I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before. Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature. Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief. And an important lesson.
Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us. And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless. It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”
The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them. They are fragile. People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder. Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.
Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks. Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world. It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.
In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks. I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make. But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.
Steps everywhere in our lives matter. Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other. Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua. We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection. But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills. Either way, we leave a story for those who follow. Like our children. Or our grandchildren. Or our children’s children’s children.
Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past. They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led. What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….