By Mark Neikirk
Two states. Two hikes. Two very different experiences.
In one state, every step for 15 miles was a step past litter or worse. The variety of degradation was so broad as to be almost creative. An old truck's burned-out hull stood where the trail re-entered the woods after leaving a place where the trees have been shaved away by a bulldozer. Another trail was paved in spent shotgun shells.
In the other state, every step was past natural beauty, unadulterated by the indifference of visitors who believe that wilderness is best which has soda bottles and beer cans among the ferns.
The first hike, taken last spring, was in Kentucky on the Sheltowee Trace Trail, named for Daniel Boone, who is said to have followed the same footpaths. Sheltowee, or Big Turtle, is the name Boone took during his time as a Shawnee adoptee. You would think a trail so steeped in the state's history would get a little more respect.
The second hike, taken last weekend, was in North Carolina along the Tennessee border in the Great Smoky Mountains on a trail that follows bouldered, cascading Big Creek, where what you see when you look into its clear water is not milk jugs and soiled diapers -- the customary vestures of a Kentucky stream. Instead, you see brook trout holding in deep pools, staring upstream in confident anticipation of larvae drifting toward.
I've hiked in Kentucky for a long, long time, beginning in the mountains around my grandparents' home when JFK was in office and delivering call-to-action speeches about Eastern Kentucky as if it were a Third World country. His words, still fresh, are dutifully printed in his papers, where I read them this week and wondered if the 1960s promise of federal aid and outside help was really what the mountains, or mountain people, needed then or now. Maybe the rescue begins closer to home.
Outsiders, not the least among them William O. Douglas, the late Supreme Court justice who was as likely seen with a walking stick as in robes, brought national attention to Kentucky's wildest place -- the Red River Gorge -- in the early 1970s, when a proposal to dam it seemed unstoppable.
The attention killed the dam, but it nearly killed the Gorge, too. To understand this more exactly, consider Solidago albopilosa, the white-haired goldenrod. Endangered, it grows only in the Gorge and in botanical museums.
The plant's numbers diminished as campers built fires and dumped trash into the plant's fragile habitat of sandstone rockhouses. Never was the reported damage greater than in the 1970s when the rallying against the dam drew the curious, some of whom just came for the party.
The Gorge never returned to the quiet place it had been. It somehow morphed into a dangerous place. On my last trip I saw a young woman walking the trail with a pit bull on a leash because she was afraid of muggers.
Why such contrast? Why, in two states where people love the woods, where there still are woods to love, where public investment in preserving the woods is notable -- why would one so willingly destroy the gift and the other so guard it?
The easy answer would be federal oversight, except that, like the Smokies, much of the Sheltowee Trace and all of the Gorge, are on federally protected lands.
Somewhere along the way, Kentucky bought into a greater willingness to treat its wild places as disposable.
To look at early 20th century photos of the logging of that time is to get a sense of how long this has been so. Hillsides were clearcut and logs floated to market in such volume as to blanket the Kentucky River in walnut, cherry and oak. After the logging came the mining of coal, ravaging to this day.
The notion has prevailed that the land, no matter how rapturously beautiful, can withstand whatever we do to it. Saw and chop to the nubs. Drill and dig until what was once lush is a rubble. To live among such careless stewardship is to get a message: Waste as you wish.
This column was first published on Oct. 22, 2005 in The Cincinnati Post. Mark Neikirk was managing editor and an opinion columnist at The Post, which has since closed.
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By Mark Neikirk