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Commentary: Racing through nature

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opinion Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/all/themes/wctrib_theme/images/social_default_image.png
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Commentary: Racing through nature
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

The story of a young man's speed-hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail has raised some environmentalist eyebrows, albeit only slightly. He was racing from California's border with Mexico to Washington state's with Canada.

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The cause was a good one -- to raise money for the families of cancer patients. And it wasn't like he was making noise and pollution.

So where is the problem or, to downplay it a bit, the mild concern?

John de Graaf, a quality-of-life activist who noted the Seattle Times story on his Facebook page, explained it to me with careful words: "The idea of hiking fast certainly doesn't bother me. It's the location that is worrisome."

And the timing seems right for such a conversation. Sept. 3 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Since its signing by President Lyndon Johnson, the law has set aside 110 million acres for the highest level of federal protection. Motorized equipment and mechanical transport are banned, though visitors may fish, camp and hunt where permitted.

Nowhere in the list of do-nots is speed hiking. Still.

Competitive sports do seem odd in areas designated to allow humans the most direct experience with primeval nature. "We need to have some sacred places in society where people can retreat from all of that," is how de Graaf puts it.

Let's face it. The speed hiker's feat could have been performed on the side of a highway.

De Graaf heads a Seattle-based group called Take Back Your Time. It studies the link between overconsumption and Americans' lack of free time -- and seeks to change our harried way of life.

To de Graaf, speed-up, overwork, obsessive competition, inadequate vacation time and letting markets dictate our values all belong in one package. They have led to weaker social connections, impaired health and growing unhappiness amid the material plenty.

Wilderness, if one experiences it directly and on its own rhythm, serves as an antidote to stresses of the daily hustle. The wilderness is a mystical place -- "almost a revelation," de Graaf says. It's the wildlife, the flowers, the quiet. "You miss those things when you're going by 50 miles a day."

And with trail racing gaining attention, others will follow. Witness the brisk sales in specialized trail-running shoes and "fastpacking" gear to make the stops as brief as possible.

One must admire the strength, endurance and dedication of these racers. Superb fitness is a requirement for covering a trail encompassing both Mojave Desert oven and the Forester Pass, 13,153 feet up. South of Yosemite National Park are stretches of 200 miles or more without a single road crossing. One can also appreciate that speed hikers are environmentalists, in their own way.

That said, I've walked trails where we had to step aside to let racers whiz by. No big deal, though there's something highly impersonal about these encounters. Slower hominids tend to acknowledge each other's existence and delight in the natural splendor.

But again, nothing environmentally horrible going on here. So no one is calling for speed limits on hiking wilderness trails. Rather, it's to reflect on why we passed a law a half-century ago to set them aside.

And that again leads to the question: What goes missing when the objective of hiking a wilderness trail is not to mate with nature but to get through it in the shortest time possible?

Wild country reminds humans of the "bigger-than-we-are." It puts petty worries about wrinkles and mortgage payments in perspective. And it helps us push the "pause" button on the busyness that devours so many of our allotted hours on earth. That's the point.

Froma Harrop can be reached at fharrop@wctrib.com.

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