I’ve been toying with what to title this post most of the last 24 hours. Yesterday I went for a hike on a **very** busy Issaquah Alps trail. Given the amazing weather and the loosening mask mandates I fully expected hoards of people to take advantage of the trail and that’s, at least in part, what I was there for. But, even after a lifetime of hiking, I was surprised by the ignorance into which I’d plunged.
You see, as with most things, there are customs and habits that form amongst those of who do a thing all the time. These customs are a large part of what constitutes culture for those people. Anywhere there are people you will find culture, it’s a simple rule of thumb and easily understood and respected.
My earlier admission regarding the title of this post is important. I could have simply called this post “Trail Etiquette” and left it at that. Mundane and inconsequential, no one would have noticed and likely I would have added yet another contribution to the stack of discarded “don’t be an asshole on the trail” admonishments already on the internet.
Here’s the thing. It’s not mundane nor is it inconsequential. Etiquette, social rules and habits of a culture, form for very specific reasons. Sometimes for the very preservation of culture.
Beyond Trail Culture I don’t really have much. I’m not part of anything. I don’t have many friends nor am I part of any groups. I’ve got my family, but that’s tribe and not culture, per se. Besides, being part of this tribe has always, at least for me, meant being part of Trail Culture. So forgive me when I admit that I feel slighted when I see your dog poop bag left in the middle of the trail or when I get frustrated and angry that you don’t bother to let me by when I’m clearly out pacing you. It is personal, it is deeply troubling. You’ve come into my culture without bothering to understand the rules and left a bag of dog turds in it.
Some basics? Yeah, sure. Here’s some basic rules of thumb. Their easy. They make everyone’s life easier. And, bonus points, they show respect for my culture and the trail we’re both sharing.
- Yield to Uphill Traffic: To me this one seems obvious, but it’s apparently not. The rule is simple. If you’re going up you have right of way, if you’re going down you should yield to anyone going up. All that means for you downhill folks is pause for a moment, give those poor tired sloggers some room to pass, and then continue on your marry way. Don’t get angry that some schmuck just blocked your way. Do so appreciation if someone bothers to give you the trial for your climb.
- Dog Should Always Be on a Leash: “Oh but my dog is so good.” Hold up, let’s not make this about you and Fido. Let’s understand that you and Fido are not the only beings on the trail. Rather, you share it with me and all the other beings who occupy this ribbon of dirt and rock on the earth. This includes the squirrels and deer, mountain lions and bear, cute little pika and thieving marmots that may crisscross that path. Sure, dogs love to run off leash. That’s what dog runs and dog parks are for. Having trained more than one dog to walk hundreds of miles on trail with me I can assure you that there’s no amount of “training” you can give a canine which will prevent it from going after that wildlife.
- Music, Podcasts and Media are Not for Sharing: Holy cow, some of you folks can’t go two minutes without saucing your senses in some form of media, can you? On yesterday’s hike I stopped counting the number of people I saw and heard that were talking on their phones, listening to music or streaming media on their phones, or looking at something on their dadgum phones. Take a break people! Or at least, for the sake of everyone else’s sanity get some headphones.
Yes, Trail Culture is much deeper and broader than this. There are nuance and subtleties that I don’t always understand and I’ve been immersed in it my entire life. Whole books have been written about our customs, arts, social institutions and achievements, but these three rules are a sufficient introduction, follow them if you’re new to putting one foot in front of the other and don’t want to come off the trail feeling the laser focused glare of every veteran hiker burning a hole in your Patagucci raincoat.