Saturday, February 23, 2019

Are We Approaching "Peak Route"?

Nobody remembers John O'Sullivan anymore. But we do remember that famous phrase he coined in an 1844 newspaper editorial - "Manifest Destiny". As you may remember from high school history class, Manifest Destiny was the idea that the United States had a sort of God-given national birthright: to expand from Atlantic to Pacific and, who knows, perhaps beyond. On some level, the causes of the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the the Indian Wars can all be traced back to the policies and attittudes of Manifest Destiny. 

This, the age of Manifest Destiny, was also the age of the Wild West. Scholars still debate exactly how "wild" the Wild West truly was, but that is not my concern here. In our collective imagination at least, the Wild West was a time of limitless possibilities, blank spaces on a map, land there for the taking. The untamed nature of the West offered many possibilities. Technology had improved - railroads, barbed wire, and better weapons had allowed settlers to cobble together a living in a place that was previously inaccessible or inhospitable. So to speak, the West had "opened" for settlement.

Before I lose too many more readers, let's tie this back to the outdoors. Like the West in the 1860's, backpackers finally have technology that allows us to go farther and explore previously inaccessible places. Of course, there are the obvious improvements in gear. New fabrics and designs mean that it's relatively easy to cobble together a backpacking setup that's lightweight and comfortable - a setup we could only dream about a few decades ago. But more importantly than gear, navigation technology has improved in leaps and bounds. The single most important backpacking development in the past decade, in my opinion, has been the proliferation of mapping software.

Consider, for a moment, a backpacking route I planned and hiked in 2016 in the Beartooth Range in Montana. In decades past, I probably wouldn't even know that the Beartooths existed. But if I did, and if I knew that they were an amazing backpacking destination, I still would have needed to purchase a dozen individual maps from the USGS, each costing around $10. And after planning my route, I still would wouldn't know if that off-trail pass is actually hikeable - or if that forest burned to a crisp last year. But with the recent rise in navigational technology, I could lay out my route on Caltopo, a free site. I could add an overlay to show recent burn areas. And I could browse a site like Peakbagger or Summitpost to see what established travel routes exist over that off-trail pass. Twenty years ago, planning my route would have been nigh-impossible. Now, it's a piece of cake. 

But although technology opens new frontiers, it closes them just as quickly. The very thing that those early settlers sought - abundant land, freedom from entrenched power structures, the opportunity for adventure, a fresh start - soon disappeared, as more people moved west, seeking those very things. For example, Kentucky was once the frontier, but after it was settled, pioneers moved ever farther west, trying to stay ahead of the creep of urbanization. And that tide didn't crest until nearly every square inch of arable land was tilled, grazed, or drilled. In 1860, only a hardy handful of white Americans lived between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada. By 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner had sufficient reason to plausibly declare that the frontier had been closed. Only three decades had elapsed.

The same thing is true in the backpacking world. The Appalachian Trail was once the common and the familiar - the "back east", both literally and figuratively. But then, as the AT increased in popularity, folks started hiking the PCT in greater numbers. And more of those PCT veterans started hiking the formerly wild-and-untamed CDT. And now that the CDT is becoming popular, hikers are turning in greater number to other routes - for example, the Hayduke Trail, the Sierra High Route, or the Grand Enchantment Trail. I hiked the Hayduke Trail in sections over the course of four years. And over the course of those years, I saw a surge in its popularity. In an era of tools that allow us to venture off the beaten path, those off-trail routes we create quickly become beaten paths themselves.

There are still many blank spaces on our collective long-distance hiking map. There are no established long-distance routes through many unique and spectacular US landscapes. But it's just a matter of time before we collectively fill them in.

Some energy-industry analysts believe that we are approaching (or have reached) "peak oil" - a time period when technology allows us to drill for petroleum with ever-increasing efficiency, but there are still plenty of available reserves left to drill without an overwhelming amount of effort. Similarly, I believe we're at "peak route" in the backpacking world. The technology is there. The access and the information is there. There's still exploring left to be done. But this age won't last forever.

So then, how then shall we live? Why is it important to recognize this particular moment in time, this transition period between the supposedly untamed wilds of yesterday and the defined, mapped, domesticated lands of tomorrow? I suggest two "key takeaways", to borrow the corporate lingo:

1) We must respect those who are already there. The dirty little secret of Manifest Destiny, of course, is that those western lands were never vacant, just waiting to be claimed by largely white Americans. They were home to millions of people - Indians who had lived there for hundreds or thousands of years. To the extent that the lands were vacant, it's only because the pre-existing populations were massacred, infected, or forcibly re-settled to make room for the incoming pioneers.

Similarly, when we lay down a new hiking route through a wild place, we must consider carefully the impact that that route has on the local population. One person trespassing on private land may not pose a significant problem, but what happens when that one person becomes ten, or a hundred? What happens to lower-income locals when many (generally well-educated and affluent) outdoorsy people move to Moab, Bend, or Bozeman, causing costs-of-living to spike? What happens when a well-meaning hiker posts a friendly local's email address on the internet, and soon that person is inundated with requests from strangers?

2) We must take deliberate action to keep some places truly wild. It's no coincidence that the world's first National Park (Yellowstone, in 1872) was established during the opening of the West. And, had we not acted during that time, our national treasures - places like Yosemite and Sequoia - likely would have been courdoned off, dammed, or developed. The short-sighted folks of that era would have deprived future generations of the opportunity to experience these amazing places.

Similarly, we must carefully consider whether or not to published a route - to make available a planning guide, map set, and GPX file. Does my route in this very wild place deprive future hikers of the opportunity to create their own route through largely uncharted territory? Am I killing their sense of exploration? I got a taste of this with the aforementioned Beartooths route. In the middle of the planning process, I posted it online to get feedback from people who knew the area better than I did. Lo and behold, the incomparable Cam "Swami" Honan, who was also planning a Beartooths trip, found my maps online and used them as a basis for his own adventure. This is of course fine (Swami is extremely conscientious and I trust him to treat our public lands with respect), but I do worry that my maps deprived him of the satisfaction of planning and executing a route through virgin territory.

I have mapped some routes through truly amazing places - routes that I will never make public. It's not because others shouldn't visit those places. It's so when they do visit those places, they'll have that same amazing sense of discovery that I did.

The purveyors of the Manifest Destiny concept got one thing right - expansion is seeming inevitable. To fight the trend of new backpacking routes would be a fool's errand. Information wants to be free. And frankly, I appreciate the proliferation of backpacking routes, and of the tools necessary to make them. But now, more than ever, it's important to be thoughtful with how we go about the task.


  1. "How then *shall* we live?" is an important question to ask ourselves every day.