Who doesn’t love a challenge?
About 10 years ago, I was backpacking through the Wind River Mountains almost 20 miles from the nearest trailhead. I was walking with my trip leader, Oscar, who was teaching me about Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.
I’d grown up hearing about Leave No Trace and tried to follow it. I knew not to litter, and even to pick up trash that wasn’t mine. I understood some of the reasons why this was important. Something as small as a plastic straw in the wild could harm or suffocate an animal. Waste is accumulating at such a rate that entire ocean islands of disposable bags have formed, like the Great Pacific garbage patch. Human impact is creeping into the furthest, most pristine stretches of the planet, and what has been in equilibrium for millennia is changing before our eyes.
But, you know about that.
Oscar was teaching me less obvious aspects of the thoughtfully-developed LNT principles, and I was soaking them up like a sponge. It’s important to travel and camp on hard surfaces (i.e. rock versus muddy drainages), to minimize the vegetation that you squash on your backcountry adventures. You should also leave what you find — from flowers, to rocks, to artifacts. Taking a treasure out of its treasure chest is never as satisfying anyway. A field of flowers is like a Monet painting in real life, but a single flower is lonely and dead from the moment you pick it.
And you can never be too careful to pack out Every. Single. Thing. you bring in.
“Except for, like, an almond or an apple core,” I piped in, lightly.
Wrong. Oscar reminded me that we’d come across very few almond or apple trees during our time in the Wind River Range. Not only do these plants not grow here, but the animals who live off this land aren’t accustomed to them. Eating a foreign object — food or otherwise — means local wildlife could get sick; begin to associate these items with humans; or even be exposed to bacteria, viruses or creatures living inside. On an unlucky day, one sloppy person can alter an ecosystem from the ground up.
So I confessed.
I’d dropped an almond at our last snack break that we had been steadily hiking away from for the past hour. I’d watched it tumble down and then left it lying in the pine-needle-filled nook where it landed. And I’d felt nothing.
But because of our conversation — now I felt super guilty.
But more importantly, I also felt empowered about how much I could care about this beautiful mountain range. After all, it was my home for the next month.
So, I dropped my 70-pound pack, grabbed my compass and map, and back-tracked across open fields, rocky slopes and winding waterways. Arguably, it was one nut searching for another.
And, yes. I found it.
The point in sharing this story is not that I saved the world by finding my almond. I really, really didn’t. The point is that 10 years ago and still today, I have the power to determine the impact I make — or don’t make — with each of my actions.
Finding the almond tucked in the rock definitely felt like a victory. But the bigger victory was that it challenged me to think much harder about my relationship with the backcountry, and with life.
I like nature just the way it is, so I’ll do my part to keep it that way. And while an orphaned almond may have had zero impact on the delicate ecosystem of the Wind River Range, it certainly made a big impact on me.
Katie Belton is the director of marketing and community engagement for the Sheridan Community Land Trust.