Legal free rides

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By Barbara Byram

One of the most frustrating parts of making laws is the ability of lawmakers to tack on completely unrelated amendments to a bill. Consumer protection became the law of the land in February, and riding along on that bill’s coattails was an amendment that spells disaster in my personal life. It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with feeling safe in our National Parks.

Those of you who have read my previous pieces in this newspaper know that I am a 54-year-old female solo wilderness backpacker. Yes, “solo” means I go out there all by myself. And to answer your question: No, I’m not afraid of being alone in the wilderness. In fact, when it comes to being in the wilderness, I feel safer there than in my local supermarket parking lot.

All trips, however, entail transitioning from heavily populated areas through public campgrounds and easily accessible trails before getting to the wilderness. Solo females face — or, at least, need to fear — the possibility of being accosted to some degree by the crazies. We are approached more often than solo males at campgrounds, asked more often than solo males about where our partners are, and followed — i.e., “stalked” — more often than solo males on trails. 

When I was younger, I took trips close to home, where a friend with a car could drop me off and pick me up at a trailhead. By my late 30s, however, I decided that I needed more time in the wilderness, which meant longer trips at bigger parks. And that meant flying and using public transportation and spending the first and last nights of my trip in a public campground. It took only one of these longer trips to realize that I felt exposed and vulnerable. In response to my fear, I learned martial arts — and decided to backpack only in National Parks, because guns were not allowed, there. Without the presence of guns, I’m fairly confident in my ability to beat the snot out of anyone who doesn’t hold a black belt in martial arts.

Today, my backpacking trips last about three weeks plus transportation time to and from my start/end points. Three weeks is the magical number for me, because I can carry that much gear and food without needing to resupply, meaning that I can get farther into wilderness and spend more time in total solitude. Solitude is the essence of solo wilderness backpacking; its raison d’etre. 

I’ve seen some awesome things on my trips — in the true sense of the word: mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, melt-my-heart, bring-tears-to-my-eyes scenes and events. I’ve also encountered some heart-stopping, blood-chilling, scare-me-shitless things. The former make the latter worth risking. I do everything possible in preparing for the worst-case scenarios, but I’m aware that I risk my life every time I go out there. The bottom line is this: for me, the beauty and solitude are worth the risk; if I die, out there, I will do so without any regrets. No matter what, every trip is the perfect trip.

I’m not a big risk-taker, relatively speaking. I always train beyond what will be physically required on a trip; plan the trip to minimize encounters with especially nasty creatures; and am always willing to cancel a trip at the last minute (or turn around early) if the weather or terrain are too threatening. Outside of pulled muscles and strained tendons, I’ve been injured only once. I was able to walk out, heal, and get back on the trail. 

Despite all of my preparations for minimizing risk, I’ve still suffered hypothermia; been attacked by nesting geese; been caught in the open in a lightning storm; run out of water for 2-1/2 days; and come face-to-face with a bear. And yet, paradoxical as this may seem, I feel safest while in the wilderness and least safe in areas with other people, especially outside of National Parks — until now. 

Now I can’t feel safe even inside National Parks, because of that blasted rider on the credit card bill that passed through Congress in February. How anyone can justify carrying guns inside National Parks is beyond me: hunting is not allowed; shooting wildlife under any circumstances is not allowed; carrying a weapon into federal buildings is not allowed — and all of those visitor centers, backcountry offices, and the like are federal buildings. Is the department that oversees our parks now supposed to devote ever dwindling funding to the installation of metal detectors at every single building on National Parks property?

I am more than deeply dismayed and frustrated; I am pissed off. This single amendment has just put possible ruin to the very thing that I scrimp and save and train all year long for: snatching just a little time in a place awesome enough to get me through the drudgery of the next 11 months.

I understand that this guns-in-National-Parks rider would never have made it as a stand-alone bill, but it just frosts my wilderness-loving behind that it was allowed to be tacked onto a bill that Congress could not have passed and still kept their jobs.