Memorial Day Musings

In which our author ponders computer tipping points, holiday swarming and cairn cluelessness
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In which our author ponders computer tipping points, holiday swarming and cairn cluelessness

"Like ions shot from the sun, the week-enders radiate from every town, generating heat and friction as they go."

So wrote the naturalist Aldo Leopold, describing Wisconsin in the 1940s. And those were prophetic words indeed, as anyone who got outside over Memorial Day weekend can attest. Here in southern Utah, the recreational arms race was in full swing, with long lines of RVs, ATV-laden trailers, and obnoxiously loud motorcycles clogging the highways despite cold, rainy weather.

Traffic was loco so I stayed local, doing some techno catch-up by slapping a pair of 1.5-terabyte hard drives into the Hal 9000 desktop and hooking it back up to Skynet. I also got a lot of mountain biking done on backroads around Capitol Reef, dodging small but intense hailstorms. Some of these mini-monsoons were less than 100 yards across, with an uncanny demarcation line between rain and dry. I could ride right up, watch the maelstrom from yards away as hail bounced past my feet, then turn around and ride off dry. Freaky but very cool.

I'm always torn about traditional outdoor holidays like Memorial Day. Tourism is the ostensibly sustainable economy here, and it's great to see so many people enjoying nature. But it's equally distressing to see how many pilgrims carelessly trash such a magnificent place.

One of the unique and wonderful things about southern Utah is the freeform roadside camping on most BLM and National Forest land here. With a little probing and curiosity, you can throw down on a five star site most anywhere. No permits. No hassles. Just coyotes howling and a million stars twinkling in a jet black sky. But that's also one of the worst things about southern Utah, because in the absence of rigid rules, all too many herd monkeys immediately cut loose with the impacts. And that phenom gets real pronounced on big holidays.

Cycling around the trailheads and car camps on Sunday afternoon, the denuded patches and tire tracks had grown noticeably since Thursday. There were more fire circles and fewer tree limbs. White dots of toilet paper blossomed across the hillsides. It was like geologic time revved up to visible speed. I don't think the problem is education or lack thereof; I think a lot of people, even active greenies, just get lazy whenever no one's looking and they're hot, tired, hung over, or it's 3 a.m. and the weather's bad. So they skate.

At various intervals I dumped the bike and went on short trail runs to restore blood flow to my sphinctoral areas. Trailside cairns (called "ducks" in certain backwater subcultures like California and the Pacific Northwest) had roughly doubled over the weekend too. Confession time here: I'm a cairn hater. I'll admit they have their uses, but cairns are most often misused and useless.

Sure, cairns are a historical form of trail marking, like tree blazes. In the beleaguered alpine regions of the Appalachians, they channel impacts across the tundra to preserve already rare environments. In Utah's High Uintas, shoulder-high cairns from the 1930's form the route across miles of rock-embedded tundra. Well-placed cairns can provide routefinding hints at critical trip junctions, and keep people on the path of least impact.. But most cairns standing in the American wilderness today are just plain dumb, and over recent decades their population has exploded.

Now you can find canyons in southern Utah where it would be impossible to get off route without soloing up a thousand foot cliff, yet there will be a line of cairns every 100 feet for miles down the hallway. And then there are art cairns, built by various self-styled Druids for artistic, egotistic or spiritual reasons. These began appearing in the mid 1990s as some form of New Age pseudo-art. I'm quite sure the ancient Celts who built Stonehenge would have slaughtered these wannabes just for sport, but now the Needles of Canyonlands sport 1,000-pile cairn gardens. Waves of tourists keep trying to build similar graffiti piles in Capitol Reef, the Escalante, along Oregon's Rogue River, around the Middle Fork's hot springs, in Alaska's Chugach Range, and beside various High Sierra tarns.

This beaverlike building impulse goes far beyond cairns. The mountains around Sedona, Arizona are littered with ambitious New Age altars and shrines. Last week I found a 50-foot faux Medicine Wheel of rocks, bone and feathers atop a mesa in Utah's San Rafael Swell - a sure sign the zombies are moving northward. In Glacier, Christian groups use permanent markers to write testimonies on rocks and pile those atop high passes. I've even begun to find carved monument stones with slogans and symbols and names chiseled expertly into their surfaces. I pitched one such intricately carved boulder (touting "The Five Key Points of Leadership") from the summit of Kings Peak, Utah's highest mountain. Fortunately the chiseler was not present, for I daresay violence might occurred.

My biggest problem with cairns, however, is not that so many are monuments to primate stupidity, but that

so many cairns are off-route, clearly built by people who were lost or nearly so, and hence more liability than help. Many hikers assume that cairns were built by someone with knowledge or authority. That may be so in the case of some venerable 8-foot rockpile on Mt Washington or Katahdin, but in most cases cairns were built by people who shouldn't be building cairns.

On rugged Colorado Fourteeners like Pyramid Peak or the Maroon Bells, you'll find off-route cairns spread across most faces of both mountains. In southern Utah, off-route cairns are far more likely to draw you astray than onward, simply because so many visitors are floundering, understandably unfamiliar with the incised, mazelike topography. They leave small cairns assuming they'll topple them on return - but then return via the correct route 100 or 200 yards away, leaving the erroneous cairns unmolested in a sort of reverse selection process.

Another problem with all cairns, on-route or not, is that cairns never state their purpose. They aren't signs saying 'trailhead this way' or 'turn here for water'. They can mean anything, lead anywhere. In fact, when you encounter a rockpile in the woods, the only thing it tells you for sure is that someone once stacked rocks there. It could be an old group rendezvous spot, a mine claim, a cache that was later removed, a cattle track, a signal to leave the trail here, or simply the spot where someone got bored. And if that cairn was built to mark your intended route, there's a good chance it's in the wrong place anyway.

So use cairns like you would a game trail. They're great for simplifying travel, and often mark the best short-term route. But never trust them for actual guidance, and never "believe" cairns without additional evidence or context. Think twice before building any cairn, even one you plan to kick. And if you simply must make artsy sculpture in the wilderness, at least scatter it when you leave, sand-painting-style. And never feel shy about kicking down lame cairns - or picking up some trash along your local trail. Don't worry, they'll both grow back soon enough. Hike safe, and lightly. --Steve Howe