Speaking with Karen

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.

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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.

Some of you New Englanders might recognize the patch.

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?


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Join the conversation
  1. erikthebald says

    I think you get to judge for yourself. Some people just hate what other people are doing if it isn’t exactly how they do it. In the grand scheme of things, the powerlines you are riding under, the road Karen drove to get there, and the houses that both you and Karen live in have had a much larger impact on the environment. I trust that, as you said, you wouldn’t have been riding willy-nilly through the woods if it would have left a lasting mark.

    It seems like you were very measured in your response. You didn’t go full dickhead. That’s the best approach…let them know that they are being dickish but don’t go full dick. One of my favorite tactics is to give them a friendly-ish ribbing or just turn my back on them and ignore them.

    One time my buddies and I were riding a legal moto trail. Plenty of non-motorized trails in the general area if one chose. Hikers were coming up, we pulled over and shut off our bikes. We smiled and said hi. The lead Karen said in a real snotty tone “Isn’t there someplace else you can ride those things?” My buddy made a big show of standing up tall, putting his hand over his eyes explorer style while looking around all directions, then said “No M’am, this is the trail right here.”

    My other fave was, again, riding motos on legal trails (Block and Tackle) near Crested Butte. Monsoon season, so some puddles on the trail and dirty bikes. 2 gals on MTBs rode up and we were very friendlly to them. They said “Your dirtbikes are awfully muddy. We don’t like it when you ride OUR trails when they are wet.” We just smiled and turned around, continuing our conversation. They got soooooo mad it was funny. They wanted conflict, and were pissed we didn’t give them what they wanted.

  2. khal spencer says

    A good friend of mine is one of the main organizers of trail building and maintenance in this city. He and his volunteers do a shitload of work keeping the trails maintained. He and his crew suffer when people make a hash of things, especially going off trails in sensitive areas. We try to stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of the greater good. But sometimes, the woods beckons and new trails appear. Yes, there is grey as well as black and white, but sometimes we are color blind if we don’t know the details.

    A lot depends on that first interaction, whether things go up or down or whether the main point is lost in the process. “Karen” sounds a bit confrontational based on your narrative, especially if she doesn’t have sweat equity in the game and if you and your friend were not doing anything really destructive. If on the other hand someone in my town said about the La Tierra trails, “you know, I am a trail builder here and when it rains, some of these unauthorized trails will turn into massive gullies and make a mess of the plant life as well as get the city pissed off at us”. Oops, hey, sorry bud, I’ll do better!

    When things start badly it is hard to do a reset. For example, a couple weeks ago we heard this bellowing, anonymous voice coming from the other side of the fence at the back end of our yard telling us to shut our dog up or else he would call animal control. Given his tone, and my surprise and lack of taking the time to compose myself, my initial response was to launch a small volley of F-bombs back over the fence. None of that was very productive. We have not spoken since. We’ve been trying to get the dog to not bark, including putting a shock collar on her and trying to stop the barking short of strangling the dog, who we adopted after she was abandoned to a shelter; she has some issues as anyone abandoned to a shelter might have. We could have benefitted by a “hi, I’m your neighbor, and can we chat about your dog’s barking”. I suppose I should drop off a few beers with an apology, just to break the ice. Or the silence, in this case.

    And so it goes.

  3. Barry Johnson says

    We’ve devolved into a world of taking sides as opposed to understanding sides.

  4. Bruce Pierce says

    Ugh. Living in society is hard. Black/white are so much easier than grey. Makes me want to go off the grid and be a hermit.

    Are we only to do the lowest impact activities in shared natural areas? Who decides? How’d those trails get there in the first place?

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