Trucking into the left-hander followed by the little rock garden drop, I was more than dismayed to see two hikers standing in the middle of my path. This was an extremely well-marked, downhill-only, bike-only trail, so their presence was not only violative, but also the very likely precursor to a violent collision. Closing quickly, the momentum and gravity making my descent inexorable, I ditched the bike, letting it and I run out down the hill to a still-uncertain fate. I narrowly avoided both the pedestrians and the tree, my bike clattered to a halt on some rocks. Oblivious, but with an obvious accent, the couple casually remarked that I should be more careful. My response was less casual.
We all need our alone time, those periods in which we can decompress, contemplate, disassociate, and otherwise attempt to restore and reload for more of life’s onslaught. This could take place curled up with a book, in front of an easel, merely staring off into space, or any number of other permutations. For many around here, those solo respites are taken in the outdoors, skis on our feet or bikes under our bums. This summer, the trails have been buzzing as usual, an amazing testament to the local bounty.
There is an understandable impulse to attempt to drown out the madness of the outside world, by listening to tunes or the insightful voice of one’s podcaster of choice. Increasingly, this impulse has become coincident with the drive to be out on the trail, with so many trail users plugging both of their ears with earbuds or shielding them with headphones. For the hiker or biker locked into their favorite jam, this is an ethereal, blissful experience, the melding of sight and sound a miasma of joy. For the other trail users, it is much, much less so. Ecstatic enjoyment is not usually accompanied by an acute awareness of those around you, especially if they are unknown or unexpected arrivals.
The intersection between personal enjoyment and collective safety is sometimes difficult to locate, but I always tend to believe that erring on the side of the latter is an imperative for any even basic, decent human conduct. One’s individual right to revel in a public space is decidedly circumscribed by the attendant rights of all other trail users, as overlaid by the formal rules of etiquette. This gets tricky when a particular trail user is dulling one’s sense of hearing, so as to isolate themselves from the community out on the trail. Even if a hiker theoretically has the right of way against a biker, that right is usurped if the hiker cannot hear someone trying to politely overtake.
Proper conduct is dictated by common sense and respect, regardless of the particular technicalities of a situation. Which is why it is not only dangerous when people drown out exterior sounds, but also when they ignore their own instincts or openly flout posted signs. In pursuit of what they thought must have been a really cool trail experience, the two hikers with whom I almost collided risked both their lives and mine. It is neither a worthy nor benevolent tradeoff.
When one chooses to head outdoors to recreate, it would seem that one of the most important parts is to experience all of the inputs that nature has to offer. To drown out the rush of leaves or the chirping of birds is limiting the fullness of the experience. This is not to say that I do not enjoy or condone inserting a personal soundtrack onto nature from time to time. And, of course, sometimes it is discouraging to be very aware of how hard you are breathing on that climb.
But, there is a time and a place where such is safe and appropriate, and a time when it is selfish and potentially disastrous. It should not be so hard to tell the difference.