Let me start by saying I don’t know Karen’s real name. I didn’t ask. Our interaction started out polite, became fraught, and ended up polite again. The right and wrong of what happened between us ducked and darted, neither of us able to get ahold of the moral high ground. I’m recounting this story, not to make a point, but to ask a question. My apologies, in advance and in retrospect, to Karen for not having her exact words.
It went like this. I was mountain biking, as I do most Fridays, with my friend Meghna. We had only just begun and were in a section of the trail where things get a little wonky. There are lines leading in multiple directions, some of which are not on the marked trail. We rode a couple of them and were in the process of pushing our bikes back up a short hill to see if we could ride a small group of large boulders continuously, when we came upon Karen.
She said, “The trail goes this way,” pointing to the blazed path to one side. I said, “Yeah. We know. We’re just looking at this line of boulders,” and then her tone changed slightly; an edge crept in. “So you think it’s ok to ignore the trail markings?” I stared at her briefly. I hadn’t anticipated this, and I wasn’t sure how to react. She stared back at me, expectantly. In this moment of quiet, I felt scolded and my tone shifted, too.
“So I need to do what you tell me to do, is that what you’re saying?” I offered. She shot back, “So you’re just a scofflaw? You don’t care about anyone else?”
Here there was another pause. I got myself back together.
I said, “You’re not wrong. We’re not trying to wreck the trails. I don’t want to have a conflict with you about it.” At this stage she launched into a slightly more extended explanation of why what we were doing was wrong, with reference to the specific topography we were standing on, and some low-key indictment of mountain bikers generally. Here I’d note, I didn’t disagree very much with what she was saying.
Then she walked away. I think she might have said, “Well, I guess you’re just going to do whatever you want.” For the record, ‘whatever I want’ had become much more complicated in the preceding two minutes.
Before I tell the rest of the story, I want to fill in some details you may or may not feel make some difference. First, this is not state forest. It’s a small parcel of conservation land under a set of high voltage wires. The trails have been marked by a “Friends of” volunteer group. This same group contains many mountain bikers, and most of the trail work is mountain-bike-optimized. The lines we were riding are well established and cover a very small space between two parts of a switchback. The specific line we were looking at was all rock, with no plant life in between and no discernible trail that would be followed by other riders. Maybe none of that matters.
What Meghna and I chose to do was ride the marked the trail. Right, wrong or in-between, I’m not trying to have conflicts with other trail users for any reason. The 40 feet of rock we were thinking to ride wasn’t worth stoking a problem between walkers and riders in my calculation, a thing that can ripple and get out of control and make for a lot of no fun for anyone involved.
That just left smoothing things over with Karen.
We soft-pedaled down to where she was walking, and I said, “Hi. I just want to follow up and say, we’re on the same page. We have the same goals. We’re not trying to ruin the trails for anyone. We both came here to be in the woods and feel the good feelings that come from that, and I’d hate for you to go away with a conflict in your mind.”
Then Karen said a bunch of nonsense. Some of it was on-base. Some of it was a little crazy. It became apparent, though we had made friends again, that very little of what had happened was about me or Meghna or mountain bikes. Karen likes the world a certain way, and that’s black-and-white, right-and-wrong, and she’s not that into discussing any of what I might see as the border territories. She was friendly enough on reengagement, but she wasn’t interested in any of what we thought about anything. She knew what she believed. End of.
I didn’t poke the bear. I let it all go. We wished her a good morning and rode off.
As I said at the beginning, I’m not telling you this story to make a point. It’s to ask a question, because Karen wasn’t wrong, but maybe she wasn’t all the way right either. In my selfish brain, I rationalized the line we were trying to ride, though I also believe, like Karen, that you shouldn’t just be blazing lines through woods willy-nilly. Was my rationalization self-serving or reasonable? Was my adverse reaction to Karen (though it was pretty mild by any measure) just petulance on my part, or a natural reaction to being confronted by a stranger? I guess, at root, my question is: Are the rules we keep for ‘leave no trace’ completely clear and obvious, or is there some gray in there? As someone who really does care about these things, do I get to judge for myself? Do I get any discretion at all? Or was Karen just reminding me that we don’t get to opt out of the right thing to do when it’s convenient for us, on a Friday, with a friend, when we think there’s no one else around?
Know who else sponsors TCI? These guys. Give ’em a click. See what they do. It’s dope.