Local Secrets and the Outdoor Writers Scourge

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I know about an amazing mountain bike trail in the Wasatch, somewhere between Mount Nebo and Ben Lomond Peak. It’s classic Utah singletrack – sticky, shaped dirt, banked turns, with old-growth pines that shade the entire loop. And I’m not supposed to tell you where it is.

The discovery of this little-known path literally wheeled up to me as I drove through an undisclosed, high-country neighborhood where, out of the corner of my eye, mountain bikers were exiting a thick forest. This trailhead wasn’t on any map that I knew of. In fact, I didn’t know there was any mountain biking here at all. Intrigued, I went back the very next day with my full suspension in tow and proceeded to hungrily consume miles of bliss under treaded tires for hours. The loop was sublime – perfectly constructed, buttery, and devoid of a single soul save for the mother moose and her offspring that crashed through the evergreens after being startled by my chain-rattling approach.

Totally stoked about this little-known trail, and anxious to brag about my new secret spot, I committed a grave sin: I took my friends the very next week. On the trail, as I banked my front tire around hairpin turns, I smiled as my buds whooped and hollered behind me. They were having a blast. Sharing the experience with them gave me a thrill. As I dropped my seat post and leaned back on the handlebars for another roller-filled descent, I made concrete plans to write an article about the trail so everyone in Utah could share in this unknown gem.

But as soon as we finished the loop, grabbed beers from the cooler, and high-fived with post-ride elation, they each looked me in the eye and uttered the words, “you better not write about this trail.”

Such is the dilemma of the outdoor writer.

Nothing creates a mountain-town brouhaha quite like the debate about a local’s secret stash being revealed to the masses. Guide books, magazine articles and even trail directions written on a brewery napkin are all grievous sins for those who wish for a total, media blackout on trail beta. But the very core of outdoor writing revolves around, well, outdoor places, and in such writing, the names and/or locations of hush-hush locales are inevitably revealed.

Amused, I pointed out to my friends that I already gave up this secret stash by bringing them to it, and they would not have enjoyed it had I not otherwise told them about it. But after tasting the goods, they suddenly wanted it all to themselves. I guess outdoorsy locals tend to forget kindergarten lessons about sharing. Here they possessed a new toy, and hell-be-damned if we they going to simply toss it into the communal toy box.

Well, I for one have never subscribed to the notion that local stashes should remain secret. Whether it’s a pocket of powder that lasts for weeks just one aspen over from the traverse on the local ski hill, or a forgotten mountain bike trail that never graced the pages of a single destination article, I don’t hesitate to tell my friends, and sometimes the flippin’ whole world via magazine articles and the Internet, about it. Maybe I’m generous, maybe I’m stupid, or maybe I don’t want to be like many locals who get a bit possessive and think the outdoors were created only for their own enjoyment. If somebody asks where my favorite outdoor places are, I’ll sing like a bird instead of jealously guarding the location like a bearded hermit on a bridge cackling that “none shall pass.”

On the other hand, those possessive locals spin a good argument about keeping secrets a secret. Once a special place is published in a destination article in print or online, the very next day it might be violated by several-times more people who suddenly flood the area, salivating to discover for themselves what used to be unknown. I think it’s human nature to seek out new experiences, but as soon as the spigot of attention is turned on, it’s damn near impossible to shut it off. So like a flood, that secret stash is overrun, and is no longer such a nice place anymore because it’s now crowded, torn up and trashed. No wonder locals lie on web forums that the snow sucks even though it’s a powder day, or that the trails are too muddy to ride, then go out and shred tacky dirt all day. Because if you’re not “in the know,” then maybe you don’t deserve to know.

Then again, who are we to deny a stranger the opportunity to fall in love with a place just like we once did? Chances are good we only learned of that amazing, north-facing powder stash in a little known canyon that never sees a single skin track unless someone else generously revealed it to us. Plus, if more people experience the most wondrous spots in the outdoors, then those people might strive to protect it against development and encroachment from political or extractive interests.

On and on the debate wheel turns.

So as an outdoor writer, I will continue to put fingers to keyboard and share my cherished mountain and desert places with my readers. I think it’s the right, unselfish thing to do, because the outdoors belongs to everybody, not just a handful holier-then-thou mountain-town lifers.

As for the mountain biking trail I accidentally discovered that my friends made me swear on my can of IPA not to pen a single letter about? I’m not going to say where it is. I’m keeping that secret stash all to myself.

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