Why the Locals Hate You

A piece of purple plastic lay atop a bank of fresh snow. I bent down and picked it up. There were more shards of purple plastic below on the hill. It was a cheap sled that had been purchased and used and discarded in the parking lot. I stepped over the bank, dug my heals in and let my weight slide me to the bottom. The sled had splintered in the cold, and each piece I picked up left two more behind. Once I had gathered them all, I climbed back to the top and tossed them in the bed of my truck where they would rattle around with a supply of open water bottles, beer cans, and other trash on the drive back down the highway to my office.
The day was reminiscent of my first winter in Chicago. The city was blanketed with fresh white powder in the evening, giving it the appearance of a place that was pure and clean. By morning, the snow was a steel gray, covered with soot from industry and passing cars. The snow and ice would slowly melt on the warmer days revealing layer upon layer of forgotten receipts, stray gloves, and piles of dog poo. Each storm cycle brought a moment of refreshing cleanliness followed by a day of dirt and deterioration. A city that glimmered in its winter coat became dingy and old with the beginning of thaw.
That was how it happened on the mountain, though the natural landscape usually held an expectation of purity in its own right. Gleaming snow hung heavily on the branches of pines and firs. It appeared in its enormity over the vast hills of the landscape removing all trace of human existence except near the pull outs and ski slopes where people parked and left their temporary marks. Objects left behind were buried each storm, only to be recovered in a wet pile at winter’s end.
I am a transplant. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco, moved to the Inland Empire, then to the Windy City, before establishing my roots in a small town low in the Sierra Nevada. I no longer travel to the woods to find solace, I live there. In the years since I have become a “local” I have seen many treasures of the forest. Not only are their National Parks like Yosemite that bring millions of visitors a year, but there are off-the-beaten-path campgrounds and hiking trails to jewel-like lakes that rarely receive the warmth of human contact. There are waterfalls, ancient groves of trees, canyons, and peaks. There is beauty and there is adventure. It is no wonder that so many people make the long trek from their homes amongst the populous to seek out their own bit of peace. Each year, especially since America’s recovery from the recession, more vacationers opt for the closer and less expensive camping retreat over the cost of a luxury vacation.
But with the millions of people who flood the forests in the summer and winter months comes as much garbage as each can carry with them. Most people are ingrained with a sense of respect for the wildlands they encounter. Most people make the extra effort to clean up after themselves. Most, but not all. It seems there are always purple plastic sleds, diapers, water bottles, gloves, and scraps of paper left behind by people unwilling to cart their refuse back down the highway where the trash had once been novelty product. Once one person drops a candy wrapper in the snow, more are sure to follow. And each time a wild treasure is discovered by the public it becomes exposed and defiled. Spray painted graffiti coats ancient granite and discarded garments take rest in the duff. Beer cans and bottle caps litter the places that one group of people sought haven for a day. Each time this happens, dedicated locals who have spent their lives in these natural surroundings grow more resentful of tourists as their little gems lose their luster. These same people carry trash bags on their packs wherever in the forest they travel. Instead of fishing and swimming, they spend their days off walking the river’s edge collecting cans, plastic, and paper scraps.
I sympathize with them. I want those places to remain hidden and pristine. But being a transplant they are not my birthright. I, like many, only know of the most beautiful places because I gained the trust of the locals. I have kept those secrets sheltered, but with the influx of visitors, those secrets have slipped out into the open by people who are probably more trustful of their neighbors and friends. People who are not stewards of the land, who can leave a place trashed knowing that whatever they have left will be gone the next time they make the long trip, make their way to last of the beautiful places. I know there is no stopping the migration of people. I accept it. I want people to share in my experiences, but I want them to do it as a guest to nature, not a force of dominance.
I have made my living as an educator and a steward of the land. I have spent many hours cleaning up after the slovenly few who have desecrated our forests. I will spend many more. But I continue to advocate the human right to enjoy natural spaces. Please respect your public lands and take your plastic with you.

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