The only places left clean are the hardest to get to. When wide paved trails cut into the mountain, blood flows.
I watched a guy go absolutely crazy with a machete on a live-oak branch. He feverishly struggled to hack through the tight bundle of oak fibers–engineered to suspend great weight, flex in the strongest wind. His little brother, maybe ten, watched wordlessly. I put some more distance between us. I wasn’t sure he’d seen me in the shadows by the stream and I didn’t want to meet him in the heat of this particular moment.
When we had to pass on the trail, I was friendly but brief. Angry and damaged humans can be unpredictable.
The trail to the waterfall was littered with fresh, still gasping green branches. Had they been produce they would still be on the farm.
A large alder was stripped of a section of tender bark. The wound was cold and damp when I touched it with an open hand.
As I walked on I thought about access to the wilderness. It was too easy here. The easier the access, the more blood. Lock it up, I thought. Before it’s all gone.
The trail ends in a deep grotto where a massy wall of bedrock, smoother and harder than the crumbly layers above it, stands defiantly–an exposed piece of the mountain’s spine. The fall spills out of the hanging stream around a huge chockstone boulder and slips down the forty-foot face, watering a delicate vertical garden of moss and tiny ferns. A green ribbon surrounded by indifferent rock. At the base of the falls: a shallow pool in which the stream resumes and gradates stones from large to small as it carries them as far as it can.
Looking up I notice some graffiti on the boulder. Nothing artistic; just a tag. I was here. I’m not afraid. The young person with a spray can completed a dangerous approach and then leaned out over the void to reach the spot. A feat of courage. I feel a conflicted respect.
For a moment, ignore the vandalism. Did providing that kid access to this spot give him what we all need to be stronger–a race of animals still alive? A place to experience danger and test one’s composition? For others a place where beauty isn’t displayed on a screen.
So open the gates? Will respect for the wilderness vanish if no one can get into it? My head is under a mossy streamer in the waterfall. Cool water scrubs me of heat and dust. Or is true respect only earned by those who labor their way in? Questions I’m not the first to ask.
I sit to dry on the sand at the edge of the grotto. Small pieces of mountain skitter from above and land with plops into the shallow pool. The mountain keeping time–a geologic hourglass.
Walking back I pass cut alder saplings and branches. Some maple. Anything that yielded satisfaction by being hacked until dead. It’s never been the animals I’m afraid of…
Blood follows the trail. I think of my own footprints lingering around this place. How dare I suggest we throw a massive chain around it all: “Walk in from the edge of town or don’t see it,” says the asshole.
Maybe letting that guy hack a few trees will keep him from doing it to a person.
Maybe the front-country’s highest use is as a sacrificial offering: accessible to all, the good and bad. Some will love it and push deeper into the wilderness; some will just paint and hack and go home, their destruction limited to an arm’s length from the path.
Back at the cabin, canyon wrens flick in and out of the outhouse eating flies.
I have a gin and tonic, but no answers.