Trail Trash + Transcendence: How a Voluntary Litter Detail Offered a Lesson in Meditation

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Cigarette butts. Used toilet paper. Single-use water bottles. Corroded batteries. Spent Band-Aids. And as always, the glittery remains of a thousand assorted wrappers fluttering in the wind.

Hidden among the towering peaks, undulating grasslands and pale spindles of birch of the Colorado Trail is a universe of trash.

Not three miles in during my first day out, I felt a twinge of anger as I scooped up an abandoned candy wrapper and stuffed it in a side pocket. I soothed myself with the reminder that I was so close to the trailhead, so close to civilization, so close to 680,000 Denverites who perhaps hadn’t received the memo to Leave No Trace. I forgave, I forgot, until I spotted another piece of litter.

It continued like this all day, and then the next and the next.

Because I’m an environmentalist with a masochistic streak, I signed up for Granite Gear’s inaugural Grounds Keepers program, a stewardship initiative framed around 15 thru-hikers who consciously cleaned up the trails they traveled. An ultralight endeavor it was not.

I quickly began to feel insulted on behalf of the trail. Apart from the lucky find of a fresh Patagonia chamois—in my size!—crumpled in the dirt, each new nugget of refuse left me with an increasing sense of despair compounded by an unrelenting monsoon. The act of picking up each piece was bittersweet and my satisfaction in doing something productive negated surprising pangs of despondence. What is wrong with people? How could they trash such a beautiful landscape? Why am I even bothering?

But on one thankfully sunny day, I experienced a change of heart and a change in thinking. Warmed by those glorious rays, my brain thawed as I dumped a handful of petrified orange peels into my pocket. What if I just practiced forgiveness instead of tainting this experience with bitterness?

I thought about those orange peels, considering the fact they take anywhere from six months to two years to break down depending on the soil and climate. What if someone just figured, “Hey, these come from nature, so why don’t I just add them back to the universal compost heap?” Or what if that water bottle I picked up simply slipped from a hiker’s side pocket? Perhaps those slivers of foil were all left behind completely by accident?

But even if they weren’t, in order to reframe my experience, I needed to be okay with that. I considered the low-income neighborhood where I was raised, where we faced a thousand pressing matters beyond the ubiquitous litter tossed on the sidewalks and into the gutters, remembering that if you feel people don’t care about you, your home or your community, you also tend to lose respect for these things. But someone still needs to care, and maybe that someone should be me.

I like to think of hiking as walking meditation, an opportunity to be ultra-present and acknowledge the thoughts sloshing around in my head. In that spirit, I welcomed the opportunity to work through my feelings and consider this realization that each abandoned wrapper wasn’t some sort of personal attack and I knew nothing of the person who’d tossed it aside. Instead, I wiped the emotional slate and moved forward with one thought: I’m lucky to be here in this beautiful place and will leave it better than I found it.

Images by Shawnté Salabert.

xx Shawnté Salabert

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Nine.