Perfect Kiva: Cedar Mesa, Utah

The secret places

On sharing, elitism, responsibility, and social media

*Don’t worry, I’m not just giving any of them away willy nilly. But I’m not sitting back smugly and keeping things to myself either

Car camping, and an introduction to “The Club”

My phone buzzed and the text came in. You know a good spot to camp near Grand Junction? I quickly fired back a response about a dirt road that one will probably drive past going too fast the first time that leads out to an incredible spot high above the river and to be sure to get there in time to catch the sunset.

I hit send. Awesome, thanks with a little smiley came back. I got another text a couple days later. Rad spot! You should write a book about all these little places. With stories and your photos, you know?

I wrote back. Mark Sundeen already did it with Car Camping. You should read it. And no; wouldn’t want to give all my good spots away!

Dirtbagging outside of Grand Junction, Colorado

There is a big misnomer of ownership in saying my spots. Yes, they are my spots in some sense, but they are also everyone’s spots. These spots, they are a collection of mostly public spaces I have amassed knowledge of over the years: ranging from car camping spots in Colorado to hot springs in Idaho, canyons in Utah to alpine lakes in Montana, and ski routes in the Tetons to free little cabins spread across the West.

There is a bit of a club in play here – all the people who are in the know, that share whatever level of information, skill, or passion that allows them to seek and discover these places. You run into club members here and there; you hear some being a little too boisterous in the bar sometimes and are snubbed by others in a “who let you into the club” type of manner, once they realize you have somehow discovered their secret spot. Like the cliques in middle school, some people are in, some people are excluded, and some people just effortlessly float between.

I don’t really like the club, or how the club operates. In the outdoor recreation arena, there is an incredible amount of elitism. I can’t deny being part of a level of elitism, judging who should and who shouldn’t be skiing a certain line or something, but that has more to do with people being aware of the skills and experience they bring to the table – which a lack of can lead one into situations that are over their head. But I digress, we’re talking about access and dissemination of knowledge today, not physical and technical abilities. I’m more of an inclusive type, and as a writer and photographer, often find myself sharing certain places that not everyone wants everyone to know about. Some people will criticize me for sharing their secret spots. Mark Sundeen was at least vague with the places he wrote about, using fake names and providing vague descriptions of locations. Where is the Dominguez River anyway?

My moment with Terry Tempest Williams

I once randomly stumbled upon a Kiva in southern Utah, an Ancestral Puebloan ceremonial structure. 800 year-old timbers and mud making the roof of the stone-lined dug-in circular structure, with a ladder leading down into the darkness. When we found it, I knew immediately it was the one that was warily described in a Terry Tempest Williams book, with vague geographic descriptors that would never help a person actually find the place. The chapter does serve to inspire people to discover, and subsequently protect, special places like that. It was enough to inspire people like me to wonder if there might be something more than rocks and junipers up in the cliffs that day in Cedar Mesa.

Perfect Kiva: Cedar Mesa, Utah
Perfect Kiva

I ran into Terry several years later, and had the opportunity to share the story of my discovery of this Kiva with her. What a moment, to be part of the club with Terry Tempest Williams! I understood why she had described the place in the way she did, and realized how that has influenced how I choose to share places like that through my own writing and photography.

The club that I speak of, initially with that slight distaste, isn’t always such a bad thing. It’s a fine line between sharing too much, thus opening the doors to the masses, and carrying the air of elitism associated with knowing something or doing something that is intentionally exclusive of others. And it’s a damn delicate balance.

As someone who loves cool outdoors places, and the inherent sharing that comes with the photography and writing I love so much as well, I do struggle with how much to share, and which thing to share. Some places appeared in Patagonia catalogs, outdoor magazines, or detailed guidebooks far before I visited to take my own pictures and write my own words. Others haven’t a scant word about them to be found online, much less in print. Whenever I think about sharing photos or writing of a particular place, I still have to ask myself: is this something I should share?

Mystic Hot Springs
Mystic Hot Springs – Already in a guidebook and a Patagonia catalog
Canyoneering above the Escalante River at Neon Canyon's Golden Cathedral
Neon Canyon’s Golden Cathedral – Already in a guidebook and a Patagonia catalog

My own answer is usually an emphatic hell yes (albeit with some caveats). Some places are “undiscovered,” others are no longer undiscovered, whatever. This is just a fluctuation in the size of that club – an increasing number of climbers going to popular places like Indian Creek, the explosion of backcountry skiing with the evolution of gear, and the rise of the technologies that allow easier access to or to information about these places (from GPS technology to blogs like this, and from Instagram to any number of smartphone apps).

I have a small footprint when it comes to this stuff; I’m not a huge influencer with my paltry social media following. That being said, I do have an influence. People see a picture of a place and maybe go to that place themselves. And maybe tell someone else about that place too. Am I killing secret places in a quest to not be an elitist asshole? The old wildfire effect is a real thing. Terry Tempest Williams knew that when she didn’t publish the geography of that Kiva, and Mark Sundeed knew that when he didn’t call the Escalante River the Escalante River. But who knows, maybe what I perceive to be an innocuous post about a favorite cabin or slot canyon will accidentally go viral and it will become the next Horseshoe Bend or whatever.

Hell yes… to a culture of responsibility

It is an inalienable truth. More people will continue to do more things in more places. Maybe that means I’ll have to share that cabin I like to go to with a lot more people, or that it will join the cadre of sites and the charm of sharing with strangers and not quite knowing what you will get will be gone. I go to one particular cabin fairly frequently; the last time I was there, a page in the log journal jumped out at me aggressively.

Do NOT share photos of this place on social media
Do NOT write a blog about this place
Do NOT tell all your friends about this place
…Or we will lose this place forever
So and so found out about this place on FACEBOOK.

I absently fingered the corner of the page, but hesitated before turning it. I’ve written a blog about this place, posted photos online, and even told my friends about this place. Oops. But it’s also a public place. It’s even literally on the map (you know, the green and white one with all the squiggly little lines). This isn’t me arguing that this place is “discovered.” Everything is discovered to some extent. What makes the cabin work, honestly, might be anarchy. The fact that no one is in charge, and thus, everyone is in charge. There is a culture of responsibility engrained in the cabin, and an ethic that is passed along and between its users. There are simple rules that everyone seems to figure out and adhere to just fine: pee to the left, collect water to the right. Replenish the firewood. Clean up after yourself. Be respectful of other cabin users.

Goodwin Lake ski cabin below Jackson Peak in Wyoming's Gros Ventre Range
The Ski Cabin

But other rules feel restrictive and elitist. The DO NOT rules. Who is to say that because they have been coming here for however many years that other people’s access to this place should be stifled through whatever channels? Shouldn’t they have a similar opportunity to enjoy this place as I have?

I’m not offering free helicopter rides to the front steps, nor am I drawing a map and providing a list of things one will find there (one can find those somewhere, in separate places). But I am offering a slice of an experience I have had, and encouraging others to seek out similar adventures, whether at that exact spot or elsewhere. I’m sharing what makes a place special to me, and how other people, including those in that sometimes elitist club, have helped keep a place a special one.

The thing that makes these places special isn’t all tied up in just the place itself. They seem to be in how people take care of these places. There are the deeper stories about how each individual cares for that cabin, about the landowner who allows public access to a hot spring in Podunk Utah, the show not tell climbing or skiing ethic in a certain place, and even the people that pick up a few cigarette butts next to that hot spring in Podunk. There are the people that put in a little extra wood chopping in the fall, there are the people that provide enough information for someone to be inspired to go have an adventure, but not too much that makes it too easy. Some of those people are me, and I hope some of those people are you, as well.

The things that are perhaps most important for the preservation of these places we cherish (whether it be a little fishing hole, a National Park, a climbing area with a no-bolt ethic) are our own simple acts as stewards, and our sharing of that stewardship ethic. I’m not a person to jump on the elite train and keep all these amazing places to myself and the few others who are “in the club.” I’m all for letting new folks in on the special spots that others once shared with me, and passing along the ethic that makes those places special.

I see “the club” as a bit of a double standard, exemplified by the idea that people who have cabins in the woods are environmentalists, but people who want cabins in the woods are developers. Like somehow I’m better for knowing about a place that other people don’t know about, or should be treated differently for having done something before someone else. I may have to work a little harder to get some places, whether that is through sheer distance, time spent poring over maps, or acquiring certain technical skills. But am I any more deserving than others who are willing to put in the same amount of effort? Is it my right to share these places with others? Because I sure didn’t stumble across them with no help from others.

To post, or not to post

No, I’m not broadcasting these places to thousands of Instagram followers or writing Outside magazine exposés on the Ten best undiscovered places of 2018. But I am an inclusive person. If I did have thousands of Instagram followers or an audience through Outside Magazine, I’d be a little more selective about how I share what (and probably wouldn’t include some of the pictures that are included here today).

But I don’t share everything publically, anyway (hypocrite here, as I share it now…). I was just at a little winter cabin the other day. It was built for public use. You can’t find out how to get there online or in any guidebook, and it’s ok to keep it that way. If you ask about it, I’ll probably tell you. That’s how I found the place, after hearing it was really hard to find for years and years.

Cabin in Montana

There is something to be said about the “Secret Places” that us outdoors folks hold so dear. Yeah, we’ve seen places “ruined” by the masses, from the crown jewels of the National Park system all the way down to a random little Utah hot spring.

I visited that random Utah hot spring (the one in Podunk I mentioned) this January for the first time in nearly a decade. I’d read online that it had gone downhill and got crowded and dirty. I don’t think there was anything online about it when I first visited, though it was written up in a guidebook. It was quiet enough for a weekday in winter, but the edges of the springs were littered with cigarette butts and spent glowsticks. My friend and I picked up before we left, but the cigarette butts and glowsticks were back when I returned a week later on my way back North. No, it’s not ruined. More people are enjoying it, and in different ways. And that’s ok. It’s not perfect, but let’s not be too selfish (although: PICK UP YOUR FUCKING CIGARRETTE BUTTS AND GLOWSTICKS).

Podunk, Utah

Just share responsibly, eh? Some people say that social media is to blame for bringing an intense and easily accessible spotlight to these spots. I’ve said it before, while hearing about people getting in over their heads on extreme ski lines. I’ve also been inspired by social media to go out and get in over my own head on some other extreme ski line myself.

It’s a valid point, asking questions about how one utilizes social media. I have to ask myself what writing about skiing the Apocalypse, climbing my favorite moderately obscure peak, or sharing photos of places that I really don’t want to see get any busier really means in the big picture. The thing is, there are a million places out there waiting for anyone to discover, whether it’s a well-known cabin or a relatively unknown canyon. I do want to share these places, and more importantly, how I take care of these places. So that they will continue to survive and be enjoyed, and new places will continue to be discovered, shared, and enjoyed.

Somewhere  else in Montana (ok it’s the Bitterroot Valley- You can see [L-R] Sugarloaf, the Shard, the three Como Sisters, and the Lonesome Bachelor)
There was an old magazine article I read years ago, I think written by Warren Miller, though it could have been another filmmaker. The author writes about watching two skiers prepare to ski down a ridgeline with a precipitous drop on one side. How the last rays of the sun are casting the most beautiful hue of sunset on this slope as he sets up his video camera to get the shot. Two skiers would make figure-eight turns down this ramp, their long shadows dancing lightly on the subtle orange surface of the evening snow. That’s how I imagine it anyway, because, the thing is, he never turned his camera on, saying in that moment “this one is for me.” And although he didn’t capture and share this scene in its entirety or as originally intended, he shared just enough of it, years later, to inspire some skinny kid in Montana who grew up riding old double chairlifts to take his skiing and his photography to a level that once seemed so far out of reach.

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