We still have a great mass of wilderness and nature in the United States and I’ve been extremely lucky to see so much of it. People deserve to exist in and have access to these landscapes, but the scales are quite offset.

As a society we have strayed far from anything that could be considered a healthy relationship with nature. We are synonymous with devastation and destruction. We are a band of termites in a one tree forest. There is no other host for us to pounce on. There is no denying the parasitic qualities of our existence when walking  thousands of miles across these places we use and populate.

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“Living and Waiting”

Sometimes I get caught up in the negative, especially when it comes to writing. For example I was astounded by the beauty of Colorado this year, but I’ll write little about it, for the enormity of it’s man-made scars and the unbelievably crowded nature of its roads and trails, the vacation fever, hit me upside the head even harder than its natural wonder.  But! That doesn’t mean I don’t love the place any less than my favorite empty deserts, or unpeopled places for it facilitated some incredible experiences. This summer leading a crew of 10 was a much needed experience; I had been stuck in my own head for some odd years. In some of my members I saw the hot blooded vitality, the lust for life that originally plunged me into the desolation of the west; a thing of youth easily lost (or too often never attained!) It was great for me to see this in others, and to engage in it with them. I’ve wanted to collect my thoughts on this past summer but perhaps it would be more appropriate to share the thoughts of one of my members, Cierra, who articulated extremely well, the wonders and perplexities of the dual life that many nature bound people experience.

The following was originally posted on the RMYC blog:

There will be paths through this forest and you and I will lose ourselves in the soft curves and folds of the ground. We will come to the waters edge and lie on the grass and there will be a small unobtrusive sign that says, THIS IS THE REAL WORLD, MUCHACHOS, AND WE ARE ALL IN IT. – B TRAVEN…” -Charles Bowden

As this season starts to come to an end, many of us who have been working on the trails are faced with accepting the all too familiar transition of going back to the real world, of going back to my “real life” which consists of anytime showers, reliable toilets, the familiar routine of college, people fighting and finagling to get by or to get what they want. Hiking up the now memorized, breathtaking but mostly just air-stealing, Mount Evans trail every morning I find myself thinking about how these two worlds of sorts have taken form in my life for the past year. What is the ‘real world’? The one that your high school teachers always were sure to remind you of whenever you questioned the validity of their class? Where there’s no time allowed for addressing mental health? A fancy degree. A house. A purpose. An answer? Well I’ve realized that I want to live a life where such a reality doesn’t have to be the norm, where contentment is no longer a fleeting emotion, where perfection is a silly illusion and one where I’m not waiting for an end.

My first season allowed me to grow comfortable with pooping in the woods, no cell service, and living closely with strangers I may have never met otherwise. These strangers became family, the trails, roads, and trees a growing constant. With this season I’ve been able to notice that such simplicities can actually make up a home and a life.

It’s when there’s people around a fire reading, or when there’s natural silence because everyone’s stuffing their faces with breakfast for dinner made on the camp-chef. Dancing out in the desert barefoot or naked in the rain.

When you find a patch of the earth you’re pretty sure no one has ever stopped to breathe within before.

Living in the moment or at least giving your all until the next 15 minute snack break.

A chance to get ice-cream in town or slip away with a fresh cup of coffee in the morning.

The way that marmots run across talus: a fast waddle with a happily wagging tail.

The goats following our pee migration.  

The crepuscular rays from the sunset.

Kombucha induced laughing fits.

When everyone sleeps under the stars together on the big tarp.

It’s the people. I know that Libi will spend extra money for his natural peanut butter and feels the desire to reveal a specific answer but can’t always convey in the right way. That Pio will exercise small acts of selflessness and wait until everyone else has gotten their dinner first to serve himself and have faith in my visions even if it’s rotating a rock 180 degrees and turning it upside down for the twelve time. Kathryn will always find the hidden gem raspberries and the best questions and provide amazing inspiration at unexpected moments. That Nate needs his coffee in the morning or at least a La Croix within the day and that he’s usually right about questions— when will it rain?? Rebecca will laugh at the ridiculousness in average occurrences and keep us all organized. That Devon doesn’t say anything unless it’s genuine and that when he says to flip the pancakes already just flip the damn pancakes already! Conlan will always have eggs ready in the morning and be there to help in anyway that he can; he always can. That Caleb will have a clever song romanticizing our struggles on the road and as a crew as well as his reliable little toots. And Phoenix will keep us all grounded when we need to be and cry at the good things, reminding me to mark that moment in my mind as a worthy one.

It’s carrying all we need on our backs, in Bootsy (the van), and in our minds.

It’s facing the vulnerabilities that come with changing elements in the environment but also in the storming of the crew, that’s what living outside with ten vagabonds for ten weeks straight will inevitably lead you to.

The way that you come to live with others, the way that this lifestyle allows such small things to be appreciated, and to make up your home is so much more than some will ever get to know in their city-light lives. Or at least so much more than I’ve been able to in my other life.

And I’ve found that de-rig will sneak up on us and the crew will go separate ways and fall back into easy patterns and some will try to keep in touch as they can…

Not all of us will work in this field forever and we all end up changing our minds thousands of times in our lives. But knowing that there’s been a shift in consciousness, I’ve been asking myself: why can’t I find peace and authenticity between my changing seasons? What is the “real world” when you’ve had the chance to live in one that’s so genuine and fulfilling? So… I’m not going back to living and waiting, living and waiting, living and waiting for big transitions. No more ‘other life’. No more monkey fucking around. This is my answer Mr. Fredrick. THIS is my real world muchachos.

Incredibly long link to Cierra’s original post: https://social-blog.wix.com/charlie?cacheKiller=1537559486490&compId=TPASection_jcim1ils&deviceType=mobile&height=349&instance=sosKoeJlnqk00ip-fCECGVcps3GVgW5-jhWWkc5vwcI.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&locale=en&pageId=gg2oi&section-url=https%3A%2F%2Frmyc1993.wixsite.com%2Ffieldresource%2Fcrew-blogs%2F&target=_top&viewMode=site&width=320

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Barbed Wire, a Month in Dinosaur National Monument

I’ve been living and working with my trail crew 24-7 for the past five weeks. For the past few years my jobs have been incredibly solitary and autonomous (working as a backcountry ranger in Maine and working with dogs in Boston) This crew leading job has been a big change to say the least, but I’ve enjoyed adapting to it. We were camped in the most remote parts of Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border for the first month and now we are working up at 13,800+ feet on Spalding peak in Mt. Evans Wilderness. I usually only blog when I’m thru-hiking (or obsessing about it) but I’m still living in my tent 7 days a week, working and exploring in the depths of the American West. This means I’m face to face with the subjects I often think and write about.

The Dinosaur NM project was a fencing project. I knew there was a potential for getting fencing work when I took this crew leader job, but I didn’t expect to be doing it for an entire month. Thru-hiking has left me a fervent loather of the barbed wire fence. They are everywhere in the west, new ones old one’s. Their two main purposes are to mark boundary lines (BLM, forest service, park service, private property and everything else) and to prevent cattle from crossing those lines. Some areas in the west have open ranges where cattle roam freely about, hang out in the middle of highways and whatnot, it’s great, but most areas are endless grids of fence-line. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I’ve seen wildlife scarred and bloody from crossing fence lines. I’ve watched less athletic like animals like bear, buffalo, and pregnant elk pacing around remote fence lines, sometimes following them for miles, looking for places to cross. On the CDT I gashed myself open several times crossing fences, on the Grand Enchantment Trail some days it was an hourly hurdle. The constant presence of barbed wire fences leaves a sour flavor on the palate of those seeking to explore these american landscapes.

The reasoning behind the barbs on the wire of these fences has to do with the cattle. In the 1800’s farmers tried lining their properties with thorny Osage Orange shrubs to prevent cattle from destroying crops but they took many years to grow and proved a poor solution. Using smooth wire fences also was attempted but the cattle pushed on through them as they pleased.

Before the barbed wire boom there was a “law of the open range” which was more of an unwritten understanding of the west. Cattle roamed freely and were branded so they could be identified and the cattlemen went out on their epic cattle drives, sometimes hundreds of miles, from the vast wildernesses to cities where cattle were sold and hauled off on trains. An absence of fences was necessary for these journeys as well as for the cattle to graze and find water. It was the farmers who were advocates of the barbed wire and began fencing off their property which lead to hostilities between them and the cattlemen. In 1881 the “fence-cutting wars” began. Cowboys assembled gangs that went out at night cutting whatever fences they could find. This lasted for four years. Eventually fence cutting became a felony and the war was more or less lost. The barbed wire fence didn’t only entirely disrupt the way of life of the cowboys but it aided in the near extinction of the buffalo (disrupting grazing/migration patterns) which also in turn devastated many native american tribe’s way of life.

This all being said, the fact that I was going to be building barbed wire fences in remote high deserts for an entire month greatly disturbed me. Many of my crew members had similar feelings about fences and it was my job to motivate them to do the work. The fences we built were the boundary of the national monument and BLM land. Luckily we were building wildlife friendly fences; the bottom wire was smooth and the top wire coated in a white rubber which makes it easier for wildlife to detect and jump, but still a barrier for livestock. The middle two strands remain barbed. This made it a bit easier to justify to my crew. In some places we were building new fence where none had previously been, and in others we were repairing old fence and adding the wildlife friendly features.

To give readers an idea of how frequent wildlife deaths occur due to barbed wire fences here are some statistics I found from a 2006 research project by Harrington & Connover: The study analyzed 1,200 miles of fence along roads in Utah and Colorado: They found that one antelope died per year for every 5.6 miles of fence, one mule deer for every 7.8 miles of fence, and one elk for every 10.8 miles of fence. This adds up to one dead animal for every 2.5 miles of fence which is a disturbing statistic. This previous statistic doesn’t include their findings on the number of hooved animals found lying dead beside fences (previous statistics were for animals tangled in fences); one death per 1.2 miles of fence, an insane number. 90% of these deaths are young fawns separated from and abandoned by their mothers when unable to cross a fence line.

Because we were fortunate enough to be building less detrimental fence the biggest moral opposition to the work for some members was the cutting of the corridor which consisted of removing the vegetation within about five feet of the fence on either side. The vast majority of the vegetation was sagebrush which has no trouble growing back, but while hacking away at these plants the habitats of many birds, rodents and insects were destroyed so they had my sympathy and I did my best to put them on different tasks. The hardest part of my job for this first month was by far supervising work that my crew members were opposed to on various levels. Now we’re building stone staircases and closing social trails at high elevation in Mt. Evans Wilderness and this is no longer an issue.

Fences in the west just kind of suck. Without them the national parks, national forests and wildernesses would get over grazed just like all the public and private lands that cattle currently do graze on. With the fences we have unwelcoming eye sores that are hazardous to wildlife and  grid off our country. What a predicament! The solution is…go vegan? Without the cattle there’d be no need for the fences. I believe this, but..I’m stepping into an issue far to complex and riddled with subtleties to go on with. Ranching cattle has been a way of life in our country for generations and its not going anywhere. Fences suck. That’s my point. I don’t have solutions to offer. I will say that there are barbed wire fences in many places where they are not needed. It seems many landowners, parks, and other land management agencies use barbed wire when none is necessary. I recently took my crew on a cross country hike from some state land outside of moab and into Arches National Park. When we got to the remote park boundary there was no fence to be found. There were simple little cairns of rocks holding up “park boundary” markers. There was no physical barrier. It was great.

Even though the work was less than desirable (and I’m almost ashamed to have become an expert at it!) we were camped out in beautiful landscapes I never would have seen without the job. I’ve driven by and briefly visited Dinosaur National Monument in the past and my impression was that it was a respectable, oddly shaped, piece of grooved desert on the CO/UT border. Now that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in parts of the park so remote that the senior staff has never even ventured there I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the place.

The first stretch of the project we spent camped near Zanobia peak, an angular mountain topped with a firetower. To get there we drove our vans and trailers two hours on rocky rutted old jeep roads until we couldn’t make it any further and from there we were shuttled about seven miles in ATV’s and park service trucks. From our worksite we overlooked the Green River and Yampa River valleys, as well as Lodore Canyon. The canyons in this area are tremendously deep, gouged like erratic knife marks in clay. One day we hiked to the firetower on Zanobia peak. We hiked up from our worksite and followed a barren ridgeline for a few miles to get there. All around us, above the deep red canyons were mountains marked by red and yellow cliffs and ridges of oddly piled rock formations. The valleys looked soft, solely vegetated by sage brush, then the hillsides become forested with juniper and piñon until they begin to peak out and are barren along the ridgelines. Cattle could be heard moaning somewhere far far below in the Zanobia basin. At the firetower the jolly yet hermetic watchman gave us a little tour of his stilted abode. Like the other fire towers I’ve been to, it was full of a queer assortment of old equipment and maps. The centerpiece was an ancient looking Osborne Fire Finder, a circular map with two metal sightings positioned on opposite sides of the map that rotate together, letting the watchman decipher the distance and azimuth of nearby fires.

Our second stint in Dino was even more scenic and remote than the first. We were camped on a high ridgeline that extends from Wild Mountain. To one side this ridge looked over Jones Hole, a picturesque canyon of sinuous white beige and yellow cliffs. On the other side it overlooks the Canyon of Lodore from the opposite side as our Zanobia project. Easy hikes along pristine ridgelines from our camp lead to towering cliffs that overlooked these incredible canyons that descend 3000 feet to the rivers below. Landscape is landscape, to attempt to translate into text is unsuited. I’ve fantasized about creating a zig-zagging cross country route for myself in this little traveled park, but these immense vertical cliffs that accompany almost every geographic feature seem problematic. Who knows, perhaps I’ll try.

Each morning we woke up a half hour before the sun crept cooly over the eastern ridges, most of us rising from our unsheltered sleeping bags into brisk morning air. If it weren’t for the location of this project I would probably be unemployed. I love existing in the desert. The fine pale dirt in my mouth, on my skin, on every inch of all of us as we did mind numbing work in the desert, carrying 70lb spools of barbed wire, one after the other, up and down steep slopes of sage and prickly pear, pounding T-post after T post, digging post holes into dense rocky ground, we all let some of the landscape in, and in some sort of desert fueled ecstatic misery we made it through a difficult month of work. In the future I hope my only work with barbed wire fences involves cutting and tearing them down.  

Todaloo,

Nate Dawgy Dizzle

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An Over-Use Conundrum

Oh boy.

Before I figure out what my opinions are on this yet to be defined issue let’s talk numbers.  According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy an estimated 1,400 people completed a thru-hike of the AT in 2010, the year I hiked. In 2017 an estimated 3,700 people completed the AT. That’s over 2.5 times as many hikers as seven years prior. Even more drastic is the exponential increase in numbers on the pacific crest trail. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association 156 people completed thru-hikes with me in 2011. In 2016 a whopping 724 completed the PCT (over a 400% increase, though it should be noted 2011 was a high snow year) I hiked the Arizona Trail in 2013. According to the Arizona Trail Association only six people thru-hiked the trail that year (my hiking partner and I are not included on that list) 113 people were listed as having thru-hiked the AZT in 2017. This year in the 50 or so miles that the Grand Enchantment Trail follows the AZT I saw over twenty thru-hikers. This was extremely surprising because I barely saw anyone in 2013 besides my hiking partner. The statistics revolving around the Continental Divide Trail have proved difficult to find, but the numbers there are increasing as well. It is a logical and natural trend. The majority of hikers begin with the AT or PCT and then many of them get “the bug” and graduate to other national scenic trails and their lesser known relatives.

In 2009 I had never heard of the Appalachian Trail. It was my girlfriend at the time’s idea to hike it and she taught me a bit about it. I’d always fantasized about going off the grid and living in the mountains so the idea of backpacking for roughly five months sounded fine to me. Our research mainly consisted of buying the data book and doing simple online research about weather and gear. We knew the trail was well known and not going to be a private and solitary five months. We were shocked though when we did actually get down to Georgia and started hiking north. For the first few nights there were several dozen people all camped around the shelters. Sleeping in them wasn’t usually an option due to their first come first serve nature. The scenes reminded me of the “tent city” that the homeless community had erected between the abandoned mall and the train tracks in my home town when I was a kid.

We shrugged off the crowded aspects of things and focused on how to thru-hike without physically falling apart. We spent little time in towns. They were always full of hikers and the hostels were usually near capacity when we arrived. We didn’t drink much at the time and the party mentality of the trail community was a bit off putting. The feeling of being constantly around this type of overcrowding lasted at least to Trail Days in Damascus which was an overwhelming experience to say the least. Eventually we cut down on our pack weight and switched to trail runners instead of boots and figured out how to hike over 25 miles a day. This combined with how little time we spent in towns helped us creep towards the front of the pack. In the central states we found a much more tolerable number of people around; about 5-6 hikers we saw somewhat regularly, that we felt like we knew, and then a hand full of other people either passing us or getting passed by us. When we got to New England we finally got a taste of solitude and uninterrupted wilderness. There were at most only five days on the AT where we didn’t see other thru-hikers.

I tell you all this because…well…I just can’t imagine hiking the trail now that there are well over twice as many people on it. The Appalachian Trail, to me, is an example of a trail that has gotten to the point where the amount of use it is getting is so much that it is degrading the experience of those using it. Where exactly that line falls is hard to say. I suppose it would be different for everyone. When I hiked the AT, I wasn’t an experienced hiker. I didn’t know what else was out there. I benefited greatly from it and enjoyed my hike. Hypothetically, if I had never hiked the Appalachian Trail before AND the number of hikers on it was still the same as it was in 2010 I would not have much interest in it because that amount of use is so much that it takes away from the type of experience I am (now) interested in having. This might not be true for most hikers, especially those new to thru-hiking. BUT, the numbers are not what they were in 2010 and I am somewhat baffled at the continuing increase in interest. As the desirability of the thru-hike declines will the numbers one day decrease? Will a balance eventually be reached?

In 2010 trash on the AT was a big issue. Toilet paper could be seen along and near the trail much too often, the shelters were speckled with plastic wrappers and the fire pits were usually chuck full of foil and other unburnables. This issue has only increased. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the AT is often a person’s first long distance hike and their trail edicate and leave-no-trace knowledge are undeveloped. The AT suffers more than the other trails in this way because of its close proximity to civilization, and its heavy use my all different people. In 2015 three thru-hikers (Seth Orme, Joe Dehnert, and Paul Twedt) raised awareness by packing out over a thousand pounds of garbage they found along the trail. I see potential thru-hiking related job creation here!

When one person is alone in a house they may or may enjoy the house, its luxuries, the solitude. When two people are alone in a house they might get along, they might bond, they might…When fifty people are in a house it’s going to be a party. A few people will get annoyed and leave, the rest will get sucked into the social frenzy and have a good old time. This applies to the trails. As the numbers increase the party-mentality increases even more so. It’s understandable. It’s just how people are. I like to have a good time with a few hikers when I’m passing through a trail town, but there’s an important issue here that, from what I understand, has been plaguing some trail towns and their businesses.  From staying vaguely in tune with what’s going on in the trail community via the internet it’s been rather obvious that some hotel/hostel owners, and trail angels along the long distance trails have been simply fed up with hikers leaving things a mess, being loud and rowdy, breaking rules, and neglecting to properly pay for services. I know that it’s a bit of a “few bad apples” scenario but it’s also not a “once in a blue moon” issue. (I’m not sure exactly what my point is here, but i think it’s along the lines of “If you’re gonna butt chug beers and invite every girl on tinder over to your hotel room just clean up after yourself and genuinely apologize for being a nuisance” (sometimes that stuff just happens on the trail right?)

Back in 2013 I worked for a bit as the Katahdin Stream Ranger in Baxter State Park (and several years elsewhere in the park) and witnessed first hand the stresses these increasing numbers are putting on Baxter. I’ve listened to heated discussions about how the park should deal with the AT. The complex topic can be simmered down to either appeasing the trail community by compromising the guidelines set by governor Baxter, or just the opposite. I favor staying strictly true to the stipulations of governor Baxter’s donation of the land to the people of Maine, to keep it forever wild. Millinocket is where I’ve seen  AT related stress among the locals with my own eyes. I’ve sat at the Scootic in Millinocket and watched the bartender chase Appalachian Trail hikers down the street after leaving no tip on an all day several hundred dollar bill. Behavior like this is drastic to the local community’s perception of the trail. I’ve talked to many recent thru-hikers, listened to their stories and I can’t help but think that the Appalachian Trail must be losing its appeal to anyone looking for more than a lower body workout or a rugged five month bar crawl.

I’m sorry, I’ve lost track of my real point, or just failed to summon one out of my babbling. I’ve lowered myself to trash talking the AT (in a literal sense!) Lets get careless and jump around a little. What in the hell is a wilderness experience? I’m not talking about official national wildernesses when I use the word. A wilderness can be anywhere that feels devoid of society. The couple acres of woods between the house I grew up in and my grandmother’s trailer park were all the wilderness I needed to become a uncivilized vagabond. Like everything else I’m going on about, a wilderness experience and what it entails is different for everyone. I’m more particular than most. I like to be lost in the wilderness for at least a couple days at a time without seeing other people, towns, houses. That is what I look for in a hike. The relics of the past like abandoned homesteads, old farming stuff, mining equipment, none of that bothers me. Old jeep tracks and dirt roads don’t bother me either; they’re just trails. (don’t get me started on fences! Another time!) It is funny how temperamental I can be. It takes a bit of time to get into the wilderness experience, to feel comfortable in it. I define a wilderness experience as: entering and existing within an environment consumed by nature during which time very little of the unnatural or modern world is present.

People are natural, why would seeing other hikers take away from a wilderness experience? Well, shit, maybe it doesn’t really. Not for most people. But it has to do with the volume of people and the negative things that can result; the trash, crowded campsites, not being able to take a leak without someone yelling “howdy!” What a crowded trail diminishes can be simplified; Solitude! Some people are not as interested in finding and experiencing true solitude as others and that’s fine. For example, nobody who hikes a trail with a partner (or partners) or a significant other will ever really experience true solitude, and many people who start the trails alone only do so with the intentions of falling into groups. It may sound like I’m talking down on the shared experience right now, but really I’m just realizing that a desire for true solitude plays an extremely varying role in people’s reasons for thru-hiking. I’m just one of those people who puts a huge emphasis on it.

All of the trails are becoming more popular. The Hayduke Trail has begun to find some real attention, the Grand Enchantment Trail is seeing increasing numbers every year, and the same goes for The Pacific Northwest Trail, The Great Divide Trail, and every other trail. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens as the statistics continue to rise. Will the numbers plateau? Will increased regulation of trail usage go into effect before this happens? Will more bestselling novels be written about the trails and expedite the process? There are new trails out there. I hope the Great Eastern Trail gets completed and helps dilute the AT’s traffic. Foreign trails will gain popularity and maybe a rise in excitement about El Camino, Te Araroa, The Great Himalaya Trail will change the tide a little. One day I’d like to hike the CDT again, maybe the PCT, but I don’t really know what to expect a thru-hike to be like five to ten years from now. Will over 2,000 people hike the CDT annually in the near future?

The moral to this story is that I’m special and I want all the long distance trails to myself. Everyone stay home and become foodies! No, no, I want you to be out there. The moral is that I want these wonderful trails and routes to give rewarding experiences to everyone regardless of whether it’s someone’s first or your twentieth long distance hike. I encourage everyone to get out there, to try it, to see what their made of. Traveling by foot for such intimidating distances is something else. You see incredible things. You meet incredible people (yes, people can be good in moderation!) You may even find yourself, but you probably won’t. You’ll probably just find a new obsession to ruin your life with! Just be respectful, be mindful of the fragile relationship each trail has with its surrounding communities. Hike on.

A few miles down a dirt road I’m sitting in my car smacking away at this keyboard. The battery is low. The Sun has fallen below the distant Utah cliffs. My 3% alcohol beer is too warm to justify opening. It’s time to turn in. Goodnight. 

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Endless Exodus (an uncomfortable patriotism)

I finished my ~700 mile hike of the Grand Enchantment Trail yesterday. Standing up on Sandia Crest looking down on the endless flat sprawl of Albuquerque I thought very little. I just had the feeling that something good was over, something I should be proud of. Moving forward now is a continuation of the flux; getting back to my car in Phoenix, a brief visit to family, heading up to Colorado to start a new job, a summer of living out of my tent. The months ahead will be interesting and I can’t complain.

Today we will be talking about becoming a pedentary ball of observation, and more specifically, an inarticulate and uncomprehending one.

I do not fully understand why the landscapes look as they do, why the rocks formed in the patterns they have, what makes them red here, green there. I don’t know why certain plants exist here and not there, nor do I know the nomenclature of any of these things. I only see them, and see them change from place to place. Everything around me is always transforming; the climate, the land, the vegetation, wildlife, the people that inhabit the landscapes, the way people interact with the land, the relics that have been left behind.

I often wonder about the true scientists. How would a devout biologist, geologist, or archaeologist experience thousands of miles of observation? It would be profoundly different from my experience, knowing the names of everything, the true rarity of certain specimens. It would be a wet dream for many a young scientists who are stuck in classrooms and laboratories until they fall into a semi appropriate job (if they’re lucky) Here I am with just the crumbs of their knowledge and I’m out here seeing it all. Just because my understanding of the “why’s”and “how’s” is dull to say the least doesn’t mean I can’t get anything out of it. There’s something to be said about just observing everything, noticing the changes, taking it all in like a child passing through a museum. As I traverse mountains I don’t know if they are a titled fault-block range or composed of Cenozoic calderas. It’s interesting stuff to know, but I dare not say it’s important for my purposes.

A long distance hiker who’s assimilated with the endless walk, who’s become what they are doing, ends up a rather fluid entity of observation. I often feel like an extensive catalog of the natural world, useless to everyone including myself. To exist like this is to accomplish existence in its most brilliant form while simultaneously dancing on the line of not existing at all.

As I pass through the wildernesses I also pass through small towns and communities of the more remote parts of the country. I see the people change with the landscapes just like the grasses, cacti, and rocks. From town to town you notice changes in the little things; the way people treat dogs, the way lone men hold themselves at the bar, the drugs that plague communities, poverty in its different forms, the way houses fall apart and how trailers are parked out front when they finally implode. Culture has a way of disintegrating and getting isolated in the American West. Sometimes it’s tourism.; culture inherently eliminated as it arrives. Development does the same thing; the Walmart’s, the interstate highways that bypass the actual towns. Small communities are starved in the sense that small farms and businesses wither away.

In the remote canyons and open deserts homesteads crumble to the ground. Old ruins of cliff dwellings and pueblos whisper of some way of life unimaginable to modern souls. Sit me down in an old mud brick ruin and let me watch the wicked wind thrash the world about. Nature and time, hand in hand, sweep us under the dust as we blindly build build build in our ugly sprawling valleys.

Somehow I never really got to “find myself” on these many thousands of miles I’ve hiked. In fact I know myself less than ever, everything about me often feels ambiguous, like I have a disorder that involves always adapting to my environments instead of developing defined traits. I know less about myself but I know more about my country. In a strange way I’ve become more of a patriot than I ever though possible. That patriotism is quiet though, and is solely a love of the land. I care not for what the country stands for, for what its politicians do, for its history. If I could I would reverse it all because my patriotism is for what’s been destroyed, desecrated, and what’s been privatized. Having cut myself on barbed wire fences more times than I can count, having watched bears follow fence lines for miles looking for a way to cross back into the mountains, having seen the mines, the dams, the over grazing, I’ve become an uncomfortable man. Nonetheless, I am very much a patriot of these landscapes I know so well.

When I hit the trail the long distance hike is a long exodus, never complete; an ongoing pursuit of a simplicity that can’t quite be achieved. It is the futile exorcism of my humanity. For me it is an unbearable and ecstatic search for nowhere in particular.

I’m sure my views don’t apply to many people other than myself. My ideas focus on the solitary hike, not the shared experience. Thanks for reading my ramblings. I’m on a 9 hour grey dog back to my car in Phoenix. The bus is packed to the gills and my head aches. Just like when I was a kid seeing farmland and rolling hills for the first time, I see these empty deserts and wonder whats out there, yearning to pass through them for no civilized reason.

-Nate

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