At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.Toni Morrison
Yes, there really is a Solitude Trail, and it exists in a place outside of imagination and metaphor. It is a sixty mile loop that makes its way around the highest peaks of the Bighorn Mountains, leading to some extraordinary back country and, of course, solitude. Most of the trail is located in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area, named for the magnificent mountain that is the sentinel of that mountain range and is the second highest peak in Wyoming. A long scramble leads to its thirteen thousand foot summit, one of many side trips that can be added to the Solitude loop.
The first time I made that climb I sat on a large rock on the summit facing north, spread my map out in front me and looked at the world from this mountain top vista, much like the map on my lap, revealing every peak, valley, ridge and small lake. I made notations on the map of places that were not accessible by trail but nevertheless looked intriguing and seemed to offer better opportunities for solitude, as if the Solitude Trail was not solitary enough.
In fact, it is quite a popular trail. The Bighorns represent the eastern most range of the Rockies and therefore attract many hikers from the east coast and midwest, out west for a wilderness adventure in the Cowboy state. Outfitters carry these visitors on horseback, and large, well used campsites provide temporary quarters for these visitors who spread out well beyond their camp. It is also a popular attraction for locals like myself, and I hiked there often. Many of the trailheads were located only a short distance from my home near the western slope of the Bighorns, so I went for many day hikes amid those jagged peaks and over the passes to alpine lakes as well as longer overnight treks.
Over several years I hiked to most of those places I had marked on the map. Some of them turned out to be inaccessible, but I learned to find most of those unnamed lakes and pitched my tent next to them, then would explore further into the high country by following the ridge line away from the lake to wild places where the wind blew and large quartz crystals littered the barren landscape, sparkling in the sun. Although I never once saw any other hikers on these trips, there were usually signs of others having been there before me. Those isolated lakes often drew fishermen looking for waters where the fish could be lifted with ease on an undisturbed lake shore. My time was spent exploring the local terrain and, as usual, sipping tea while I read a book or wrote in my journal. On at least one occasion, this isolation required a near vertical scramble, which is no small task with a heavy pack, but the route led me to a meadow by a small lake, a place called Wilderness Basin, surrounded and hidden from view by rolling hills and ridges. It was well named.
All of these wonderful memories of wild and undisturbed places have come to mind because of an article I recently read in an on-line journal, The Collegian, by Dylan Tusinski. The author boldly titles it “Colorado is beautiful. Now stop hiking.”
You have read my posts in which I have struck the same chord. We are loving the wilderness to death. Still, the popular destinations near ski resorts in Colorado could hardly be compared to an isolated basin accessible only off trail. People had clearly been there before me, but very few indeed, and the signs of impact were minimal.
Then there is this harsh reality. A study by Colorado State University noted that the mere presence of hikers can negatively impact wildlife. Perhaps the best example of this fact is the habituation of bears on popular trails, essentially getting used to having hikers in their midst. Research is clear that such habituation increases the risk of dangerous encounters. Responsible storage of food and other bear precautions are only part of the solution. Our very presence makes it a problem. (See Bear Attacks by Stephen Herrero.)
I am fortunate to live in an area where there are rarely other vehicles parked at trailheads when I go for a hike. I am fortunate to have those memories of wild places off trail. And I have yet to be completely at peace with my own presence in those wild places. I am not ready to give up hiking, and, judging by the responses to Mr. Tuskinski’s article, neither are many others.
There is no question that hiking soothes the troubled soul. I believe myself to be a better person because I have hiked on mountain trails since I was a small child. I am most definitely a happier person for that same reason. Does my mental health, or anyone else’s, justify the harmful impact that throngs of hikers are now bringing to the trail each summer?
Perhaps a more meaningful question is how to minimize impact rather than eliminate it. I have chosen to address this problem by avoiding popular trails. I would like to say that I am motivated by a desire to protect the pristine wilderness, but in truth I am motivated more by a desire to protect my own fragile psyche. I do not like crowds, and I dislike even more camping in the midst of one. The presence of music blasting, loud chatter, uncovered piles of human feces, and even the smell of pot smoke drifting my way, is not my idea of a wilderness experience.
I am reminded of a set of crystal wine glasses I bought many years ago while traveling in Portugal. They were carefully packaged so as not to break on the trip home. When I got home I placed the entire package in a cabinet, fearful of breaking them. It was not until I moved to Wyoming several years later that I took the package of glasses out of a box, opened it up, and removed one glass, pouring myself a glass of chardonnay to celebrate the move. That was twenty-five years ago. Over the years I enjoyed and savored many sips of wine in those beautiful glasses, lifting the heavy crystal, grateful to be holding something beautiful in my hand.
Perhaps that is what we must do to preserve the wilderness. Hold it in our hearts. Savor it. Treat it gently. It is more fragile than crystal.