Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thinking about Trash

The day begins as my idea of paradise.  We emerge from the bunkhouse before dawn and gather to watch the sky transform.  It's impossible to pinpoint just when the clouds start light up with silver or when the red glow above the horizon turns to purple with splashes of orange.  Our faces turn upward as the first rays peak over the horizon behind silhouettes of dancing trees.  The sound of laughter and oh's and ah's.  I am left with a deep sense of peace and awe at the natural world, and I feel lucky to be able to witness such beauty.
Solar panels on top of the Hike Inn

The Trail Dames are visiting the Len Foote Hike Inn at Amicalola Falls State Park, a eco-friendly lodge accessible only by 5 mile trail.  An entire building set up on stilts as if it were literally walking gently on the earth.  Solar panels, composting toilets, worms in the basement to eat our kitchen scraps.  In an effort to make us more aware, at meals we are asked to only put onto our plate what we will eat.  The goal is to minimize the wasted food, and to think about where our food comes from and the energy that goes into bringing it to the table.  A board in the dining room proclaims the daily totals; we've learned our lesson- ZERO ounces waste for the Trail Dames.

I am loving all this talk about sustainable living.  I try to do my part for the environment:  taking the bus to work (though it takes much more time), driving a hybrid car, and obsessing over things like keeping the thermostat turned down.  Sometimes I've taken it a bit too far.  Back in grad school, in an effort to save money, we canceled our home garbage pickup and hauled our own trash to the dump.  I became aware of every item I placed into the trash.  I started buying in bulk, choosing things in recyclable packaging or without packaging, or just not buying certain things.  Food scraps were diverted into the compost.  I began washing and reusing plastic bags.  I realized I'd never really paid attention to trash-- it was always something that just disappeared.  I started imagining trash as earth's resources and energy being literally wasted.  And being at the Hike Inn was really reinforcing that lesson.

I take the long way from the Hike Inn back to Amicalola Falls, and turn up towards the mountains, as the Trail Dames all head for home.  I climb deeper into forest, up the Approach Trail, and find silence, solitude.  As I get closer to Springer Mountain, the snow deeps, until it's blanketing the forest.  I arrive at the summit to find I have the whole place to myself.  There is something sacred about this place where so many dreams begin.  I spend a few moments lost in thought, imagining the AT stretching out before me for miles and miles, before I turn around and head back down the way I came.

Snowy quiet on the Approach Trail.
I decide to stop to have lunch at Black Gap shelter.  In contrast to the stark whiteness of the snow, bright color catches my eye.  At first, I think there must be someone there.  But upon closer examination, I find the shelter and surrounding area are littered in trash and discarded gear.  The peace of the forest is shattered for me.  Did something happen to someone?  If someone was returning for all this stuff, why did they leave it lying around instead of hanging it on the bear cables?  I make up all sorts of stories in my head, my imagination running wild.

Black Gap Shelter

I collect the soiled food wrappers and empty cans and bottles, stuffing my backpack to the brim, leaving the foam pads, camelbak just in case, and head back down the trail.

Back at the visitor's center, I ask about the trashed shelter.  The rangers aren't surprised, and say people leave the shelters a mess all the time.  I stare at them blankly, horrified.  How could that be?  Out here in these beautiful woods!  All the trash is an eyesore, spoiling the illusion of a pristine forest?!?  And don't they know how human food changes animal behavior, making them acclimatized to humans and putting them at risk?  Then, I wonder if I'm being judgmental and I tell myself not to judge other people.  Who knows why they left all that trash in the shelter.  I wish I could understand what they were thinking.

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