It was mid-semester, mid-spring break, and I was in the middle of what I call a “funk.” There was some sort of unidentified uneasiness and discontentment in my mind that was slowly building over time, and choosing to hang around. So, after spending most of my break rock climbing, Amanda and I took off and decided to put the ropes away for a few days in exchange for big backpacks and a little soul-searching. What we didn’t expect, however, was that in our search for peace of mind and time in the wild, we would find something very different...but perhaps equally as important and healing.
What we found was trash. Garbage, waste and unsanitary horrors abound.
Sounds healing, doesn't it?
Amanda and I packed our bags, applied sunscreen, ate a quick snack and took off optimistically down the trail towards our chosen hot spring location, a three mile hike down a narrow canyon right on the border of Arizona and Nevada, by the Hoover Dam. The plan was to hike to the hot springs where we could set up our bivy camp, soak all evening, think about life (or not think at all), and enjoy the company of each other and the sounds of the trickling water. From the beginning, however, it became apparent that we had chosen the wrong location to do such things. The Edward Abbey in me started to come out: sporting an endless commentary on the overuse of the trail, the closeness to the freeway, and the views of the massive bridge from the trail (I won't deny having fantasized about blowing it up along with the nearby dam...).
We stayed the course, and found that the further we hiked, the more litter we saw. And I am not talking just plastic water bottles (though abundantly present). I am talking tons of wrappers of all sorts shoved into huecos and pockets in the rock, countless pairs of panties and boxers abandoned in the rocks and draped over the foliage, used condoms, tampons, sanitary napkins, and the not-so-LNT human feces and accompanied toilet paper seemingly flung all over the canyon (Okay, the feces were not sprayed on the walls or anything, but you get what I mean). It seemed that the closer people got to the springs and the most beautiful parts of the canyon, the less they packed out with them. Amanda and I were appalled, but continued in hopes of escaping to a cleaner oasis.
We eventually made it to the end of the canyon, where the trickling warm water flows into the cold, clear Colorado River (though it was not so clear before dams like these were built-- a notable disturbance to the river ecosystem!). We saw a family playing on a small rocky protrusion at the confluence, and waded out to join them and sit in the sun. Shortly after we arrived, they began hiking back before we had a chance to notice that they left all their garbage behind. We picked up after them, and also retreated to the canyon.
There were many people hiking this canyon, more than we expected. Most were not soaking in the springs, but many were romping around with speakers blasting music, while others preferred eating oranges and depositing the peels throughout the canyon. At this point, we had to let go of our grief over the way people were behaving at the springs and enjoy our time. As dinnertime approached, the majority of people trickled out towards their cars. Embracing the semi-solitude, we walked over to one pool and prepared to soak for the evening. Before getting in, however, nature suddenly called and I was in desperate need of the wag bag in my pack! In such a canyon, there were few cat-hole options, so we opted for these nifty (really, they don't even smell!) bags to deal with our waste. I grabbed the packable poop bag and went on to do my business. Next thing I know, I am mid-movement and making eye contact with some poor soul who had scrambled up over a boulder nearby. He had obviously not spent much time in the outdoors where you inevitably witness such an act. He did not know how to react, and looked pretty horrified to see a girl pooping in a bag. The fun didn't end there, as Amanda also had to take care of her business. When the time came, her bathroom break was also interrupted by an all-angle approach of several groups of people, all inexperienced, confused, and mortified. Amanda screamed (drawing more attention to herself, poor girl) and the innocent bystanders panicked. I laughed.
This situation was humorous, but the two of us figured that at least this was a great learning experience for those people... maybe they would stop pooping all over the canyon and consider the bag option? After all, human feces contamination it is a surprisingly major issue for many watersheds, especially near my home in Northern Arizona. For instance, Slide Rock State Park, a creek swimming and recreational area in Sedona, Arizona, has a recurring issue of E. Coli outbreaks. Fossil Creek, another special place known for its clear waters and falls, has similar issues related to too many people, and not enough LNT ethic. As they say, everyone poops. That does not mean, however, that everyone can poop wherever they want. Being a daily act (hopefully) for all humans, defecation is a major wilderness issue-- an issue that can be avoided with proper disposal techniques.
Enough of that crap (haha), let's move on to the more refreshing aspects of this trip.
The sun was setting, and everyone left. We had the place to ourselves, and we were finally able to relax in the spring. After the exodus of self-unaware mobs of people, we settled into what we had set out to find in the first place: solitude. Sure, we were still surrounded by what they had left behind, but nature spoke through it all and we were soothed. In this time, we were able to contemplate our personal struggles, and also the place-- and what we can learn from it. The spring is an incredibly special place. It is full of beauty, and a source of comfort. The high canyon walls allowed for a slot of starry sky to peek down at us. The hot water trickled until it cooled, and created a singing frog habitat that most who explored the canyon that day didn't hear. Yes, there was trash everywhere. Yes, the dam upstream had altered the ecosystem there. Yes, people come in hoards to pluck up the flowers, trample the plants, and spray paint on the rocks. But that place is special. It deserves to be clean.
To an extent, I can't blame those who trashed this place. It is a product of society, values and education. Most of the waste down there is a result of those who have been taught to have these habits. They don't know better, because that is all they have ever known. However, it is still not justified, nor is it right. The people that Amanda and I saw had no clue that they were impacting the area. They do not know the monumental significance of every single action that they make. They do not understand that something thrown away never actually goes away. How is someone to know that they should defecate in a bag or bury it if they have never been taught Leave No trace principles? Why should I expect so much of someone who is not even conscious of any of this?
After sleeping under the stars, we woke up and enjoyed the quiet morning. When the new day brought new crowds, we packed up our gear and prepared to leave--but we could not leave this place in the condition it was in. Amanda, always being prepared, had a 50 gallon trash bag with her (intended for waterproofing, but also great for trail clean-ups!) as well as medical gloves in her first aid kit. We each took a glove, and went to work. We crawled into nooks and retrieved many pounds of trash. We grabbed ungodly items and gathered smelly, awful things (thank you gloves!). We loaded the trash bag and hauled it with us up and out of the canyon, gathering what we could along the way. It was a laborious task, passing the 30-pound bag up 4th class scrambling sections in addition to our overnight packs. The bag reeked, but it felt good to be getting the junk out of the canyon. As we were hiking out, we passed many people heading to the springs. We kindly reminded everyone we passed to pack out their trash, and while some laughed or ignored us, many people took interest and appreciated the comment. By the end of it, we were pretty tired for such a short hike. But we did what we could, and it felt good to know that while we were cleaning the place up, we were also being proactive by setting an example and showing the hikers how trash accumulates.