A few weeks ago Jeannie and I went to Canyonlands National Park. At the visitor center, one of Mother Nature's elves told us we could have a free badge to wear if we could answer a few simple questions about cryptobiotic soil. How could we pass up a deal like that? We were quickly deputized as cryptobiotic soil rangers. My badge says: "Don't bust the crust - stay on the trails - help protect fragile cryptobiotic soil."
But as I left the visitor center wearing my official crypto-ranger badge, I felt guilty because I knew, deep down in my wilderness-tempered little heart, that I was a sinner. At other times and in other places, I had walked off the trails.
Over the years I had carelessly, and with a happy heart, trodden across miles and miles of slickrock desert, wild flower gardens and not-so-fragile cryptobiotic dirt. I had bent the sage and saltgrass with the hard and unyielding soles of my hiking boots. I had spoiled pristine, wind-driven sand dunes with boot tracks and the prints of my bare feet. I had climbed hills, trees and mountains. I had yodeled into the ledges just to hear the echo. I had picked wild flowers and cactus blossoms to present to a special lady.
I had chased innocent jackrabbits from horseback and dispatched a deserving snake or two that ventured near my wilderness camp and bedroll. I had picked up horned toads and carried them on the brim of my hat for hours and miles, much to the delight of some special little boys. I had chopped down defenseless juniper trees and turned them into hard working fence posts back at the ranch. I had peeled the bark from many a willow shoot to made a whistle for a child or a weenie stick for a kid. I had selfishly transplanted small quaking aspens and desert cactus to the dooryard of my home, simply because I enjoyed them.
I had built fires in the wilderness to cook my beans and warm my buns. And I did so without a wood permit and without carrying the ashes home to put in the garbage can. I had shared a canteen of water and enjoyed the company of a good friend in the shadow of an ancient Indian ruin. I had left boot tracks in the mud after a cool and unexpected summer rain. I had gathered pine nuts and spit the shells indiscriminately to be scattered by the wind.
I had climbed tall rock formations to peek into the canyons and the desert far beyond. And like that eco-hero Edward Abbey, I had rolled a rock from a high desert rim to watch it bounce and skip excitedly into the abyss below. I had followed old and decaying seismograph roads into the backcountry in my four-wheel-drive pickup truck, just to see where they went. I had practiced shooting my big gun, and pulverized small rocks while making loud noises that other wilderness travelers might have heard a few miles away. And with the same big gun in hand, I had followed deer tracks for miles over hill and dell, enjoying both the chase and the challenge of the hunt.
I had talked to coyotes with a predator call and suckered great black ravens to come almost within the range of a hand-shake by hiding under a cedar tree and making squeaky little mouse noises on the back of my fingers. I was guilty of skinny-dipping in the cool waters of slickrock tanks. I had carved my name on a quaking aspen tree and allowed my big fat horse to poop on the wilderness trails.
I had watched passively and only smiled as little boys and an excited dog splashed in wilderness waterways or chased lizards through the sage bushes. I had picked up gemstones, colorful small rocks, fossils, and fragments of petrified wood, treasured mementos of my travels that still decorate my bookshelves and desktop at home. I had carried home sprigs of scented sage, juniper and mountain mahogany to perfume my humble abode. I had snuggled up next to a pretty woman in the moonlight as coyotes howled and the embers of a campfire dimmed. I had enjoyed freedom, and this great nation's public lands far too much.
I should have been ashamed.
This is crypto-ranger McCourt speaking. All you tourists and tree-huggers stay on the trails, okay?