That’s what I have heard it called before, and every season a different battle seems to erupt: snowmobilers vs. backcountry skiers, hikers vs. mountain bikers, worm fishermen vs. fly fishermen, rock climbers vs. falcon watchers, cattle grazers vs. cattle haters.
Yes, the lines are stark. Look at them, lined up there at the trailhead: Subaru station wagons on one side, RV’s and American-made pick-ups on the other; Patagonia this end, Cabela’s on that end; canned chili over here, organic freeze dried over there. Some call it democratic, these different views of nature, these ways of using public land. But let’s not be so warm and fuzzy, there is nothing procedural about this; this is a clash of civilizations. I mean look at them, the way they eye each other, the way they squint, that grimace. Look at the points on those trekking poles and ice axes, the horses and cavalry spurs, the bandanas and first aid kits, the dynamite for blowing avalanches and the .308s for blowing…well, this is war.
And what about those ones in the middle?
Who? Oh, them. Don’t worry about them. They’re confused, born of different worlds, towns and ranches, pick-ups and sandals. They save the whales while they cast for trout, paint the grizzly while they blast the deer. Intermediaries, that’s what they are. Hypocrites. Pacifists probably. But I tell you they’ll choose sides, when it comes down to it they will. There is no in-between out here.
No in-between out here. That’s how I feel in the autumn during hunting season when I park at a trailhead on the outer edge of the Pasayten wilderness in Washington’s North Cascades. Normally I try to get there early, a day or two before the opening day to slip into the wilderness before other hunters arrive. This season, though, I am late, and when I arrive at the end of the dirt road a long line of trucks already occupy the parking area. I pull up next to one of them, the furthest down the line, it’s tailgate covered in campaign stickers for politics I do not share.
Stepping out of the car I am met with hostile glances. Am I imagining them? A group of men are gathered near a large white tent that serves as a base for the packing company that will take them in. Boots and wool pants, knives and olive drab canteens; they stand around checking their rifles. Click-click. One of them wears a pistol on his hip. Ignore them, I tell myself, as I unload my pack and put on my hiking sandals, but I feel the stares keep coming. Even the horses look at me as though I’m otherworldly, out of place. A black and white Appaloosa stamps her foot on the packed, rootless ground.
Two Seattle-origin backpackers walk by, carrying smiles. I smile back as I pull my rifle out of the car. Their mouths drop, as though some first-glance connection has been shattered, as though I don’t measure up to them, the REI crowd, though we wear the same uniform of fleece. Is there something wrong here, this place of unstated judgment?
My backpack on, I watch as the men climb onto their mounts and file past. A man with a bushy white beard and a camouflage hat spits into a larch tree. Let them go first, I tell myself, because I won’t be on the trail long anyway. But instantly I regret it. Following them down the path I am walking through horse shit, clouds of flies, and I feel like I am beginning to smell like horses that have spent too much time in pens, and not enough time on open ranges. I turn off the trail through an alpine meadow and drop into the forest.
Days later I am hunting the grassy meadows along a creek bed, creeping over grass and rock, my feet wet with morning dew. On a patch of dirt I find boot prints, the first fresh ones I have seen in a couple days, and over a rise on the bank of the stream I see the figure of a man, white-bearded, orange-clad. We recognize each other. Suddenly I smell horses again. It’s them, I tell myself, and of course the deer will know. But I walk over, whispering something apologetic, as though I’m on someone else’s ground.
He answers, uneasily at first, and gradually our whispers turn to words. We talk about the deer, about the temperature and how it would be hard to keep meat in this heat; we talk about fresh bear tracks, about the geography of trails, about the creek and if it may be a good place to fish.
We linger, briefly, in the morning sun, and before I pick up my rifle and move off up the valley, we reach out and shake hands, as though in this place we are allowed, for a moment, to transcend the façade, to be human first.