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Is portable music ruining the outdoors?

Last summer I travelled with my partner Erin throughout the state of Colorado.  Most of our trip was climbing mountains but we also hiked to alpine lakes, camped in the woods, wandered Great Sand Dunes National Monument.  

At first I thought it was an isolated incident, someone hiking a 14er (mountain of 14,000 ft +) with a wireless speaker playing their music.  I cringed, myself preferring the sound of squeaking Pikas and Marmots to music while in the mountains.  

Then it happened again.  As I was descending Mt. Massive above tree line, a man playing loud rock music stopped me to ask how far it was to the summit.  I was polite but inwardly angry.  How is it this man’s right to impose his music on other hikers, much less wildlife, especially in a wilderness area?  Wandering on the sand dunes at night near the trickle of a stream, Erin and I went looking for stars and a place to lay on the sand and watch them.  Tourists played their music as they wandered on the dunes near us, shattering any illusion of solitude, destroying the remnant of quiet nature.

Finishing up with a bouldering session near Tucson this winter, a man with blonde dreadlocks asked us if it was ok to play music while he and his partner climbed on the other side of the boulder.  I felt a little better that at least I was being asked for my permission.  Erin and I were leaving anyway and said that music was ok, we were heading out.

Running through parks or even hiking on trails, headphones are omnipresent and they give an easy excuse for ignoring other people around you.  Headphones are a poor substitute for solitude though, they only create a wall, not a place of self-reflection or connection to the Earth.  I watched a woman moving up a mountain in Colorado, listening to her headphones; as the woman hiked quickly uphill, clouds gathered and thunder rumbled ominously.  Thunder is a dangerous situation at that elevation, especially when moving up the mountain.  I wondered if the woman was fool hardy, inexperienced or perhaps tuned out of her immediate environment by music, not being fully present on a mountain full of hazard.

The last time I went into REI to price and compare different climbing rope, something clicked.  It wasn’t that hundreds of people decided on their own that wireless speakers and music were good to carry into the outdoors.  Wireless speakers were being marketed for outdoor recreation.  I understand some music, especially if you’re out in a remote location for months, it can be comforting.  The main problem is when we never turn off our music and listen to our surroundings or connect to each other.  A mountain is NOT a gym, it is a sacred place, listen to it.  A fellow hiker is NOT a distraction or annoyance but a person with whom you might share more than you suspect.  Wildlife should be respected, watched, loved at a distance and not disturbed by your inconsiderate music. Can you imagine a world where music is always playing?  Would you replace bird song with Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds?  I love both and both have their place but bird song lives deeper within us than human music.

Some would argue that at least people listening to music are getting outside.  Isn’t what we want is more people outdoors?  I would argue that more people aren’t getting outside because of portable music, instead it’s changing the reality for people who already get outside.  

Stats from the National Parks Service suggest that in National Parks at least, a smaller percentage of the population is recreating out of doors.  I don’t think access to an iPod is going make a person take to a mountain trail instead of a gym treadmill but even if it does it highlights the problem.  Using portable music creates the illusion that you are in an environment, let’s say a gym, that is under human control.  As more and more people learn to rock climb not on a cliff face but inside of a gym, it’s ever more important to emphasize the difference between the two.  Climbing in a gym can be a real challenge and the hardest climbs are much harder than the easiest outdoor climbs but the outdoors offers so much more.  You aren’t likely to be surprised by an encounter with a wild animal or caught in a rainstorm inside of a gym.  

Cacti, trees, clouds, rattlesnakes and dirt are all minimized inside gyms.  A gym also has one major difference from outside, a gym can be anywhere.  A climbing gym in Rapid City South Dakota looks very similar to a climbing wall in Grand Junction, Colorado but the outside climbing is radically different.  In South Dakota you’d be climbing dark granitic rock surrounded by ponderosa pine.  In Grand Junction it’d be light colored sandstone surrounded by high desert piñon-juniper woodlands.  It’s the natural environment and the unobstructed, wild freedom that goes with it which is threatened, not a trip to the gym and not your music.  

Further down the line, I worry that people absorbed in their own music will miss wildlife.  In missing wildlife, there may be no awareness when the forests, mountains and deserts are bereft of wild creatures.  The scariest thing of all is a loss of a wild environment without anyone even noticing.       

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer          

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