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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

“Nature doesn’t care if you’re gay,” I’ll often hear in reaction to articles by myself or my outdoorsy LGBTQ peers. And it’s true: Nature doesn’t care if I’m gay.

But people do.

A few ago, I finished a world-record journey to all 419 National Park Service sites. For three years nonstop, I lived in a van, hiked trails everywhere from American Samoa to the Arctic Circle, and accomplished an outdoors journey no human had ever done before. But comments about the trip have included things like, “Well now I need to be careful in the bathroom at national parks,” and, “Why do you have to shove your lifestyle down our throats!” A sponsor terminated our partnership halfway through the project, saying over the phone and in writing that I was doing too much LGBTQ outreach.

A camping website called The Dyrt posted an interview with me on Facebook featuring a thumbnail photo in which I’m holding a rainbow flag in front of Yosemite’s Tunnel View. The comments were so inflammatory that the publishers decided just hours later it was inappropriate to leave it up. They later denounced the hateful comments and reposted the story with a call for civility—which was unheeded. A rainbow flag incited such anger from a community of nature-lovers that they ignored what so many outdoor enthusiasts have told me is their “dream trip.”

This happened in June, of all months, the one month when my social media feels like an explosion of rainbows due to worldwide Pride festivals. When historic anniversaries like the Stonewall uprising and marriage-equality decisions are remembered. And when seemingly every corporation, from Listerine to Disney, is releasing products that celebrate these culture-changing moments.

Yet, as the rest of America chases this “Pink Dollar,” the outdoor recreation industry seems less interested in the near $1 trillion in purchasing power of the U.S. LGBTQ community. Or the shift in culture evidenced by the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2019 “Pride Night” was the team’s highest attended game in seven years. Or—as I can attest after seeing Tinder photos from every corner of the United States during my parks journey—the vast market of gay men hoping to look cute in athletic clothes on top of a mountain.

Some in the LGBTQ community argue that corporate Pride promotions are simply “rainbow washing” to increase profits. But as someone who didn’t meet an openly gay adult until I left my home state of Nebraska at age 19, while 14 years later can get married in any state across the U.S., I’ve seen the progress our culture has made. And I believe companies had a large part in it.

In an age when corporations are afforded some of the same rights as individuals, financial power plays a significant role in our society, from politics to cultural acceptance. When Marriott, a company started and owned by Mormons, is willing to sponsor Pride festivals and has an entire annual #LoveTravels campaign aimed at making LGBTQ travelers feel welcome, even people in so-called “flyover states” are influenced by ideas more progressive than they might see at home.

In the same way, the outdoor recreation industry has the power to help build a future where LGBTQ outdoors fans are seen the same as everyone else. In that world, other nature enthusiasts’ reactions to a photo of a flag-bearing hiker would be the same whether it was an American flag or a rainbow one. If outdoor companies follow the example of the rest of corporate America, they could use their influence in a way that both helps their bottom line and improves the lives of outdoor lovers.

As civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman said, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” The backing of inclusive values by outdoor brands will help nature enthusiasts like the Eagle Scout who wrote me via Instagram to share that he’d never had an outdoorsy gay role model until learning about my national parks record. Better representation will invite more people to experience our great outdoors. While LGBTQ discrimination still causes vastly higher rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth than their straight peers, this moment in time gives me hope.

When I started my national parks journey in 2016, the outdoor recreation industry had never had a Pride Month ad. Now, several companies and nonprofits sponsor an annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit; an outdoors-themed drag queen is commanding attention from brands, and REI (which I work with to help promote LGBTQ inclusion in the outdoors) received the Kenji Award at 2019’s Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in part for their “Outside With Pride” apparel.

This promotions and inclusion work of the past three years has expanded the tent of who sees themselves in outdoors culture, meaning we’ve come one step closer to a goal: A hope that one day, the readers of an article about a gay man visiting all of America’s national parks won’t care about the sexual orientation of the adventurer. After all, if nature doesn’t care that I’m gay, why do people?

Adventurer Mikah Meyer was recently named one of NBC’s “Pride 50” for groundbreaking work with LGBTQ communities. He is a regular speaker on topics ranging from epic outdoors experiences to the benefits of inclusion for businesses and individuals. He is based in Minneapolis. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

As I clambered my way up the trail recently, I passed two languishing young women. One of them regarded her sandwich with distaste. “I am going to toss this. I know there is a squirrel who will appreciate it.”

I cautioned, “We ask people not to feed the wildlife.” As I walked off, one of them opined: “What does she know? She’s hiking in a skirt!”

My sartorial preferences in trail wear aside, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that “organic” litter is copacetic: It will either evaporate into biodegradable thin air or somehow be devoured.

Does it vanish? At an outdoor education center, we set up a few experiments. We built a cage of chicken wire wide enough to allow small animals ingress and egress, but small enough to keep items secure from wind. Therein we placed an apple core, a banana peel, orange peels, chewing gum and tissue paper. After six months, the orange peels had dried out; the banana peel was a distasteful black; and the tissue had collapsed into an inert mass. Nothing had rotted or been eaten.

What about interment? We commandeered a terrarium and entombed the same items—some in sand, some in organic soil. Six months later, everything was still recognizable.

Indeed, the venerable Leave No Trace organization has done experiments more sophisticated than mine. Banana peels can take up to two years to decompose, while orange peels can linger up to six months. In an arid environment, orange peels, rather like King Tut’s mummy, will last indefinitely. Citrus contains a natural insecticide: Even the ants won’t touch orange peels. And chewing gum contains rubber, so it won’t rot.

But will not the timid woodland creatures enjoy my discards? Certainly at any rest stop on the trail, one is likely to see obese rodents waddling up and professing hunger.

But think about it: Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? We do not. So why would a squirrel? An apple core is edible, certainly, but if it is not part of the animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food. Anyone who has experienced so-called “traveler’s tummy” from a change in water or cuisine while vacationing can attest to this. Unless one is hiking through an apple orchard, apple cores are not a part of the local ecosystem.

Realistically, does a humble apple core really cause that much damage? Our national parks are enjoying a plethora of visitation. Grand Canyon welcomes 6 million people a year. It is estimated that 10 percent of visitors hike approximately a mile below the rim. Let us be generous and assume that 90 percent of these sightseers will carry out their trash. But that, for our purposes, presupposes that the remainder will toss, say, something like an apple core. That’s 60,000 apple cores. We would be knee-deep in the execrable things.

So-called “empty calories”—such as those that come from white bread, processed foods and sugar—are not good for us. Why should they be good for wildlife? Animals need some fat to survive winter, but excess adipose tissue is just as bad for them as it is for us. At Alaska’s Denali National Park, there are signs asking people not to feed the marmots so they don’t get too portly to escape from the grizzlies. (Meanwhile, of course, the grizzlies are watching, muttering, “Go ahead; feed them, already!”)

Desert animals have a special difficulty. Many of these critters have no ready source of water: They get moisture from the food they eat. They cannot flush salt from their bodies, and excess salt will kill them.

Animals habituated to human food and, by association, humans, quickly become nuisances. Bears are the extreme example: They will rip off a car door to get at food. Smaller animals tear into packs and tents. Rodents carry hantavirus, rabies and tetanus. The ticks and fleas that inhabit their fur transport Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, relapsing fever and plague. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want them cuddling up to me.

Animals that are fed by humans will not collect and store enough food for winter. When hiking season is over, and the tourists leave, they face starvation.

The bottom line is, before we got here, the faunae did just fine on nuts, berries and occasionally each other. They do not need us.

Would the two young women who were tossing that sandwich have done so in their own living room? Certainly not. Then again, considering what my son’s college dorm room looked like, perhaps I should not be so sure.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She hikes and works in the Grand Canyon.

Published in Community Voices

The struggle to gain protection for critical land and water resources, wildlife, Native American cultural sites and spectacular landscapes within the California desert has gone on for more than a decade. With support from a wide group of constituents, including off-roaders, businesspeople, faith leaders, conservationists and veterans, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has developed strong, balanced legislation—but Congress has been either unwilling or unable to act.

Her latest proposal, the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, hasn’t even been scheduled for a committee hearing, and no bill was introduced in the House. So, the senator pushed forward to safeguard our precious public lands by asking the president to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare three new desert national monuments—Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains.

The responses from editorial boards at The Desert Sun, The Press-Enterprise in Riverside and the Orange County Register were disappointing and perplexing. While editors acknowledged the need for protection of the California desert, they chose to advance arguments defying all logic. The Desert Sun applauded Feinstein’s conservation efforts and even said the proposed national monuments “would be great additions to the nation’s protected lands”—but then slammed the senator for turning to the Antiquities Act to accomplish this goal. Instead,Desert Sun editors argued that we should return to a dysfunctional Congress that is intent on blocking any public-lands legislation, no matter how broad and diverse its support in local communities.

In an editorial published by both The Press Enterprise and Orange County Register, Feinstein was accused of being eager to “cede congressional powers” to the executive branch because of her request that the president take action. That argument is certainly hard to swallow, given the senator has spent nearly 10 years trying to push desert-conservation legislation through Congress. The same editorial gave Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, a soapbox to spout misinformation about both the Antiquities Act and the nature of national monuments. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, McClintock has consistently blocked conservation efforts. He proposes that Feinstein and the president would be conspiring “to declare vast tracts of land off-use” if they proceed with the designation of the new national monuments. McClintock claims they would benefit an “elite few granted restricted use.” In reality, it would be mining, solar and wind projects that would restrict access to an “elite few,” while creating these monuments would benefit the greatest number of people by ensuring recreational access for equestrians, hikers, hunters, rock-hounders and off-roaders on designated routes.

Use of the Antiquities Act—which grants the president the authority to declare national monuments on lands controlled or owned by the federal government—has been used almost equally by Democrats and Republicans alike. One need look no further than Joshua Tree or Death Valley to see the success of national monuments in providing protection for natural resources and conserving sites with cultural, historic and scientific value, as the act prescribes. Both places were initially established as national monuments, the former by Republican Herbert Hoover, and the latter by Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their elevation to national parks by Congress through the California Desert Protection Act only increased their value to the community.

The proposed Mojave Trails National Monument would connect Joshua Tree National Park to the Mojave National Preserve and protect significant wildlife corridors. This region includes the longest intact stretch of historic Route 66 and the best-preserved encampment from World War II’s desert training center, Iron Mountain. Important Native American trading routes and sacred trails crisscross the landscape.

Castle Mountains contains 36 species of rare plants, including some of the finest native desert grasslands in the entire California Desert. This is home to healthy populations of golden eagles, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and bobcats. It’s also a target location for reintroduction of pronghorn, the world’s second-fastest terrestrial mammal. Beneath the shadow of Hart Peak are rich Native American archaeological sites and the historic gold mining ghost town of Hart.

For many Coachella Valley residents, the dramatic landscape of the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument is an everyday sight, including Southern California’s highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio, and its longest river, the Santa Ana. This area includes alpine peaks, forests, Joshua tree woodlands and two of California’s three deserts, the Colorado and the Mojave. Its mountains are the most botanically diverse in the contiguous United States. This is critical habitat for migrating birds, black bears and bighorn sheep, and it contains culturally significant Native American sites. For the 18 million people who live within a two-hour drive of this proposed monument, there are great opportunities to get outside and enjoy wide-open spaces.

We are fortunate here in the Coachella Valley to be surrounded by the wild beauty of the desert. It is the reason many of us came to live, raise families, start businesses and retire here. With public lands close by, both residents and visitors have the opportunity to connect with nature. I count myself among them. I have enjoyed exploring these natural areas as an avid hiker and camper, and I’ve visited remote sites accessible only by four-wheel drive. Protecting these landscapes preserves the quality of life that we enjoy. That’s why so many Coachella Valley businesses and organizations support the establishment of these monuments—using either legislation or presidential proclamation. This includes my own organization, Great Outdoors Palm Springs (GOPS), an all-volunteer group that educates, promotes and conducts camping and hiking activities for the Coachella Valley’s growing LGBTQ community.

While we remain committed to passing Sen. Feinstein’s California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act, we recognize the opportunity to protect some of the lands contained in that legislation now. So we also call on the president to designate three new desert national monuments, to ensure that the pristine public lands all around us remain for generations to come.

Scott Connelly is the vice president for outings of Great Outdoors Palm Springs.

Published in Community Voices

We had barely covered the first 10 miles of trail, hiking north from the California-Mexico border, when my hiking partner, Flash, and I found the first Pacific Crest Trail casualty. A man in his 20s, face flushed red from heat, watched us approach with clear embarrassment.

He sat in a small patch of shade next to a pack bristling with a solar charger and the latest, most-expensive gear. “You wouldn’t happen to have any water, would you?” he asked.

Flash and I eyed each other. We were each carrying six liters, enough to easily take us the first 20 waterless miles to the Lake Morena campground. We had planned our water carry days before: One liter for every five miles, with a little extra to account for the heat. It was before noon, and a big climb out of Hauser Canyon awaited us. How much could we spare?

It was impossible to walk away without helping. The hiker watched precious water trickle into his bottle and drained it. We gave him more. That morning, he had set off on a journey of more than 2,600 miles, determined to make it to Canada, but a few hours later, he had called friends for a pick up at Lake Morena. He was leaving the trail.

“It was more than I expected,” he said. Then he warned us about a girl we had seen a few miles back, wearing earbuds and only carrying three liters of water. Not enough, we all knew.

In the next five miles, we passed two more hikers in various stages of heat stress and doled out more of our water—three liters of our supply. One man, clad in jeans and flannel, could barely hold his army canteen at arm’s length as he lay just off the trail.

Down in Hauser Canyon, volunteers had trucked in gallons of water—an emergency cache. It would be a welcome sight for the hikers behind us, and I knew that at least one of them might have died without it. Flash and I did not need the cache. We still had a liter each to spare. As we started the shadeless climb, I glanced back at the pile of jugs in the dry canyon bottom with mixed feelings.

If you couldn’t carry enough water to make it 20 miles, should you be out here? California is in the grips of a severe drought. Creeks that Flash remembered soaking her feet in years before were just rivers of sand now. How long before sections of the Pacific Crest Trail were basically unhikeable?

Coming up were 40-mile dry stretches, with handfuls of volunteer caches to punctuate the barren desert. Unlike the people we had seen today, plenty of hikers were prepared, loading up their packs with seven liters of water—more than 15 pounds added to the necessities they already hauled. In the early 1990s, as a wilderness ranger and burdened with survival gear and trail maintenance tools, I carried 70-pound loads and thought little of it, though my knees took a beating. How much was too much weight when you needed water to survive?

Back in San Diego the night before, Flash and I were mistaken for volunteers as 20-somethings swirled around us, sorting their gear and making last-minute purchases. We were staying at the house of two former through-hikers, and Flash and I had jumped in to help with dinner while the others posted updates to Facebook and waited for food to appear.

An Israeli hiker stared at us in disbelief. “You’re hiking?” he asked, perhaps incredulous that two middle-aged women could attempt to do so. They would learn: In the end, it wasn’t youth that carried you to the end of the trail; it was how open you were to the lessons of the journey.

Of course, the hikers we started out with at the border didn’t remember the old days, a time when we carried maps and compasses and still got lost before we found our way again. We discovered campsites instead of having them displayed on our phones, and we carried food for long stretches without hitching into towns. Our gear was enormous and heavy. We didn’t know the weather forecasts. There were no satellite beacons to call for help; you made it out, or you didn’t. All of these things taught us resilience and how to survive. I wouldn’t trade those days for the way it is now, even though I’ve learned to appreciate having a lighter pack and trip reports posted on the Internet.

We never again saw any of the eight hikers who were at the border with us. I don’t know if they dropped out. If they kept on, I hope they relished all the days without cell service, the joy of finding a perfect campsite, or the exhilaration of surviving an unexpected spring thunderstorm on a high pass.

I like to think that they figured it out, that they learned what the trail had to teach them. I like to think of them getting a little wiser on the long march toward Canada, and I love to imagine how one day, when they’re the age I am now, they’ll look back and remember the way it used to be.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She is a writer in Oregon whose new book, The Geography of Water, is forthcoming from the University of Alaska Press in November.

Published in Community Voices

I'm a health nut, so I almost never eat at fast-food restaurants. But I notice that every time there's a new burger joint here in the valley, it opens to much fanfare. These establishments are very popular with people who have little time on their hands, not to mention the slime on their hands when they're eating all the greasy food.

But what's wrong with this picture? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to live a healthier lifestyle? We live in an area that offers plenty of outdoor recreation, yet not everyone takes advantage of it.

We can eliminate much of the debate about health care by just focusing on prevention. If we teach people how to take care of themselves, that will decrease the chances of them becoming dependent on the system. For those who have already become ill, I propose instituting an incentive-based health-care system. For example, if an obese person loses a specific amount of weight, they would be offered a discount on their insurance premium; after all, money is a great motivator. But let's take a look at some practical solutions to get people started.

Anyone who has driven into the Coachella Valley has noticed those unsightly windmills located next to the freeway. They've always been an eyesore. Perhaps we should remove all the windmills and replace them with people. If someone is in need of more exercise, they would have the opportunity to stand in the wind-prone areas and flap their arms as hard as they could. By doing this, they could generate power, and burn calories at the same time. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, not to mention a wind-wind situation.

Another suggestion is to have our own “running of the bulls” event here in the desert. The idea would be to let loose a herd of bulls through the streets and have them chase a group of people who need exercise. There's no better way to get in shape quickly than be forced to run for your life.

But before you dismiss all this as a bunch of bull, we need to recognize the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Activity is the key to longevity.

One of the best ways to stay active is to swim, and here in the Coachella Valley, we're lucky to have a body of water large enough to accommodate thousands of swimmers. I'm talking about the jewel of the desert, the Salton Sea. There's nothing more satisfying than taking a dip on a beautiful day surrounded by the aroma of rotting fish. And that's the point: There could be a race called “Last One Out Is a Rotten Egg.” All the contestants would swim as fast as they could to get out of the water quickly. The last one out would, indeed, smell like rotten eggs.

The ideal solution would be to combine all of these activities together to create the First Annual Coachella Valley Turbine Toro Tilapia Triathlon. Participants would start off by flapping their arms like a wind turbine, then be chased by bulls all the way to the Salton Sea, where they could swim alongside floating tilapia.

When the swimmers emerge from the sea, each of them would be personally dried off by former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who's used to throwing in the towel. The winner of the competition would be invited to have a Big Mac with Bono Mack and her husband, Connie Mack. Of course, Big Macs aren't exactly the healthiest food in the world, which leads us back to our original goal of living a healthier lifestyle.

Our new congressman, Dr. Raul Ruiz, spent a year as a medical student with Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to providing health care to impoverished countries. His services could certainly be used to educate people here about the benefits of taking care of themselves.

In the meantime, you deserve a break today. Forget the burger; get your buns out, and do something active.

Published in Humor