American Freedom

The ridge was perhaps a kilometer away; its gently inclined, snow-spotted eastern slope shined brightly in the morning sun. To climb it would hardly be a hike, but I needed to get there to get the shot I wanted. I was stuck though. The long, icy dirt road I had ridden up to this point suddenly came to an end. Roads continued to my left and right, but bright red letters spelling out PRIVATE PROPERTY checked my advance. Even if I had ignored the warning, the sides of the road in either direction were lined with barbed wire to the tops of the next hills, and I could only assume it went on like that. Catching my breath and letting the crisp, dry air cool my damp skin, I looked back and forth, considering my options. The white sedan parked to my left in the turn-around area brashly defied the sign above it: NO PARKING ANY TIME. Over the past two months, I had more than once blazed past signs in foreign languages that I can only assume carried the same weight as these that blocked my path today. However, here in the land of “Make My Day,” I shied away.

Pedaling along the wide county road that led toward an area I was certain would be publicly accessible, I eyed the ceaseless line of split-rail fence between the road and the acres of open prairie beyond.

Whose land is this?  I kept thinking to myself. And why are they so insistent that it not be trespassed on?

Finally, I made my way to the main road that leads up to the dam of the city’s main reservoir. When it turned too steeply up the slope, I stepped off and walked my heavy mountain bike. As I reached the top of the grade, I started to look for places to climb up into the hills and reach the ridge I had been eyeing. Yet, despite leaving the residential area behind, lines of barbed wire that I had never noticed continued to line road.

Certainly, this isn’t private property. But if it’s government land, why can’t I walk on it? The government ought to be a thing of people (rez publica = republic), so if this is land belongs to Colorado residents, this is my land.

Perhaps I was just frustrated because I had been biking for over an hour on what was meant to be a rest day, but I struggled with the logic of it. Colorado boasts some of the most beautiful vistas in the world, but here on the outskirts of a medium-sized city, this natural area was being kept just beyond arm’s reach. However, in typical government efficiency, the barbed wire ended, and the backside of the slope was completely open.

By the time I had summited the ridge, I had an even more pertinent thought: If the area warrants protection because presumably it would suffer from the free trespass of hikers, but the protection is so weak that anyone with half a mind to climb up here could do so, why am I the only one?

Most of the slope was still buried under several inches of Christmas snow, but the only tracks I crossed (and usually followed) had been left by deer, rabbits, and coyotes. The human traffic in these hills had exclusively kept to the asphalt below. As I looked out over the reservoir, I could spot dozens of cars, many with bikes strapped to their roofs, winding their way along the paved ridges and valleys toward pre-blazed trails and designated areas. I had just blazed my own trail. The heavily rusted coffee can I passed halfway up told me that I wasn’t the first one here, but certainly not enough had come by to leave any trace of their climb.

Americans incessantly boast about the freedom, but I’m starting to doubt their commitment. In my ten months abroad, there were only a few moments when I felt any restriction upon my freedoms. I chose not to push my luck in Asia because I knew the language barrier might lead to a disastrous misunderstanding should I unwittingly break the law. However, in Europe, freedoms of speech, expression, and movement appeared to be as immutable as anywhere. Indeed, I can find cases of violating privacy, holding citizens without charges, and persecution of opinion by governments of any nation, but what limitations do we impose on ourselves?

Why do we insist on using only one mode of transportation (the automobile) to get around our cities? We are necessarily confined to the lines on the pavement, traffic regulations, and the extent of flat roadway. Why do we tend to drive our way to overused trailheads to hike the clearly marked trails when we want to see nature? We voluntarily limit ourselves to seeing what has already been seen and going where other have already gone.

Now in the news we hear of students on college campuses protesting the oration of disagreeable ideas, we see schools pushing stricter testing guidelines, and we hear of cries for restrictions on religious practice. In our own lives, we feel the pressures of social conformity to meet the predetermined concepts of success. In ourselves, we face our own limits and shy away in self-doubt.

Americans may be “free” in the general sense of speaking out against their government, meeting in public spaces, or reading whichever flavor of news they prefer, but what about the freedom to learn or the freedom to explore? I didn’t see any park rangers on my hike today who would have stopped me from climbing that hill. There was no government official touting new policies requiring citizens to go hike the same trails. However, when I look at this society, I see people trapped in their routines. They eat at the same restaurants, drink at the same bars, shop at the same stores, drive the same roads, and hike the same trails. If we’re going to tout our pride in our freedom, why don’t we use it?

I’ve lived in this town for nearly 19 aggregate years now, but I’ve never noticed the barbed wire or seen the view from that hill. I’ve never seen the way the tracks of the wildlife criss cross in the snow, leaving trails that let us know they still live here, but rarely let themselves be seen. I’ve never noticed the way parts of the reservoir freeze or the way two almost parallel faces of a slope can differ greatly in how quickly the snow melts off of them.

Americans, I fear for the freedoms you lose when anti-terrorism laws tear open Constitutional rights or when police brutalize peaceful protestors or when your state legislatures insist that you hold irrational beliefs to run for office. But I fear most for the freedoms you’ve given away. People have only colonized a fraction of this enormous continent, and the federal government currently protects 190 million acres of national forest. There is much left for all of us to explore.

And when we explore, let’s find a new way. Are we going to be slaves to our cars? What about electric aircraft? Airbus wants to put one out for commercial use next year. Why not take the persistently reliable bicycle? My aunt rode her bike across the country last summer. Or what about your good old two feet? After walking more miles than I could count the past nine weeks, I am thoroughly convinced that this world is most beautiful seen at the speed of an ambulating hominid.


Take only pictures; leave only footprints.