On a recent city hike up 1,190 feet to the summit of Squaw Peak (more recently known as Piestewa Peak) in Phoenix Mountain Park, I noticed some considerable changes to the trail I used to hike 3-4 times a month but had not been back to in about a year since moving farther west in the valley.
Early on the path, I noticed the shoulders had been worn smooth and were devoid of desert grass and foliage, making the trail artificially wider than normal, a sign that more hikers have taken shortcuts to cut around bends or to avoid traffic jams.
Farther up, about a quarter mile from the summit, the trail became much steeper, and my heart rate topped at 184, but my heart and head sunk with shock when I glanced up from huffing and puffing to see the silver spray paint roughly adorning the rocks that were formed over 14 million years ago. Graffiti.
At the summit, I was greeted by more graffiti left by recent visitors, as well as graffiti of an ornamental kind.
As I made my way back down the trail, skirting rock obstacles, cell phone talkers, and poorly prepared tourists, I tried to make sense of the changes to the trail. On one hand, I find it reassuring that the trail is more traveled, but on the other, I wonder if these additional people are coming to stroke their egos, conquer a trail, and cross it off their list of Top Things to Do in Phoenix.
I wonder about the intentions of the person who placed the holiday ornaments on the desert shrub. The intent may have been filled with good cheer, but this type of ornament, although making a pretty picture, is harmful to the animals and birds who should own this summit more than we do. The bow may very well break the bough and choke the sparrow.
Which is more harmful to the natural world? The silver spray paint on the rock that has been here eons longer than we have? Or the holiday ornament that may drift away from its chosen spot to land on the trail below in the path of a hungry bird, lizard, or rabbit? I think the holiday ornament may be more harmful, but the spray paint more offensive.
The people behind these acts may look remarkably different. I envisioned the tagger was probably a youth, discontent with his lot in life, wanting to get away with something to really “put it to” his authority figures. And the holiday decorator I imagined to be a middle-aged female who visits the park a few times a year but grew up in an area that had more remarkable signs that winter is here. She wanted to bring a sense that winter is also here in the desert, helping herself and others feel “at home” in this dry Winter Wonderland.
Neither one had the Earth’s best interests at heart, but both, in some sense, enjoyed their experience in the park. And one of the biggest issues we have in the environmental space is connecting people with our land and our wildlife in order to prove the value of protecting its future.
To that end, is it wrong to persecute those that don’t know any better? Is it truly an offense if they don’t understand how their actions play out once they are gone? If they’ve never been taught any differently?
Those thoughts put more pressure on me to take more responsibility for what I saw. Have I helped to teach anyone to connect to nature in the “right” way?
I like to think I abide by the principles of Leave No Trace, but I probably have not spread the message effectively.
This all wraps itself up into a pretty little bow for me, telling me that I need to get more involved and find a way to help to encourage the respectful use of trails. I think a 2011 New Year’s Resolution is starting to find its way towards me.