Does "Civilizing" the Wild Actually Help the Outdoor Community?
In which we debate the merits of building tourist attractions on some of the most remote places on the planet:
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Across the street from another packed parking lot is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway station. I make my way down the stairs from street level to the platform.
The indoor waiting area — situated beside the gift shop — bears pictures of the original cog railway. Back then, they had to use a special steam engine built on an angle, to ensure the boiler actually worked. The images look absurd, in a beautifully inventive kind of way.
When the time comes, the crowd presses against the sleek red train cars, waiting to show their tickets and board. We shuffle over the slanted floors and into angled seats; designed to prevent passengers from feeling the steep grade.
Minutes later, the doors slide shut, and the train begins its long climb.
The conductor hikes the aisle, leaning impossibly far forward to offset the slanting cars, tallying passengers on his hand counter as he goes. Click, click, click…
When he finishes his rounds, he offers us a quick history lesson:
The idea for a railway came from inventor Zalomon G. Simmons — the one who founded the mattress company by the same name. Simmons came to survey the area to run special insulated telegraph lines up to the peak. The trip took two days by mule, and Simmons wasn’t having it. He remarked there needed to be a more “civilized” way to reach the summit and decided to fund the cog railway.
The first train reached the summit in 1891, and more than a century later, Simmons is still getting his wish. Now, anyone willing and able to pay can drink in scenery like this without so much as breaking a sweat. All they have to do is lift their head, turn, and look out one of the enormous windows.
It turns out, this is easier said than done.
Of the 248 people the conductor tallied, plenty look as though they have better places to be. One gentleman sits with his arms folded, eyes closed, dozing. Others have their gaze turned in the only direction you could look without seeing mountains: down, at their phones.
The conductor takes the mic again as we pull into the summit station.
“This is the last train of the day,” he says. “I’m sure you can guess what we call those of you who don’t make it back on board by 3:20.”
Confused murmurs break out from the passengers.
“Hikers,” the conductor says, wryly.
The train stops. The doors open, and the majority of the passengers stampede away from the gorgeous lookout platform, toward the visitor center’s gift shop and cafeteria.
A Horse Can Pay You to Lead it to Water, and Sometimes, Somehow it still Dies of Thirst
When we talk about making the outdoors more accessible, I’m afraid most of us make too many assumptions about those who aren’t yet exploring the open spaces.
Chief among them: that difficulty is the only barrier keeping people home; that making summits easier to ascend would allow everyone to enjoy them. See, perhaps. But appreciate? That’s different.
For some people, attractions like this one are the only way to see the summit. The Barr Trail to the summit boasts a round trip longer than a marathon, with more than 7,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a tough trip — one that requires a great deal of training and time to complete.
Still, the world is full of people who scoff at the very idea of vigorous outdoor activity when there are pelotons, expensive classes at boutique gyms, and other means of staying in shape that are far more civilized — as Simmons put it.
The truth is: if you could spirit these people away to the most beautiful places on the planet, they just wouldn’t care.
Sure, they’d snap a few pictures. But this would be more the product of social media peak-bagging culture than genuine interest.
Civilizing the Wild: A Fool’s Errand
All of this is quite fine by me. Not everything is for everyone, and I don’t think most of us in the outdoor community are in the business of forcing our interests on others.
But that brings me to my bigger question: why are we working so hard to bring civilization into these remote and special places?
If you don’t care about the outdoors, it’s not a question of convenience. And if you already love nature, you don’t need frills to entice you.
When I shimmied across Kelso Ridge making the climb up to Torreys Peak, I only saw one other soul. I felt like I was on a real adventure, immersed in nature and at times at its mercy.
When I stood at that train station atop Pikes Peak, I felt like an intruder. I enjoyed every moment I had to take in the view. But it felt so much less satisfying than some of my other hard-won climbs.
It’s something long-time readers and listeners of my companion podcast, Trail Talk, may remember me discussing. If you have time, I happen to be fond of this guest post by Ty Ellenbogen tackling the subject, as well as a similar discussion with mountaineer and teacher, Eddie Taylor.
The gist is: when you assign too much meaning to the summit itself — not the totality of the journey — you lose something.
Part of me wonders if by turning these places into attractions and destinations, we help strip away the challenge and mystery that makes them so special, all to chase tourist dollars from visitors who only passively care about the experience.
Not Everything is Bleak
I said earlier: most of us make too many assumptions about those who aren’t yet exploring open spaces. We talked about the false equivalency of ease of exploration with the desire to do so.
Another big blind spot for the outdoor community seems to be remembering how we got inspired to start exploring in the first place.
If you’re already a nature-lover: chances are, that feeling was inspired by a person — or people — in your life who exposed you to the outdoors. Pictures alone are seldom enough to get the job done.
That’s because while detailed and accurate, something gets lost in the translation.
You can’t look at a photo and feel the wind tugging at your hair and rustling your clothes, the high alpine sun toasting your exposed skin, or your pulse quickening to cope with the low oxygen environment.
The giddy mix of excitement and vertigo experienced on the more precarious lookouts are lost too.
Every once in a while, someone will stumble upon an attraction like this, looking for an activity to fill their day or vacation schedule. They’ll experience these sensations for the first time, entirely by accident.
But they’ll be hooked.
I could see this written on the faces of a few fellow passengers; watching as the wonder took hold.
Perhaps for this, it’s worth having some spots like these to sate the peak baggers’ appetite for pictures, while minting new nature lovers along the way.
I Want to Hear from You
Can you think of the person, or experience that first got you invested in exploring the outdoors? Tell us about it in the comments, below!
Coming Up on Saturday:
I’m trying something new this weekend. We’ve run discussion threads before here on Cole’s Climb. This Saturday, I’m hosting a debate thread where you can weigh in on the merits of building tourist attractions like these: do they help expand access in a meaningful way, or are they simply contributing to overcrowding?
Keep an eye on your inbox for a link to join the discussion!
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