During a recent trip to Ouray, Colorado, I came across the sign you see here. It got me thinking about signs and how permanently embedded they are in the every aspect of human society. Some signs are there to warn you of danger, while others are simply there to state the obvious. To me, a sign isn’t just a monotone graphic on a reflective background. It’s also an ignition source for change—it all depends on how we the humans who interpret the sign, choose to react.
I like to think that signs are put there to inform us so we can make better decisions about our actions. However, that is not always the case. Corporations use signs to get the word out about a product or service. Many signs try to persuade you to spend your hard-earned money on goods and services. Here in America, we categorize these signs as advertisements or propaganda. Unfortunately, such announcements often overtake areas with large populations. Think about it—you can’t drive through a city without unintentionally scanning thousands of signs. Whether you like it or not, you don’t have to consciously read these signs to interpret a message about the environment we live in. Your subconscious automatically identifies familiarities such as big brand logos on billboards and color combinations on street signs, which automatically trigger thoughts and emotions that stem from past experiences. For instance, a large billboard featuring a picture of an ice-cold Coke bottle with drops of condensation dripping down the exterior might read “Enjoy Coke.” Without reading the words, your brain automatically correlates the picture and logo with a past experience of drinking a soft drink, and it triggers a chemical reaction in your brain to evaluate whether or not you are thirsty. It doesn’t work every time, but the simple fact is that humans are pre-wired to absorb subconscious influences from the world around us and use them as part of the conscious decision-making process.
This is one of the reasons I like to escape from suburbia often. Without overbearing signage forcing thoughts and emotions into my head, it’s easy to let go and relax, and enjoy the simplest of things—like the sound of birds chirping, a stream bubbling, the wind blowing. Mother Nature has a message, too.
In some places, large billboards and brightly-colored signs are banned to preserve and enhance the aesthetic beauty of the surrounding environment. One of such places I visited recently is Sedona, Arizona. With its stunning array of red rock formations surrounding the city, Sedona is home to some of the strictest sign regulations in the country. Sedona visitors can enjoy the city’s small-town character free from view-intrusive billboards and signs. Sedona also happens to have a booming Jeep tour enterprise. During the busy season, patrons pay upwards of $75 per person to ride along with experienced guides on nearby trails such as Broken Arrow and Diamondback Gulch. There, tourists experience the serine beauty of the sculpted sandstone up close and personal. To those who have never been four-wheeling before, the experience is an unforgettable adventure. Naturally, these tours are a focal point for environmental groups who oppose such activities. As a result, the trails are inspected and maintained by oversight committees who continually evaluate their condition. Work crews labor regularly to keep matters such as erosion and vegetation preservation under control. As long as the environmental impact is kept in check, the Jeep tours continue to flourish, in harmony with Mother Nature.
One of the worst signs we can encounter while out on a trail system is the one that says “Closed to Motor Vehicles.” These signs are often a result of improper trail use. Unfortunately, such closures are usually the only affordable way to police the long list of issues associated with motorized vehicles and users who ride them in the backcountry. In many cases, an uninformed enthusiast may fail to realize the effect of a specific behavior or activity; by the time the damage is done, it is too costly to resolve the specific issue and the whole trail gets shut down.
This is where it becomes everybody’s responsibility to help police the guidelines and rules of proper trail etiquette. Instead of looking the other way when you see a fellow motorist doing something they shouldn’t, politely approach the individual and express concern that what they are doing is wrong. The way I like to do this is to tell the person in a friendly tone, “You know what you are doing is illegal out here—if a ranger catches you, you’re in for some big fines.” In most cases, one comment like this is all it takes for a lawbreaker to realize people are watching out for what’s right. Just like the oversight committees of Sedona, we all need to be stewards of our wild places and help prevent trail closures. After all, trail abuse is like a billboard for ignorance, and at the end of the day, it’s all about how we react to the signs.