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.
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?"
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.
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.