By Emily Erickson
“I thought runners were supposed to be good people,” the stranger spat, posturing while snapping photos of our license plates.
I was recently issued a ticket for trespassing on a private road at the mouth of a large swath of public land. The public area we were trying to access is thick with evergreens, rocky climbs and expansive views, all patched together with old service and logging roads — the kind of terrain that pulled me to Idaho in the first place.
A few friends and I were trail running, with one member of our group securing what they thought was a loose “go ahead” to pass through the small section of private road barricading the state of Idaho-owned area. As trail running is an inherently wild sport — with the adventure of finding a new path, a new perspective or a new route to a familiar place as baked into it as the running itself — we didn’t stop to assess the strength of the permission we thought we were granted.
This wild, remote and off-the-beaten-path pursuit is fundamentally Idaho, with as much as 70% of the state covered in different varieties of public land. In North Idaho, the public-green on our maps is nearly undisturbed, save for strips of private ownership stymying reasonable access in many areas — making secret or little-used public recreation areas precious nuggets of wisdom shared between friends and trusted peers.
We began our climb passing what we were told was an out-of-season event center, switch-backing 16 miles up and around the wild, beautiful terrain. We spotted moose, deer and grouse, and enjoyed more broad lake views that we could count before finishing back at our cars. Where the private landowner was waiting for us.
“Is there anything we can do to make this right?” my friend asked.
“You’ll be hearing from the cops,” he answered.
Several days later, we were informed he was asking for us to be issued the maximum punishment within the boundary of trespassing code. We were cited a simple fine as first-time offenders.
Owning private land is sacred to many of us, and trespassing can certainly be experienced as an act of blatant disrespect. This man was reacting to what he felt was an egregious violation of his personal property, and I own my role in stirring up those feelings.
But I can’t ignore that he assumed the worst intentions in us and that our attempts to explain; our assurances that it wouldn’t happen again; and our offers to correct, make amends or otherwise ameliorate the situation only encouraged him to further dig in his heels — to widen the perceived moral gap between him and us, the malicious wrongdoers.
So I have to ask, where does this “assuming the worst” mentality come from? When did our knee-jerk reactions toward our neighbors become so saturated in fear and anger?
Sandpoint is a small town, full of people who know someone who knows us. The degrees of our separation are nearly non-existent, with our common thread as North Idahoans being made from a sturdier kind of twine. Aren’t we a place that still stops to ask the person with the car in the ditch if they’re OK? Aren’t we a community that calls the parents of the kid throwing the party before calling the police? Can’t we leave our laptops unguarded on coffee shop tables while we visit the restroom and trust our neighbors to drop our mis-delivered package on our front porch?
Living in a community is a choice to see and celebrate the best in our neighbors whenever possible, to forego isolation for the comforts of camaraderie, and to squelch the fear of and leeriness toward our neighbors by continually searching for the aspects of ourselves that we all share.
I’ll be treading more carefully on my adventures from now on, double- and triple-checking my permission before trying a new “barely there” trail or parking at an unmarked trailhead. But I’m also bolstered, having newfound resolve not to jump to conclusions, to ask more questions before settling on someone’s character and restore the “benefit of the doubt” mentality that makes living in a close-knit community so worthwhile.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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