Steve Allen, who is 62, a backcountry guide, and the author of many guidebooks, which, if correctly used with several compasses, will get you deep into Utah canyons and possibly back out, tells me he and his friends – other curmudgeons, apparently – almost never see young people on the trails they frequent. Sure, there are outliers, the few Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School groups, and occasional college students who have a bolder vision of spring break than being a body cameo’d on Girls Gone Wild videos. “Mostly we see older folks in their 50s and even into their 60s and 70s,” says Allen. He describes himself, proudly if hubristically, as part of a generation, the Boomers of the 1960s and 1970s, that “led the exodus into the backcountry.”
Even in Moab, Utah – the so-called “Adventure Capital of the World” – where I used to live and to which I return every year for a month or so to reconnoiter the sun-smashed redrock desert, I find that almost no one I know who is 40 or younger goes backpacking. This is a kind of heartbreak.
Another friend of mine – well-educated, well-read, in his late 40s, but de facto homeless, without a car, an inveterate hitchhiker, an itinerant laborer in Colorado and Utah who spends at least 200 days of the year backpacking in the canyonlands – tells me that he too can’t recruit backpacking companions. Instead, he encounters “gearheads” – people who see the outdoors as an arena for deploying the latest technological toys, such as mountain bikes that ride for you, or carabiners that talk, or apps for both. People, that is, who spend a lot of time caressing, naming, oiling, sleeping and playing with inanimate objects, as advertised that they should do in the “Adventure Capital.” Then, post-adventure, they recover in various homes with the masses, such as the double-wide tent by the river, with the cooler full of beer, the gas stove searing meat, or to the Motel 6 or Best Western, with the air conditioner and the TV making conversation, as promised on the billboards outside town.
Anecdotal evidence, I know, but it’s reinforced by the experts who compile outdoor recreation statistics.