Scott Jurek and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Controversy

Recently, ultra runner Scott Jurek completed the Appalachian Trail thru hike in record time – 45 days. This spawned a controversy at the terminus, Baxter State Park, where Jurek was fined for various rules violations. He opened a bottle of champagne at the summit to celebrate his feat. He had more than 12 people “with him” at the summit.

If you read the letter that Baxter State Park Authority wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, you could empathize with what the BSP rangers have to deal with on a daily basis during AT hiker season. Perhaps Jurek would have planned his accent a bit differently had he known the fatigue these rangers face every day from rude AT hikers.

The bigger controversy is, do we all have the right to enjoy parks and wilderness, or do we need to follow certain “rules” in order to keep those lands pristine for generations to come?

It’s a good question. This perhaps isn’t a problem of environmental values, but maybe a problem of overpopulation and the increasing popularity of outdoor recreation and sports. With media vehicles like Outside Magazine glorifying the human achievement in nature, and documentaries that follow the accomplishments of extreme hikers, bikers and mountain climbers (180 Degrees South, Touching the Void, Ride the Divide, to name a few), more people than ever are seeking personal fulfillment through nature.

What is my personal opinion about all this? I’m not sure. I think that different people view “spirituality” and “peak experiences” in nature in different ways. Some people, like myself, enjoy quiet contemplation in nature, with no particular goal in mind other than deep observation and enjoyment. Others get that same sense of bliss from running 50 miles on a trail per day, climbing to the highest peak in their state, or riding giant waves on the ocean.

Certain deep ecologists would say that wilderness should be kept free of all human contact. I always found that sentiment extreme. We belong in nature because we ARE nature. We shouldn’t separate ourselves from nature. However, when there are 8 billion of us on the planet, we will eventually nudge nature out. Animals don’t do well living elbow to elbow with humans.

Derrick Jensen says that civilization isn’t good for the planet, because “forests precede it and deserts dog its heels”. We may be part of nature, and we may enjoy it and have a right to be in it, but we’re not really good for the planet, because not all of us leave the trail better than how we found it.