In Midwestern America, in the place where Buckeyes live, there is a waterfall that is truly gorgeous. It was given a name that is quickly “Google-able” by a person who discovered and photographed it, but since this waterfall is on someone else’s property, it’s not really his place to name, even though, like Columbus, he rediscovered it in a way that guarantees that his beautiful artwork will gather a lot of attention for himself and the waterfall.
More importantly than publicizing his photographic career, the family who owns the place that this waterfall is on has stated in Internet posts regarding this fall’s privacy that they are tired of cleaning up the garbage people leave behind. They clearly love their land and the beauty it offers, but they don’t like paying liability insurance to protect themselves against whatever COULD happen on their property, which shouldn’t be since it is private property and the trees are clearly adorned with “No Trespassing” signs.
Nevertheless, “hikers” will still go back to the falls and find ways around the sign. Some postings say it’s as simple as bushwhacking back on the other side of the creek. Other people flip the owners the metaphorical and real finger as they go back to this place despite the warnings of prosecution while bragging about their invasion.
In the end, it is what it is… another waterfall lost to people’s poor behavior.
Would people be allowed back to this site if they asked nicely? Perhaps, but at this point in time, it’s irrelevant since the land is private property. Besides, there is enough publicity and exposure for said anonymous falls that it’s not like they can’t be seen legally, it’s just that they can’t be seen in person.
And why is one little cliff that spouts water to the pitch pool beneath it so dang popular? In reality, the pictures are Photoshopped and angled perfectly so that the viewer thinks that these antelope shaped walls are much bigger than they actually are. The water is also flowing better than it does in the mostly dry season. In short, it’s the view of a lifetime with a lot of cosmetic surgery applied to it. Is it better than the rest of the falls that are on public property, ones that feature names that are universal since they are viewable to every person who comes along with a camera, walking stick, dog, gaggle of friends, or his / her lonesome self? I can’t say for sure. I’ve never been to these, and due to the privacy issues, I won’t be intruding.
But see, it still begs the question of why did we lose this waterfall (and many other waterfalls and vistas that still adorn guidebooks).
In my time, I’ve asked permission for one backyard waterfall, which was included in a really hastily thrown together tome of waterfalls in the state that I was in at the time. I knocked on the owner’s door, and when I asked permission, I was given it without hesitation. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t look like a 20-year old kid looking to have a beer party. Maybe it’s because I asked permission. Nevertheless, I asked politely, and I received. However, I didn’t stay long because there wasn’t much to see, and because I also felt kind of intrusive when the owner said that he has a lot of “guests” who couldn’t bother to knock. He didn’t mind giving permission to those people who do, but that sense of “uninvited guests” really stuck with me.
As I sit writing this book, I am aware of what writing a book about beautiful waterfalls and vistas is all about. On one hand, it’s me showcasing my biography as told through great places to visit, but I’m also opening a Pandora’s Box to anyone who wants to find the falls. For that, it’s my conscious decision to name the falls as they have been christened or to change their names. That’s a tough call since there are already guidebooks that feature the names of these places.
In the case of Ricketts Glen, these falls are featured in tons of books and even on a list of 1,000 places that people must see throughout all of the nooks and crannies of America. Due to this fact, it’s hard to rename it as something else and hope the hordes stay away. Besides, they’ve already found it. Their trash and graffiti has found it. Their feet are on the trails, and the music from their boom boxes fills the air. At best, by calling this a temple, we can get people to patrol the trails to keep away the smoke, the cannonball kids, the indiscriminate swimmers, the wannabe “artists,” the garbage men, and those people who are a danger to the living and the dead, if only we educate them to the fact that rocks and icicles are better where they are until Nature moves them herself. If nothing else, maybe someone, the right person, will venture into the woods of Sullivan County and see this magical place on a weekday and see it as it was meant to be seen… nearly empty and flowing freely. Maybe this person will take a picture, write a poem, publish a blog, or just tell a story at the lunch table and start a movement. I’m not sure if I can do that, but being involved with trail groups means that I am a voice for change, and if this is what it takes, then I blast my horn to the heavens and say, “Now is the time…”
But what is it time for?
In woodland literature, the biggest evil is a character named Katz in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. He is horribly out of shape, and he throws his stuff all over the trail when he can’t carry it. For this, he is a greater danger to American than Isis, Global Warming, fracking, unemployment, pyramid schemes, rape, and murder combined. Nevertheless, for the fact that he has “left his trace” and the retold humor isn’t funny to a lot of overly sensitive types (and the reality wouldn’t be acceptable to hikers as a whole), there is a point that those detractors are bringing out and that is about “what’s right” in the natural playgrounds. For this, many commercializations (i.e. movies) aren’t “right” in what they can do to Nature. The fear of A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild’s potential damage to the Appalachian Trail aren’t unfounded. After all, Into the Wild brought other wannabe victims to the Stampede Trail and that’s in the middle of nowhere Alaska. Aron Ralston’s bio-epic 127 Hours also brought tourists to Blue John Canyon’s elusive slot canyons and the Holy Ghost Panel in Canyonlands. In this, if the base of the Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton looks like a scene from Sanford and Son’s front lawn now, then imagine what it would look like if more hordes of party crazy teens find the swimming hole / beer party site down on the river! Imagine what would happen to all of those shelters for thru-hikers being occupied by throngs of people looking for a place to do whatever, however, with no regard for how to get their stuff out after they’ve dragged it in. The shelters are hard enough to get into already. Imagine if they’re filled with people who have no intention to hike the trail in sections or as a whole. Imagine if people have to drag out soaking wet sleeping bags and other assorted trash now, then what can we expect if the uncivilized world finds these pristine places?
Some people will say that this fear is unfounded because everyone deserves the right to find places, and that phrases like uncivilized could be construed as exclusive / racist / whatever, but I would say that a suburban slob can be just as bad as the stereotypical image of someone from the city or the trailer park, so people can look to find meaning in wherever it’s not. Besides, they’re going to do it anyway.
More importantly than to spend large amounts of time with that nonsense, I too will say that it is true that everyone deserves a shot at Nature. I’m a spokesman on behalf of the trails, and I’ve been known to yammer with people on the paths of my state about how “if you like this trail, you’ll love that trail!” I post my pictures. I encourage students and friends to get out and about. My life is the trail, and I have been brought to it by guidebooks and speakers who tell me where I can go to enjoy myself, but how can I balance the feeling that everyone deserves an opportunity to “play with my toys” in the same way that I was introduced to their toys with my need to protect the vested ownership that I and those who are already here have in protecting our home turf from those who might ransack it?
For this, I feel like Andy in Toy Story 3. You can play with some of my toys, but you can’t have them. You can come share in the joy I feel with these toys, but I’m not going to let you play with my favorite toys when I just meet you. Sharing is cool, but I need to check you out first before I let you in on my private joy. After I smell you out and check to make sure you’re cool, things will probably be different (we both seem like good people), and you’ll obtain the rights and privileges, but until then…
This probationary period / angst is the same thing that hunters / fishermen like my dad feel when they have to wander around all of the people that have found their way to his “secret” spots. When the whole area is filled up early in the morning, there is a sense of exploitation and extinction of possibility. In some ways, this isn’t unlike having to move from the Kodak Picture Moment right after the shot is snapped.
It’s one thing to shoot the breeze or stare at the skyline with kindred souls. It’s another thing to dodge their dogs, pick up their garbage, provide medical treatment to their unprepared kids, or have to unsuccessfully offer psycho-therapy to people who have no business in places that are above their pay-grades as I am left there to stand witness to them falling down a flight of stairs face first.
And yes, we all start somewhere as inexperienced schlubs / accidents waiting to happen. We’re all novices once. We all should be less than 98.6° because of dumb stuff we did early on, either being frozen as a Popsicle until April or as that permanent coffin temperature that comes when someone scrapes up our remains and brings them back home in a bucket. That’s what part of this story is about, but so too is knowledge and overcoming adversity, even if it’s how we are our biggest enemy in becoming what we are meant to be.
However, way back when Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire in 1968, he knew the consequences of what was happening to the West, long before it became saleable as a spread out amusement park of a tourist destination (and that was 100-200 years after we exploited and built up the East). While he believed that “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches- that is the right and privilege of any free American,” he wasn’t totally sold on the idea of bringing just anyone in. For this he regaled his readers with stories of amazing places, but sometimes, he just never gave the names, or he told people that the places aren’t there as they once were so to not bother looking for them.
In the Walking Dead, Rick tells the people of the Alexandria Safe Zone that they have to be careful who they open their doors to, and that’s equally true in Nature. Everyone deserves a shot at the woods, but people build up an ethic and an appreciation in the lowlands and rolling hills that are close to home. If the first trip is the “be all end all,” then what’s to look forward to after this? If all it takes is having money to go somewhere and the knowledge that you can buy a trip to wherever, what’s special about the moment? Besides, people who buy moments don’t really live them in the same way as people who earn them.
On the flipside, it’s equally true that we’ve become reactionary in how we do close places like the Wave off to all but a select few, as if they were Cartmanland. This is another problem for the guidebook writer / tourist industry / hiking blogger. If we create a demand, we need to allow access or the backlogs of 1,000+ trying for 10 slots on a given day to get into Fantasyland will double and triple and nobody will ever get back there – even if we offer 10 more slots to 100 people willing to drive out into the middle of nowhere for a shot at getting in the next day.
And as I sit here pondering my great American story and how so much of my own salvation and meaning comes from the woods and mountains and waterfalls of my country (not to forget its culture and history), I realize that there is a great responsibility. However, for the things that I offer you, it’s what you do with them. It’s not my problem. I can give you a rope so you can climb to great heights, but you can choose to hang yourself with it. I could do the same with a gun, a knife, a condom, or a car. It’s just that I happen to be doing it with a computer.
Thus, if you are reading this story, remember that these places are special for a reason. Visit them as if you were entering a museum or a religious facility. Show respect. Be reverent. Take only pictures and leave only footprints. Tell stories when you come back. Invite friends to see the places, too, but raise a finger to your lips to “shhh” the fact that this is a special secret for you and the exclusive deserving few. If anyone could climb the heights, it wouldn’t be special. That’s why you can raise your barbaric yawp to the world for your successful ascent when you reach the Promised Land. You’ve made it man / gal!
However, if you need to see this place with an axe, a can of spray paint, a 6-pack of beer (or some other illegal substance), or any other device or object that allows you to hurt other people who might be enjoying the woodlands you’re now in, then turn around and buy another book. This one isn’t for you.
I think this is pretty straight forward.
That said, if you’re still reading, enjoy the book. I know I did.