An Unexpected Hypocrisy

I’ve spent the last ten years trying to inspire people to ride their bikes more. Some of that time was writing about cycling over at Red Kite Prayer, and some of it was working in the bike industry in sales and marketing. I focused a lot on trail riding on trying to explain just how great it feels to be on a bike in the woods. If you’re reading these words, you probably know that feeling.

Among my friends, I’m a zealot and an evangelist. I get annoying. But then, most of my friends are outdoor people. Preaching to the converted is still pretty fun.

So, imagine how I felt when the Covid-19 pandemic forced more people out into the woods for their daily recreation.

I was irritated.

Wait. What? What the hell is wrong with me?

So, here’s the thing. I love the woods, but much of what I love about them is the feeling of escape, of not having to see all those people, of not having to exchange niceties, of being able to think mostly about myself (uh oh). The newcomers, the folks who have turned their quarantines into quests to reacquaint themselves with fresh air, don’t do it right.

First, they’re not friendly, and in my mind, the woods and the people who gravitate to them are friendly. Out there, we let go of all our close-quarters irritation and expand into our more tolerant (irony), more connected selves. If you can’t say ‘hello’ to someone on the trail, then you should go back and read the manual. Outside is a better place. Behave better.

Second, their trail etiquette is terrible. They wander off into the brush. They leave garbage. They fail to yield to people ascending. They spread across all the available space and fail to pay attention to approaching runners/walkers/riders.

And the children.

It’s great that you’re bringing your kids along. They will benefit from feeling comfortable in the woods, and establishing adventurous habits early will pay off for them their whole lives. But teach them the way to be here, and when other trail users approach, pay attention to how much space your family is taking up.

Now ignore everything I just said. I’m just being an asshole.

I recognized early that my attitude wasn’t right, and that made me think more about how we got here, to this place where there’s not enough outdoors for all the people who want to be outdoors.

The woods have a natural constituency, a type of person who will always gravitate there, and in our digital age, that constituency is dwindling. When it comes time for space planning, we are the smallest of the interested groups clamoring for space. Priority almost always goes to government and property developers. And so, if there is a piece of land that can be turned into a revenue generator, nine times out of ten, you get more condos instead of more trails, or even more undisturbed wild space.

I sketched this idea for my friend and running partner, M, which is when she stopped nodding her head and told me I was a double hypocrite. First, I want the trails for myself and no one else, and that’s awful. But also, I live in a single-family house, a luxurious waste of space (albeit small) that contributes to the human sprawl that we benignly refer to as a neighborhood. M, who grew up in Bangalore and Lagos, thinks we should all be in high-rises, in smaller living spaces, so there can be more wilderness everywhere (and likely fewer humans).

And while that’s a fairly absolutist view that offers as its only logical solution the wholesale destruction and re-wilding of many of our homes, I think, as an exercise in opening your mind to the size/shape of the problem, she’s spot on.

I have had the privilege of the trails, but I am not entitled. I am already taking up more space than I’m due. I should be grateful for what I have and generous in sharing it with as many people as I can.

And I should just say ‘hello,’ smile, and keep moving while I’m out there, or else I’m the problem and not any part of the solution.

What do you think? Comments below.