What surprises could the West Fork Trail hold? I wondered. But then I wondered why I should wonder – after all, why should one ask West Fork for anything more than its usual splendor and the pleasure of enjoying it with Westerner friends, some of whom would be making their magical creek crossings for the first time?
Still, after more than twenty years of hiking West Fork, I wondered. So, on this crisp October morning, as we were greeted by an enormous Raven perched at the West Fork gate, I could not help but hope for something more … something new … perhaps something surprising. And for the next five hours and seven miles, the surprises unfolded.
Postponed by both a government shutdown and a tragic death, our Amblers waited until October 24 to savor their West Fork foliage feast. And, it seemed, the delays had brought us to the season’s peak. The colors were spectacular. At almost every turn of the trail, the “Oh My Gods” sounded; the cameras clicked.
After many years hiking Vermont and New Hampshire, I certainly was not expecting to be “wowed” by Arizona foliage. What a pleasant surprise! West Fork’s hardwoods splattered reds, oranges, yellows, and greens to rival New England’s best; West Fork’s ever-changing canyon light and reflecting ripples offered kaleidoscopic color second to none. The next surprise, however, was not so pleasant.
West Fork was wearing a new coat of graffiti. Like many other trails in the last few years, West Fork has sustained serious damage. According to a front page article in the June 5 New York Times, southwestern national parks and forests have seen a “recent spike in … graffiti and litter … wholesale vandalism of archeological sites and remote vistas.” And park officials attribute the increase to social media. Some vandals, it seems, seek remote sites so they can “sign” their work and network friends as if to shout, “Look at me … look where I am!”
Recent examples abound. Earlier this year on West Fork, Westerners saw signed graffiti with the vandals’ names, graduation years, and “ASU.” This summer, Westerners spotted a parked “Just Married” pickup next to Highway 180 near Flagstaff, the bride and groom carving their names into the bark of a big Aspen. And on this autumn day, as we hiked back to the West Fork trailhead, we saw that some other hiker had chalked her name on a prominent rock we had admired just an hour earlier.
In this case, the clean-up of the chalked signature was quick and easy. Unfortunately, that’s rarely so, and the costs can be enormous. Just as park budgets are shrinking, clean-up projects are increasing. In fact, some vandalism has been so substantial that remediation has required closure of popular hiking areas.
So, in a sense, on this October day we experienced contrasting surprises – the brilliant foliage delighting us at every turn … the disgusting vandalism, denigrating West Fork’s wonders. And with both in mind, we paused to reflect on both the magnificence and delicacy of life.
For this was the first Westerners West Fork hike since the death of Phyllis Lindberg. Overlooking the location of tragedy, we shared silence and remembered a wonderful woman who loved this site so much and contributed her kindness and wisdom to us all. Our brief memorial was not to lament a lost life cut short by sudden death but, rather, to celebrate a vibrant life completed in full color.
So our sentimental journey was one of surprises – pleasant, unpleasant, and ceremonial. And in what has become a mini-tradition on Oak Creek Canyon hikes for many Westerners, our journey concluded with comradery and Dairy Queen smiles.
The Westerners always welcome new members. If interested in joining, visit www.sedonawesterners.org. Consider attending our monthly meetings; the next is Thursday, January 9, 2014, 7:00 PM, at the Sedona Elks Lodge, Hwy 89A at Airport Road.