For better or for worse, seeing is believing

Once you've seen one of these up close in the wild, you'll never forget it. (NPS photo)

I think it’s possible to appreciate something based on reputation. Expert opinions, a good published review, a friend’s recommendation.  A good story or photo can even do the trick.

But nothing beats experiencing something. Someone can tell you how great a band is, but until you listen to their songs or hear them in concert, you’ll never know for sure. Heck, I can recommend to you a dozen restaurants close to where I live, talk up their food and tell you how awesome they are, and you might believe me. But you won’t know for sure until you sit down, place an order and eat it.

Conversely, if you never experience these things, however great they are, you won’t fully appreciate them. And you won’t miss them when they’re gone.

I’ve long believed that about the outdoors.

You’ve probably heard people describe a place, show you an impressive series of photographs and then say, “Pictures just don’t do it justice.”

And they’re usually right.

I know from my own experiences that seeing America’s great wild places has definitely changed my view of what we loosely refer to as our “natural resources.”

Hiking the trails, backpacking in wilderness areas, climbing various summits or plying my limited angling skills in a trout stream have allowed me to see some incredible things.

I can remember a few years ago on a backpacking trip in New Mexico having a remarkable wildlife experience that I’m not sure I could have invented outside of a Hollywood script. I woke up first that morning while everyone else trying to grab as much shut-eye as they could before getting up for a summit hike. As I set up my camp stove and began boiling water, I looked to my right and spotted a bighorn sheep and her lamb slowly making their way through the woods, downhill toward me.

These creatures didn’t seem at all concerned about me, nor did they seem particularly interested. They were just passing through, within 10 feet of me.

This was their home. I was the guest. It was a wonderful and humbling experience. We saw a lot of wildlife on that trip, further driving home that while we people are the “masters” of this earth, we are not the only ones who live here and depend on it for life. I’m not sure reading about bighorn sheep, or seeing photos of them, or gazing upon them at the city zoo would have had the same impact.

It made me glad that the mountains here could be home to a good scattering of fine ski destinations as well as a federally protected wilderness area. Yes, kids, we actually can all get along!

This gorgeous dome has attracted more than just hikers and campers. At one point, the surrounding area was a popular site for miners, too.

But appreciation works two ways. Sometimes it hurts to see that which you love get so badly abused.

A lot of people lamented the demise of mom-and-pop shops when Walmart and other big-box stores took over. Or maybe that hole-in-the-wall record store that was absolutely the coolest, hippest place on earth until iTunes came along. We miss those things. But alas, the world of business plays its own game of natural selection.

But what happens when two worlds from opposing realms collide? I’ve seen that, too.

About 18 months ago, I was with a friend hiking the Matterhorn Creek trail in southwestern Colorado when such a moment popped up.

Let me start by saying that one of the joys of hiking and backpacking is having the freedom to walk up to a mountain stream, drop your filter in the water and then enjoy the coldest, purest, most refreshing drink you’ve ever had. Sure, it has to be filtered because even high-altitude snowmelt has gut illness-inducing microbes that can make a good time turn bad in a hurry. But there’s nothing out of a tap or in a bottle or in a glass that tops something out of a stream.

On this jaunt, however, I was shown than even here, in the biggest chunk of alpine wilderness in Colorado, some waters are now permanently tainted.

Lower on the trail, one creek flowed rapidly downstream. It looked promising from afar, but closer inspection showed its waters to be kinda milky looking. Further up, another much smaller trickle was a different color, almost like rust.

Both were tainted streams, polluted by mine tailings higher up.

The next day, we drove the Alpine Loop, and other stretches of rivers and streams showed similar discolorations from similar causes.

Those streams are permanently “gray.” They will never be suitable for drinking by people (even with those high-dollar filters) or animals. They will never be suitable for fish. They will always dump their mine-tainted nastiness into larger rivers downstream.

My guess is someone made good coin from the mines that caused this mess. Unfortunately, the streams polluted by these mines will remain so for a long, long time.

I would also conclude that had I not seen it for myself, I would have never known about it at all. Of the 300 million people living in the U.S. today, I imagine that almost all 300 million of them are likewise ignorant of what happened here.

The reason why is because it’s out of sight, out of mind.

Life is like that, and I understand why. We’re busy people with needs. And wants. Most of us live in a world that depends on things we grow in fields, extract from the ground or harvest from the sea. The energy it takes to make these things, for the most part, has to be dug or pumped from the earth, and when it’s burned its residue floats into the air, disperses and becomes invisible. Out of sight, out of mind.

The point is, all the stuff in our homes, on our bodies and in our cars came from somewhere. For that matter, everything our homes and workplaces are made of came from somewhere. That gorgeous two-story home next door was built by felling trees, refining oil to make plastics, and mining metals for all the wires, nails and fixtures that went into its construction. Surrounding that house are hundreds more just like it.

You might not believe it, but pristine places like this are home to polluted streams.

Our problem is that that vast majority of us only see the end product of this. We don’t know where all this stuff comes from, and even if we did, chances are we’ve never been there to see what it looks like now as opposed to before this process started.

An Appalachian peak after it’s been mined for coal doesn’t look anything like it did before. Ever see an old growth forest after it’s been clear-cut? It will remind you of a war scene from the Ardennes in World War II. And sometimes an old, non-functioning mine leaves behind milky, contaminated streams.

I don’t mean for this to be a slam on mining, the energy industry or logging. So I apologize for the negative tone. But what I’m trying to say is two-fold: If something bad is happening, chances are that if you don’t see its effects, you won’t care about it that much.

Similarly, you won’t care very deeply about a place where you’ve never been.

I think we need to get out more. We need to see the wild places. We won’t care about them if we don’t bother to experience them in all their wonder, or we won’t raise an alarm when we seem them come to harm (you might be surprised to learn that the Grand Canyon was quite close to being dammed up to make a reservoir many years ago).

I admit to having an emotional investment in wilderness. It would not have existed had I not gone to see it. I wonder if more people would have similar investments if they sought out the experiences I’ve enjoyed. And if they did, I also wonder if we’d all think more about the upstream sacrifices that are made for our downstream profits.

Perhaps our decisions would be different.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


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