Rewind some tens of thousands of years to the evolution of modern man, Homo sapien. Modern man had a variety of naturally selected traits that made him a more successful survivor and perhaps suitor. For one, modern man (thankfully) lost the massive forehead of its predecessor Cro-Magnon man. He certainly was less dominant at head butting, but he likely had much more confidence in courting a mate. Yes, modern man has many adapted traits that allow him to analyze problems, build tools, run efficiently on two feet, and cool himself without the need of a massive tongue. But the natural selection and adoption of traits comes with a cost as it may coincide with the loss or de-selection of other attributes. One specific trait that I have been observing that has been and continues to be deselected in modern man, is modern man’s sense of direction and general navigation. I have carefully observed my four-legged running partner as he negotiates trails, mountainsides, and meadows. He is a domesticated beast; one with superb abilities to identify where A and B lie. He may not know why we are going to B, but he sure as hell knows how to get there. Fast. He has a highly sensitive nose and a surprisingly good memory to store and recall those clues to formulate some sort of scratch and sniff trail map. This allows him to travel in full stride, nose to the ground, in absolute darkness cutting every single switchback (many of which are hidden from the sight of his 24” stature). It is absolutely fascinating. I do not have such skills, nor do most humans. Though we lack the ability to ‘sense’ the trail, our brains have evolved to have the deductive reasoning required to develop tools and methodology to find direction and orientate ourselves. My Viking ancestors were guided across the seas to the next unsuspecting village by the stars, making maps as they progressed. Travelers afoot used the night sky as well, but incorporated various markers to define and retain specific routes. Stacked rock cairns were used centuries ago to mark travel routes across the seemingly homogenous green hills of Scotland. Though we still use cairns today to mark alpine routes in the backcountry, trails now are marked with numbers that generally mean nothing to anyone except for the person marking them and wooden signs with trail names and directional arrows. This methodology has been further applied to our hard surfaced urban trails (i.e. road names and highway numbers). And now we have GPS devices on our dashboards and in our pockets that actually tell us where and when to turn. As we have become more reliant on trail markings and developed more sophisticated tools to navigate, we are artificially deselecting for instinctive navigational skills. Case in point is the Starbucks on every corner of many metropolitan centers (thank you Missoula for not conforming to this model). Our GPS adapted culture is losing the ability to find and remember locations, so in response these targeted locales now need to always be within eyesight.
By now, you are likely wondering where I am taking you on this literary journey; please stay with me for a little longer as we will soon arrive at my point. I have become fascinated with one of modern man’s latest strategies of navigation and trail marking; the urban cairn.
I do understand the intended use of these urban cairns, and I appreciate the collection of the waste left by our four legged running partners. Trailheads are often a collection point for eager canines that have just exited a vehicle and are preparing for a jaunt on the trail. If these heavily used areas are not cleaned, they can become quite unpleasant. This is an absolute responsibility of any dog owner, and is encouraged by the placement of garbage cans, collection bags, and written notices at many trailheads. What I question is the indirect application of these vessels as trail markers; as the urban cairn. I will refrain from injecting too much of my opinion (though it is likely easily distilled), but would like to highlight a few of the various ironies entrenched in these green and brown trail markers. I am willing to bet that the majority of the bipedal trail users are doing so for one of two reasons, likely both. The first being recreation. If fitness is the goal, why is there a collection of these cairns within spitting distance of a trash can?
With the adoption and development of any new trait or skill, we must be careful to not succumb to the artificial de-selection of other positive attributes. We as humans have the acute skills to develop sophisticated and powerful tools to guide us through the wild. Let us not surrender all of our instinctual navigational abilities of our evolutionary predecessors and become reliant upon our pocket computers or the urban cairn. Let’s, myself included, try to resist this artificial de-selection, use the natural clues for navigation so we can further appreciate the intricacies of our natural surroundings and be sure that our neighbors have the same experience.