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Slower Motion: The Joy Of Dilly-Dally In An Age Of Speed

Susan Marsh asks: how much of nature registers if we are zooming through it?

The night sky rewards a hiker and caresses a quiet knoll at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park.  Photograph by  Neal Herbert/NPS
The night sky rewards a hiker and caresses a quiet knoll at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park. Photograph by Neal Herbert/NPS
I once went to a party in Bozeman, where I lived in the early 1980s, after a five-day backpack in the Beartooths. When I started telling a friend about the trip she said she’d recently run the 26 miles from East Rosebud Lake to the Russell Creek trailhead in one day. 


My first reaction was, not wow, but why? She said she wanted to challenge herself. Hearing about it made my trail-hardy knees and ankles ache. That was my first introduction to the concept that one might want to go fast and cover lots of backcountry in a short time. 

Frieda’s desire for this kind of personal challenge, and my lack of it, struck me. I didn’t consider it a challenge to put 30 to 40 pounds in a backpack and hike for a few hours between camps. My husband and I took it easy, even allowing ourselves a layover day. 

Unlike Frieda, I wanted to maximize my time in the mountains, leaving plenty to take off the pack and dawdle. That was the point of going as far as I was concerned.

On the layover day we hiked along the crest of the range where I found a big wad of newly-shed mountain goat fleece stuck to some krumholz. I stuffed it into a side pocket and took it home where I spun it into yarn and made a hat. I still have it, and its light-weight warmth brings back Fossil Mountain and the exposed slabs of granite on the way up that set like colossal stairs between patches of soft green carpet: rush and sedge and heather, columbine and fleabane embroidering its borders. 

It brings back the view of an exposed granite plateau spreading out below, fissures in the rock opening into deep indigo lakes. I can place myself in my mind’s eye to a boulder where I sat with my lunch and a water bottle, the sun’s heat on my back and a cool breeze in my hair, surrounded by silence. 

Some people don’t have the time or temperament to dilly-dally or engage in nature study, and there have been many times when I haven’t wanted to either. But with age and decades of wandering in the same region, I have found my attitude changing from one of excitement and adventure to one of fond familiarity. My  only regret is what I didn’t see or wasn’t aware of.  It’s like flying over the West at 500 miles per hour. How much do you actually grasp of the richness below? 

I’m less inclined to drive for hours to explore someplace new than to visit a favorite friend—an aspen stand, a nameless spring where someone left an enameled cup for the convenience of the thirsty, a ridgeline etched with intermittent game trails where I need both hands to count the mountain ranges I can see—all within a couple of miles from home.

I may start out with a destination in mind but it’s rather like trying to follow an outline while writing a story—unexpected things come up and divert my attention, suggesting a route that might be better than the one I had planned. Almost imperceptibly my mind begins to drift, even if my feet don’t get it right away. From some unseen shadow along the trail the first painted lady of the season takes flight. Mare’s tails sweep across the sky between forested ridges. A grouse sneaks behind a spruce trunk, clucking at me. Soon I have left myself and my plans behind. 

This experience differs little from how it feels to focus on anything, whether climbing a mountain or knitting a sweater. I’m not dismissing the value of challenge and adventure but I worry that in our search for it we’re inadvertently changing the backcountry with our growing numbers and technology. I worry that our attitude is changing, that we’re replacing the thrill of simply being in wild nature to relegating it to the role of scenic backdrop for our ever-more extreme sports.

We’ve made the world smaller with air transport and instant communications. We’ve made the universe a little smaller with our landings on the moon and Mars. While not denying the benefits of our inventions, there are times when I want to be put in my place the way I was as a child when I looked up to a sky full of uncountable stars. Dark skies and wild country, approached with a sense of wonder, can heal the vacuum inside me after a harried, hurried day.
We race to work and home again, always on the clock, hurriedly getting from point A to B, often without bothering to notice the revelations that are there for us along the way.
We race to work and home again, always on the clock, hurriedly getting from point A to B, often without bothering to notice the revelations that are there for us along the way.
The Irish theologian John O'Donohue has written, “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the reverent presence.” The key word here is reverence—the earth is not our plaything, but our sustenance to which we owe our lives. Looked at this way, we become part of, not apart from, the rest of creation.

One can experience reverence in many ways and in many places. I can sit on a picnic table beside a highway and feel it when I look to the high mountains beyond, but I really start to feel it when I leave the roadside. 

Reverence is, as far as I can tell, on the decline these days. I don’t refer to religious devotion, but a broader sense of our place in the greater world that inspires humility instead of hubris. Instead of calling the most mundane accomplishment awesome—a word that’s totally lost its perfect meaning—we can allow ourselves to experience awe

The ability to feel awe requires a stepping-away from day to day existence. It might be forced on us by weather as we hunker at home without power while lightning casts the world in flashes of eerie light. I can’t conjure awe by willpower but I can invite it, and when it seeps into me I feel a nearly-forgotten connection with history, prehistory, and the mystery of life on earth. Awe can be inspired by fear of the divine or the wonders of creation, and it seems to me a precursor for reverence. It means admitting that we aren’t as smart as we think we are.

With reverence, I break through the shell of me-ness, expanding the things I care about to include the natural world, as Aldo Leopold advocated long ago. It’s long past time to take his advice and live by an environmental ethic instead of mainly talking about it. 

While Matthew Fox has been denigrated by some for promoting what he calls creation spirituality, I think he’s onto something major. Before retirement, I walked to work in the early mornings, and instead of worrying about the emails and phone messages that awaited me I thought of Fox’s admonition to “fall in love three times a day.” I didn’t have much trouble finding things to fall in love with on the silent sidewalks of a winter morning: a raven’s breath streaming out in a small cloud at ten below, frost reflecting the glow from a streetlight. Thinking this way helped me pay attention, and filled me with reverence for everything I saw.

Where is the reverence for our world? Americans want bigger cars, bigger houses. We want to do more and do it faster and do it now. Along with making the world smaller, we’ve been making my beloved backcountry smaller. The speed with which we try to do as much as possible extends to the lunch-hour run, the after-work bike ride, the weekend of summit-bagging. Even those of us who are retired have to cram in a quick excursion between grocery runs, volunteer work, and other obligations.
The fact remains that the faster you can travel the more miles of trail you need for an hour’s ride. The more people want to go farther and faster, the more our influence will penetrate the backcountry.  
How can a vast region like Greater Yellowstone ever be diminished by our use? Most of it isn’t, unless you include the effects of climate change and air pollution drifting in from afar. The crowds are largely concentrated along the highways and major destinations, and the backcountry sees a very small percentage of the total recreation use. 

Vast wild country with easy access is one of the attributes that makes this region so attractive. Access includes over 7,000 miles of roads and 10,000 miles of trail, along with uncountable off-trail destinations—lakes, peaks, and waterfalls—with beaten paths leading to them. With so much at our doorsteps, we fail to notice the way we’re eating away at the edges.

I’ve seen much change in the backcountry areas closest to our growing towns. The progression from untouched to people-dominated is easy to miss on a day-to-day basis, but monitoring shows that trails have grown wider, longer and more numerous. The bare ground in well-used campsites and trail junctions spreads. Weeds follow in our footsteps. Places where we used to see more wildlife than people are becoming crowded.

The newer modes of transport have a considerable effect. I am not knocking mountain bikes—we have five bikes in our garage. And motorized trailbikes have long been allowed on some national forest trails. But the fact remains that the faster you can travel the more miles of trail you need for an hour’s ride. The more people want to go farther and faster, the more our influence will penetrate the backcountry.  
When motors drown out the natural sounds, or when the focus is on the ground, making sure one doesn't crash by rock or tree, does it really matter whether you are in a wild place or not?
When motors drown out the natural sounds, or when the focus is on the ground, making sure one doesn't crash by rock or tree, does it really matter whether you are in a wild place or not?
Add to this the changes in the way people engage in more traditional activities. When I worked for the Forest Service we took numerous complaints in the fall about illegal use of ATVs and people hiring private helicopters to scout elk. Ranger districts were snowed under with requests for permits to guide, hold races and other events, and to expand the range of activities offered. Some took it upon themselves to cut out new trails in places that were formerly pretty wild. People used to ski into the high bowls; now some who want turns instead of tours use snowmobiles to reach even higher bowls and cut down on approach time. 

Technology has freed snowmobiles from the gentle, groomed trails and in the right snow conditions you can go just about anywhere.  I once spent six hours touring the south end of the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail and still had a quarter tank of gas. Increased penetration of backcountry is taking place year-round.

Wilderness is not immune from the increasing human imprint, though it is more due to our numbers than different ways to get there. We practice leave-no-trace, knowing that even the lightest touch leaves a trace, whether we can see it or not. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try. 

Take the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, a long narrow area on the west slope of the Tetons. Because of its shape, it’s easy to cross as a day hike and reach choice camps in a few hours. Monitoring shows that vegetation loss at high-use campsites has exceeded forest plan standards for years and is not improving. One popular trail saw encounters as high as 37 people per mile in an area where five encounters per mile is the standard.  The encounter standard is now exceeded in many of the wildest parts of the Jed Smith about a third of the time.  This is an area meant to be ‘untrammeled’ (look it up) and managed to preserve its wilderness character for the future.

People might say, so what? It’s not as if seeing others on the trail is the worst thing that could happen. But how many more people can the trails accommodate before they feel crowded? How crowded can the wilderness become before it isn’t really wilderness anymore? 
How crowded can the wilderness become before it isn’t really wilderness anymore? 
The trend toward concentrated recreation use in the backcountry wouldn’t matter that much if it were only about people—we’re used to crowds. But these natural areas are the reason we have the abundance and variety of wildlife that we claim to care for. It’s their home. 

Wildlife disturbance, weed proliferation, and erosion at stream crossings and campsites have been well documented over the years, and while each point of disturbance may be small, there are more of them every year. The trend toward more people and greater disturbance is unlikely to change, as our towns keep growing and outdoor recreation increasingly becomes their economic mainstay. I worry that we won’t know if we’ve created a monster until it’s too late.

Locally, the Forest Service seems to have come to terms with the expanding human imprint. Places that used to be backcountry are now called front-country, with networks of multi-use trails designed to accommodate many. The trails are well designed and otherwise great, but I don’t hear much about what they mean for wildlife. It’s rare to find any kind of baseline survey before a new trail is built. Later, you can’t say for sure whether the trail has created wildlife displacement or not, unless, as happened here a few years back, it was discovered after the fact that one new trail passed right under a great gray owl nest.

Easily accessed trails are mostly at lower elevations, which are generally drier, with less snow pack and shorter winters. This is our wildlife winter range for the most part. It’s the transition between winter range outside the forest boundary and higher-elevation habitats used the rest of the year, and is typically a limiting factor for big game populations (except where supplemental feeding is established). Instead of continuous forest, plant communities tend to be more diverse, with smaller niches of mountain shrub complexes, sagebrush and wildflowers, aspen, mahogany, and juniper. Edges are the rule—and wildlife, from elk to bluebirds, like edges.
Thomas Merton wrote, "solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it."  Photo courtesy Flickr user David Abercrombie: https://www.flickr.com/photos/albategnius
Thomas Merton wrote, "solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it." Photo courtesy Flickr user David Abercrombie: https://www.flickr.com/photos/albategnius
The question we must answer is this: do we want to continue transforming backcountry into front-country, and to consign all of the front-country to intensive human use? Or shall we save a few places for the Townsend’s solitaires and the junipers they depend on, for deer and elk to travel from valley floor to the mountains with a minimum of disturbance, for the owls and the meadow voles they eat? 

I don’t know how we’ll answer such questions, but I hope—in the face of increasing population and tourism and a regional business model that leans heavily on the benefits of outdoor recreation—that we’ll at least remember to ask them.

“The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the reverent presence.” I might amend John O’Donohue’s quote to say the earth awaits our reverent presence—period. I hope it doesn’t have to wait much longer.
Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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