Long time passing. Where have all the hikers gone? Long time ago. Where have all the hikers gone? Gone to video games (and yuppie gyms) every one … or many of them anyhow. When will they ever return? And does it matter?
I fear that it does. I’ve been an ardent hiker and backpacker (formerly, also a climber) for decades, and well recall at least a hint of anxiety when it came to finding a campsite on the more popular places, such as the Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier, or the Enchantment Lakes in Washington’s Cascades. No longer. Parks in the western states, at least ( I don’t know about the east) report that back-country use is consistently and dramatically down. To be sure, parking lots and visitor’s centers are often crowded, but venture more than ¼ mile on nearly any trail, and the only hikers you’re likely to encounter are wide-eyed wanderers from Germany or possibly the UK.
Yosemite Valley is mobbed; Yosemite trails, almost empty. Go from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park to a real trail, and you are largely alone. Get off the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier National Park and you might as well be going to the moon. In many ways, this is a relief for the rest of us, but I have to wonder about the long-term consequences for everyone.
In his wonderful albeit disturbing book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv warned of a generation growing up—for the first time in human history—with essentially no genuine connection to the outdoors. “I prefer playing inside,” he quotes one 10-year-old, “because that’s where all the outlets are.” Today’s youngsters probably know more about “nature” than any previous generation, but such “knowledge” is largely second-hand. They know a lot about rainforests, endangered species, and global warming, but next-to-nothing of what it feels like to walk barefoot in a creek, watch a spider spin its web, or observe a squirrel husking a pine cone, not to mention what it means to climb on your own power from a forested valley to an alpine meadow. Instead of something to experience, nature has become something to worry about.
Maybe that’s not so bad. All the more for the rest of us to experience, less intruded upon by fellow experiencers, each of whom somewhat diminishes that same reality for the rest of us.
Nor is it surprising. After all, backpacking is unlike most other sports or hobbies in that it requires total immersion, ideally for days at a time. Its not like a quick and convenient game of basketball, or a prompt workout on the way home from the office.
But as fewer people actually immerse themselves in the natural world, I worry not only about the subtle psychological effects of “nature deficit disorder” but also about a not-so-subtle political effect. Will it become more difficult yet to generate public support for protecting national parks, wilderness areas, primitive areas, national forests, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas in proportion as citizens limit their experience of such places to virtual reality instead of the real thing?