Crowded at the Top

DISCLAIMER:  The beginning of this post will make me sound like an old fart stick-in-the-mud, a charge for the purposes of this thought I will humbly expect.

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Back in the good old days, when Juno was just a pup, I would frequently take her to Crowder’s Mountain, and we would often have the run of the place.  I would let her off lead, and accept for the one time she chased a deer into the brush, I never had a problem.

But times have changed, and Crowders Mountain is…well…crowded.

It’s no surprise, really.  Charlotte is a growing metropolitan area, and Crowders is a brief 30 minutes away.  For that short drive, you get a nice climb high above the Piedmont, the sight of Charlotte to the East from one trail, the sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west on the other.  On either, you can sit high on a rock outcrop and watch the hawks glide and dive and play, close enough to watch their feathers ruffle in the wind.  Backpacker Magazine and any other hiking publication worth the paper it’s written on will calmly list it as the best hike in the area.  If you want a quick day hike without a two-hour drive to the mountains, Crowders is the best hike you can get.

What you can not get anymore, however, is quiet and solitude.

I arrived this morning at 9, two hours after the park opened, and the parking lot was already mostly full.  Once an obscure walk on the Gaton/Cleveland county line, known only to climbing enthusiasts and trail walking loners like myself, it seems to have become THE destination for all comers: the get-in-shape fitness group doing hip openers at their trainers behest, the five vans of youth groups, the sorority meet-up reunion, the family get-together, the myriad trail runners.  As I cruised back to the parking lot around 2, I couldn’t help but notice that the park had many of the trappings of the urban nightlife: a narrow walkway busier than many city streets, a line out the ladies’ bathroom door, and a bouncer at the entrance controlling the number of people allowed inside. (This last part is no joke.  If you get there too late, one of the park rangers will make you wait on the road until a car leaves the parking lot.)

I could, of course, bemoan the fact that it ain’t like it used to be, and part of me does.  It’s the part of me that loves to hike for the quiet peace I get of “being away from it all.”  That’s hard to accomplish when you get to the top and there are already over 100 people there, and most of the copious places where you could sit and “take it all in” are only a few feet from people snapping selfies next to you.  I don’t want to sound self-righteous, for by being there we–Atticus, Juno, and myself–are stealing the solitude of others, a point that became clear to me as I walked to a remote trail to find peace and quiet, where I found a man sitting alone, who heard the dogs, got up and left.  Sorry about that.

But in my more analytic mind, I am reflecting on others, and I find myself checking that tendency within myself that gets to judging others.  I caught myself doing it when I saw someone hiking up in skateboarding shoes with nothing but a Coke in his hand.  Coke?  Hiking?? Are you an idiot???

It’s not the first time I’ve caught myself doing this.  Years ago, I saw someone hiking with the now ubiquitous earbuds, heresy as far as I’m concerned.  But my hiking partner reminded me at the time that not all people are me, and that you have to make allowances for others.  Different Strokes for Different folks, you know.

She was right at some level, I suppose.  But watching all these different people in what was once my quiet enclave–paired me with the fact we’ve been studying ethics for about a month in class–made me think about how we set these ethical boundaries and how we judge others.  There’s nothing wrong with people who wear earbuds or beats headphones while hiking.  I think they’re missing out on the experience of listening to the wind whip through the trees and the absence of noise, but you never know what people need to get them up the mountain I guess.  The people who project their music aloud and make me listen to Frat Rock Volume 3., are still assholes in my book, as they are stealing the silence.  People who hike with big styrofoam cups from Mickey D’s may look like hiking rubes, and that might raise my scorn, but as long as they carry it out, that’s their bag.  For the jerk whose Chick-Fil-A cup I picked up, however, I think we need to consider that a park is a communal resource, and it’s the same principle as picking up after your dog when they shit in your neighbor’s yard.  And I can’t even begin to describe my ire at the local high school kid who spray painted one of the large rocks on the trail for the purpose of a Prom-posal.

As for the kid carrying the Coke, I began to think about my own moral reasoning.  Over the last two years, I’ve made an effort to change my diet for the healthier.  I cut out coffee and most caffeine, tried to eliminate as much sugar and grease as I can, moderated my vices, and generally go veggie on most meals.  This week in class, we talked about how anger and disgust form the basis of many moral judgments, and it is true that it is easy to avoid all these types of food if we have an association with disgust.  And as I saw the kid with the Coke, I thought about the sugary syrup in the mouth and the dehydration he would likely feel as he neared the top, and it disgusted me.

And here’s where I have to stop the crotchety-old-man, back-in-my-day routine and look at myself.  It’s fine for me to appropriate disgust for my own purposes.  And often I find that transferring to others as a way to keep those healthy choices straight.  I even catch myself looking in people’s carts and the grocery store thinking “You’re going to eat that shit?”  But just because it is useful for me does not make that kid a bad person.  And I have to remember that part of traversing the path of pondering what is the right thing to do is to have compassion for others and the choices they are making.  That kid wasn’t hurting me, and I hope he wasn’t too dehydrated or miserable when he reached the top.  Moreover, part of walking that path is cherishing humility, knowing when to stick with a boundary and defend it, and knowing when to not apply it others.  Being healthy is virtuous, but so is being compassionate and humble, and true wisdom knows how to weave these together for the best purpose.100_1005

It’s a rocky path for sure.  And maybe I’m overthinking all of this as I was hiking today.  But I hope that kid got to the top and saw the view.  And as much as the crowds can roil me, I hope he got enough out of it that he might come back again…maybe with a bottle of water.  Or maybe not.  Maybe Coke is what he needs to get the top.  Just take bottle back to the bottom.

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