"User wars." That's what I've heard them called before, and every season a different battle seems to erupt: snowmobilers vs. backcountry skiers, hikers vs. mountain bikers, 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, RVs and American-made pickups on the other; Patagonia on this end, Cabela's on that end. Some call it democratic, these different views of nature, the varied ways of using public land. But let's not be so warm and fuzzy about it. This is a clash of civilizations.
That's how I feel each autumn during hunting season, when I park at a trailhead on the outer edge of the Pasayten Wilderness in the North Cascades. Normally I try to get here 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, trucks already crowd the parking area. I pull up next to one of them, its tailgate covered in campaign stickers advertising politics I do not share.
As I step out of the car, I am met with hostile glances. Am I imagining it? A group of men is gathered near a large white tent that serves as a base for the packing company that will take them into the wilderness. 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.
Two Seattle-looking backpackers walk by, smiling. I smile back, and watch their faces change as I pull my rifle out of the car, shattering their hopeful urban connection in this rural, wild land.
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 of 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. It's them, I tell myself. 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 gain strength, turn to words. We talk about the deer, about the temperature — 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 whether it might 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. ♦
Brendan Buzzard writes from Lost River, tucked up against the mountains of Washington's North Cascades. A version of this essay first appeared in High Country News.