Love thy neighbor, emphasis ‘thy’. Don’t get me started on my own. We all care about people in the abstract sense, often less so in the material one.
But people are what make this world possible. Apple doesn’t make your laptop, people do. Squaw doesn’t spin lifts, people do. Behind every self-made man are thousands of people who could beg to differ. People, especially ones we love, make life worth living. We take our fellow humans for granted every day and, speaking from experience, look forward to the moments we can be alone, with ourselves or a chosen crew.
Nature is great for groups. Snowboarding with a packed roster is infinitely more fun that solo days. But in many other cases, nature’s gift is one’s own isolation. There’s a Muir quote for everything but of course one for this sentiment:
“To sit in solitude, to think in solitude with only the music of the stream and the cedar to break the flow of silence, there lies the value of wilderness.”
Today’s adventures offer less and less solitude. The internet has inspired millions to venture into previously underexposed lands. As we’re off on excursions, we’re bound to run into others and I’ve settled on a scale of which emotion one will react with based upon how far down the trail one happens to be:
0 Miles - Contempt
We’re talking campgrounds, where millions voluntarily flee their homes and cities to sleep in the decent outdoors, sharing close quarters and facilities. Except no one is happy to see a guy step off his RV and flick on the generator twenty feet from your campfire. No one likes 10:00 pm drive-bys of optimistic latecomers. No one wants to see anyone with a Bluetooth speaker or a thirty pack. No one asks for a church band. No strangers are welcomed here. This also goes for roadside vistas and parking lot attractions. “Get out of my photo!”
2 Miles - Irritation
You’re on a popular day hike. You knew it’d be packed but you didn’t think they’d need a park ranger with white gloves and a whistle. Angles Landing quickly becomes one’s own Hillary Step, survival growing more questionable the longer one waits along the chains of iron and Californians. There’s enough trail for everyone but you can’t help wish you had gotten out a few hours earlier (or everyone else had miraculously stayed home).
5 Miles – Indifference
It’s no longer slamming and you’re relaxed. Parties come and go in uniform intervals and you offer a polite smile and ‘howdy’ to everyone with a 60% return rate. It’s nice to see everyone enjoying the day.
10 Miles – Pleasantness
A real sweet spot. The crowds thinned out at a natural turnaround—the waterfall or first lake—and life is good. With the folks you do pass, you share in common a sense of liveliness and pride that you’re not “one of the tourists”, instead enjoying the goods only a small fraternity can. You’re all in this together and happy to share a quick chat over how sweet it is. “How’s the fishing been? You don’t say?”
20 Miles – Gratitude
Unless you’re on wheels or in for an epic, you’ve passed the point of no same day return. People become resources. Passerbyers may hold vital information about the trail, the weather or maybe a water filter for a quick refill in the stream since your Steripen is dead.
30 Miles – Comfort
It’s been some time since you’ve seen anyone—or any trail signs for that matter—and for the last hour you’ve been telling yourself you’re on the right track in between singing the same two lines of a single song. It’s nice to see another face in the great expanse or another headlamp beam on an alpine start. We get to be alone without being technically so. If things go south, it's nice to know you can holler.
50 Miles – Shock
You’re apt to think you saw a bear or a deer moving on the landscape, not a human being. But you’ll be damned, it is! First one in days.
100 Miles - Lifelong Devotion
Hope was growing dim. A rescue was in order. When suddenly, from the song of solitude, fades in the rhythmic percussion of helicopter blades smacking the alpine air. “People! Glorious people! I’ll never think poorly of you again!” Even in the event that everything’s good, meeting someone a hundred miles into the wilderness ought to forge a solid bond of kinship between you, them and your fellow man.