April 3, 2016

HARDIN | When it Snows in the Desert

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I’ve showered once in the last 10 days. A camp stove explosion burned off the bottom half inch of hair on the left side of my head. My leg got stuck in quicksand while hiking through neck-deep water in a river. After walking over 10 miles a day through three national parks in the southwest, the toes on my left foot have definitely seen better days. My dream hike across Zion National Park in Utah was cut short when my three friends and I were forced to evacuate after it snowed a foot during our second night of backcountry camping.

These aren’t things you can plan for. As someone who backpacks with eight pages of trail notes, GPS coordinates of every water source within two miles of the trail and enough food to keep us alive for a month, I helplessly watched as my dissolved among the grains of desert sand. I was crushed. The adventure I’d spent months planning for would have to wait.

So it goes, and so we adapt. Armed with a black Hyundai rental car that carried us hundreds of miles across the deserts of Southwest, 10 pounds of cheese and three of the best people I know, I forced my stubborn self to accept that a plan is, at best, a rough outline. There will always be unexpected blizzards and camp stove explosions; the best we can do is plan to be flexible.

As far as backpacking goes, there’s a lot to be said about the humility that comes with experiencing physical discomfort every now and then. A scenic view is much more memorable if it takes a 16 mile uphill hike to get to it. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to strip themself of the basic comforts of modern living, let alone enjoy it.

There’s also a lot to be said about living so comfortably that seeking out discomfort becomes a romanticized sort of exploration. As I’m writing this on a pile of napkins at my campsite in the Grand Canyon, I keep coming back to thoughts of how many people will never get to experience the outdoors, much less grow to love it like I do. Camping can be counterintuitive in this sense; as much as it forces me to appreciate the most basic elements of my existence, it’s easy to forget how lucky I am that it takes sacrificing these comforts in order to even notice them.

In the same vein, there’s something entirely undemocratic about environmental conservation. On average, those who are in the best position to take action on an individual level (people who can afford to buy locally sourced food, change their lightbulbs, switch to energy efficient appliances, etc.) are also the same people who stand to benefit most from a cleaner environment and preserved natural landscapes. The fraction of the population that can afford to take time off from work and access remote natural locations is small. Even smaller is the fraction of that population that would actually consider camping and hiking to be leisure activities.

This isn’t to say that environmental conservation isn’t a noble cause — it is likely the most important issue our generation faces. At the same time, it’s perhaps even more important to realize that while we all benefit from a cleaner environment, this benefit isn’t spread equally among all of us. Even nature isn’t free from class-based inequalities. People who have the resources to experience the awe of the natural world are, in general, in a better position to contribute to its preservation. Individual responsibility is strong: when you can access natural spaces on a regular basis, you’ll likely be more inclined to care enough to help ensure that these spaces remain intact. While there are wide-reaching positive externalities to combatting climate change for present and future generations, most people must prioritize the far more pressing issue of meeting basic human needs and providing for their families before they can devote additional resources toward conserving our planet and its natural resources. This is especially true for low-income families in urban areas, many of whom will spend their entire lives too far removed from nature to ever develop a personal connection with it.

On a large scale, nature isn’t as unpredictable as we might think. It operates in patterns and cycles, an embodiment of the laws that govern math and science. Unlike the events that unraveled my tightly-woven hiking itinerary, inequality with regards to nature and natural resources is something we can plan for. We can redistribute resources, redesign the structures that limit access to natural parks, create more widespread outreach programs and so on. A program to equalize access to natural spaces won’t be able to plan for every possible event that the world, but it is definitely in our best interest to start planning for this uncertain future now. I can keep postponing my hike across Zion for the majority of my lifetime, but our climate is not afforded this same luxury.

Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at enh33@cornell.edu. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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