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To Love A Place to Death

For the past month I have been, as John put it, "shooshing" around the country, skiing. I bought a Mountain Collective Pass back in September for $420, and with friends willing to join me in several places, I managed to get ten days of skiing in. It was a great way to spend a very cold February in Iowa -- not in Iowa.


Many cars parked at a trail head

But being in several beautiful places around the country has also been fascinating for a different reason.


Some weeks ago I wrote a blog post about creating hiking trails on our land. The idea was that because only 1% of land in Iowa is public, we could create a place for people to spend time in the outdoors. Perhaps, I mused, we could play a small part in changing the local culture, edging it towards something that was more healthy and got people outside enjoying nature.


After that blog post I tried to talk to our environmentally conscious neighbors about my idea. I told them that I thought we had a great opportunity to create something unique in Iowa, an area where people could see sustainable agriculture in action. Together we could create trails and bring people out on the land. But I had a hard time getting any of them to bite. No one seemed interested in the conversation, which surprised me. I wondered "Why wouldn’t people who cared about natural places and healthy living not be interested in hiking trails?"


A tunnel through the mountain for skiers. Why?

Later our a good friend and neighbor Mike showed up at our house. He came in and chit- chatted about the weather. Then he started talking about my idea.“I know you are interested in bringing people out and making trails,“ he said. “But honestly, I don’t care so much about the people. I care about the plants and animals,“ he said. Mike explained that my ideas were concerning to him, not because he objected to people being outside but because in his experience, it was people that were actually the problem.


He told me how he used to live in Montana, a place with immense natural beauty, he said but also increasingly, larger numbers of people. There’s people everywhere, he said, and less and less in the way of natural spaces. What would happen if our idea of creating hiking trails took off? he questioned. It would mean more cars and more exhaust and more people - a scenario he is not interested in at all.


I understood what he was saying. Although it seems highly unlikely, there is always a possibility that our crazy idea could work. And if it did, how would we be able to control the outcome? Once you have attracted people to a beautiful place, popularity can quickly mean that collectively, we love a place to death.


It took visiting places I knew earlier in my life to see first hand what Mike meant. Utah has amazing natural beauty and some of the best skiing on Earth, but it is also now unbelievably busy. Cars are parked everywhere in the canyons, and the traffic can mean it can easily take an hour to get down a simple ten-mile mountain stretch of road. During Covid, when ski areas have supposedly limited the number of people on the mountain, Snowbird and Jackson Hole are bursting at the seams with humans.


A huge line at Alta, UT for a power day.

Even skiing in the backcountry (without lifts) is now more like joining a small parade and ten people can easily be standing atop a sledding hill waiting for a turn. Places like Durango, Colorado where I lived for many years are now unrecognizable landscapes of strip malls. A Home Depot now sits where the unmarked country road to my house used to be.


Covid has made living in densely packed cities undesirable. So people have flocked to the beautiful, once remote areas of the country, places like Rockport, Maine and Missoula, Montana. Which of course, has made them a whole lot less remote.


Maybe our little corner of Iowa would be next if people knew about it. It's a bit of a poison apple, this. People can make a place inviting and interesting. But they can also easily overrun a place, loving it to death.

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8 Comments


sasha stiles
sasha stiles
Feb 21, 2021

You did not really hit a nerve.   I may be a bit clumsy with my words.  All I am saying is that each of us should ask how can we help?  If, and only if, you desire to do something to improve, strengthen and save the beauty of your Iowa community, do so.  If farming is a big enough chunk - then go ski with abandon.    I think you should definitely go ski with abandon no matter what.  You do not have to be an inner city kid to show them Iowa - Jenny was definitely not from Arusha but when she started taking the street kids to the Serengeti  they were so happy.   You have a learning.   Each of us should ask how can we help? 

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Beth Hoffman
Beth Hoffman
Feb 21, 2021

Looks like I hit on a nerve with all of the comments!!


To address all of the calls for outdoor education, I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being the white, affluent savior coming in to teach the "inner city," "minorities" to love and respect the great outdoors, when we white, affluent people continue to overrun the very places in question. Part of my point is that with wealth comes a "they are not talking about me" attitude when we think of the environment - I might recycle to "save the planet," but I might also own a second house (a far bigger footprint) and travel there frequently because I "love" that place so much. Driving and flying…


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sasha stiles
sasha stiles
Feb 20, 2021

Yes to education. We are still skiing all over Colorado. Wolfe Creek with sometimes 2 feet a day and few people. Northern slopes with fewer glam tourists it seems - and lots of grateful skiers in masks. Loveland has been pretty much a fog out every day we think of going there. Glad you got to your Alta. Enforced ski time is important Glad you did it. Now time to think about your dreams of bringing people to Iowa to educate, to nurture and share. Think about how we can all help. Think about summer experiences for inner city kids or inner city families better yet. The Iowa Farm Foundation. Do it. Can I volunteer for camp counsel…

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Yes, there are too many of us, including me, myself and I. You must rise at about 5:00 a.m. to attempt to beat traffic in Denver. The picture of Alta was quite eye-popping. There have been many avalanche deaths in the back country this year. Skiing may be over for me but hiking, so many amazing places in Wyoming I hope to explore with no one around. Maybe let people discover parts of Iowa on their own? I'm glad you got a chance to ski. I didn't know you'd lived in Durango. I also agree with some of the commenters that it takes education. It is good ultimately, that more people have had a chance to venture into nature a…

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dstrosf
dstrosf
Feb 20, 2021

Great post. Yeah, that's the tension. Leave nature alone? Then how to get people to care about it. Working in an urban school district which has comparatively great access to the natural world, I often see little to no appreciation. And if that lack of appreciation creeps into our politics, how do we preserve the natural world? I've worked with Outward Bound to lead urban kids on introductory wilderness experiences. It is so difficult to recruit any kids other than those that have already experience and appreciation.

Covid has also unleashed a population of people on the wilderness that just want to get outside. My experiences last summer were with lots more folks, many of whom had never been to…

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