Tiny spring leaves formed an iridescent green sheath around the ocotillo stalks that swayed gently in the breeze. As we pulled into camp, the setting sun refracted through the cholla spines, embracing those branches with an orange halo. Nearby, a giant grandmother saguaro—with its gnarled, twisted, chaotic branches wrapped around each other—looked so unlike those perfectly symmetrical, trident-shaped cacti in Arizona Highways magazine. A long string of half-shredded, brown-streaked toilet paper draped over the desert scrub and fluttered in the same breeze that moved the ocotillo.
What kind of a brain-dead jackass would leave used toilet paper strewn around an otherwise idyllic desert campsite? Even if this person had no appreciation for the beauty of nature, didn’t he or she remember the basic lessons learned in kindergarten: Be considerate of others, clean up your mess, flush the toilet after you poop?
I shouldn’t need to ink up the pages of this magazine with a tired, old, and obvious lecture: Leave no trace.
But wait a minute—what is a trace?
Let’s jump as far away—ecologically, climate-wise, and culturally—from southern Arizona as we can, but still remain on planet Earth….
Misha and I had planned to kite-ski across a segment of Kamchatka, eastern Siberia. But the wind had blown so strongly that it essentially cleared all the snow off the tundra, so we struggled to man-haul our sleds over bare ground, rock, moss, and occasional hills of rock-hard strastugi.
Then we had a warm anomaly, and the river ice began to break up six weeks earlier than normal. So we abandoned our ambitious plans to travel from random point A to random point B—a route only relevant to some arbitrary story in my head anyhow—and instead began wandering willy-nilly, like a Russian puteshevstinek* in the olden days, with no agenda, no plan, no place to go, and nothing to prove.
During Stalinist times, the Soviets organized everything into structured collectives—from tractor factories in the industrial heartland, to fruit growers near the Black Sea, and they did the same with the indigenous Koryak reindeer herders. As part of this system, the Russians built strings of wooden houses along the old Koryak migration routes. Constructed with dimensional lumber, the structures stood out conspicuously against the icy sky, in a vast and otherwise featureless tundra. Misha and I stumbled across one by chance, and met an old woman, in her mid-80s, who had lived alone in this isolated windswept house, staying put after the collapse of the Soviet Union, after rogue bandito tax collectors absconded with nearly all the reindeer, and after the other members of her collective gave up and moved to town.
We gathered firewood and hauled water for the grandmother, then relaxed by a warm fire drinking that uniquely bitter Russian tea. With a hot steaming cup pressed against her wrinkled, weathered face, the old woman told us about one small band of reindeer herders remaining on the tundra, led by a man named Alexei. She asked if we would like to visit them. When we replied that we would love to visit, she told us to travel upriver for about a day, until the Magic Mountain spoke to us, and then follow the small tributary creek toward the east.
She gave no description of the Magic Mountain, no X marked on a map, and certainly no GPS coordinates. The implication was that if we were tuned in enough to recognize Koryak magic and to speak with rocks and mountains, we would find Alexei—and if not, we would get lost in this roadless tundra that stretched nine time zones from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
I can’t tell you what happened. There were many mountains on the landscape and many rock outcrops rising above the river valley. Misha and I would stop periodically and ask each other, “Is that the Magic Mountain?” And then one or the other of us would shake our head slowly and reply, “No, I don’t think so.”
After a day and a morning, this exercise started to feel silly. We weren’t Koryak and this wasn’t going to work. Then, just as we were about to give up, I turned toward Misha and saw him turning toward me. We looked at each other in astonishment because we both heard, or felt, or recognized, the Magic Mountain. It’s not like it spoke to us in a booming voice in Russian (or English, or in any other audible language). I can’t explain it in words, but we both knew, with absolute certainty, that it was time to turn east and follow a small tributary creek, assured that we were on the right route.
That evening, around dinner time, we saw smoke rising from a weathered skin tent and found Alexei with a few comrades and 300 reindeer. We spent a week there, sitting on snowbanks, watching the deer. There were fish in the nearby river. I had some line and a few hooks, so the group could catch and eat fish for the first time in many years—amazing how a few ounces of stuff can change peoples’ lives for the better. We drank tea, cut firewood, and shared stories. At the end of that time, I explained to Alexei that I was a writer and asked permission to write about his small tribe. “Could I write about the Magic Mountain,” I asked, “or is that a special little secret to be shared with just a few visitors?”
Alexei replied, “There is a big world out there. Many cities. People from faraway countries, like you, who speak languages we don’t understand. We know those people exist, but none of those people know that we exist. Yes, write about us. Please do. Tell all those people in those faraway cities and countries that we are out here, talking with the stones and the Magic Mountain, herding our deer.”
Alexei had few things, but he wanted his idea—his perception that survival is achieved by nurturing a loving, spiritual, reciprocal communication with nature—to be left behind.
So why do I write about Alexei in the same article that I describe toilet paper strewn across the Arizona-Sonoran landscape? You see, a trace is something we leave behind. Given that definition, a trace can be either a concrete thing or an abstract idea. Alexei had few things, but he wanted his idea—his perception that survival is achieved by nurturing a loving, spiritual, reciprocal communication with nature—to be left behind. Somehow, he knew that, “those people in the cities who speak languages we don’t understand” had lost their deep love of nature and, consequently, were altering the planet in ways that would reverberate negatively for everyone—including the reindeer, including the rocks.
These traces—these ancient but still relevant ideas—exist in the great backyards we play in every day in North America. Telling the world there is another way to live. Telling the world to treat every tree, rock and crystal of snow as a living, communicating, sentient being. Telling the world to accumulate and exchange ideas—not stuff—and to leave behind a personal legacy of thoughts, love and inspiration… not garbage and toilet paper.
“Please, Jon. Tell this to the world.”
*A puteshevstinek is a perpetual traveller. In the old days, these people carried the news and hence had a diplomatic immunity. Because they accumulated no possessions, bandits and tax collectors left them alone.