How to Make Your Next Historical Adventure Epic

Vernal, UT: We turn a corner of box elder trees, scanning the cliff walls for signs of pictographs. Finally, Emy spots a ruddy streak on a tan rock panel. We follow the trail closer and see red depictions of four warriors staring back at us from across a chasm of history, painted by the Fremont People nearly 600 years ago. Questions pour into my mind as I try to imagine what it was like that day they painted these figures. I picture them fishing in the clear, spring fed creek, laughing and telling stories about life in the canyon. 

IMG_1620.jpgScratches and vandalism damages the historical images.

Surrounding the warriors are images of sheep, lizards, and a crude scrawl that reads “Troy Wuz Here.” I frown. We snap a few photos and are careful not to touch the images as the oils from our skin permeate the porous sandstone and diminish the pictures. We want people to share our wonder generations from now. But I also wonder how many more like Troy might come along to vandalize these historical artifacts. There is history to be found everywhere we look, and if one looks hard enough, they may find relics of the past. These “wow” moments can elevate your next adventure from “fun” to “epic,” however, these moments are becoming increasingly and unfortunately rare. In the day of insta-fame, some people are overcome by the need to take a piece of history with them or leave their own mark on top of our natural and cultural resources. That is why Principle Four: Leave What You Find, is more important than ever. 

Research on the Road

We started playing a game while driving our Subaru through some lonely highways. You know those brown “Historical Marker” signs or “Point of Interest Signs” you pass on the road? The navigator tries to read the sign as we blur past and then look it up online. We have learned about all kinds of fascinating people and places driving around the west. Also, we try to learn as much as we can about our destination. This provides context for how this place has helped shape the region’s history. For example, knowing that the strong currents of the Strait of Juan de Fuca sunk scores of ships during the race to populate the Northwest gives gravitas to the waters’ foam and spray.

Check in with the Local Regulations

At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, there lie the remains of ancient granaries and villages. Sometimes, one can find shards of pottery amongst these old foundations. At one site, there is even an ancient sandal to be found. I am grateful for all those who have come before and have left these artifacts for me to experience.It reminds me that when we leave what we find, that we are leaving a gift for all of those who come after. The rangers here encourage you to pick up these relics and carefully examine them. But, you must put them back for the next visitor to also enjoy. However, in some parks, visitors are not allowed to touch artifacts in order to help preserve them. Oils in our skin can erode and ruin these items, taking them out of our cultural narrative. That is why it is important to check with the local rules and regulations before heading out to explore.

IMG_0813.jpgEmy teaching students about Principle 4: Leave What You Find 

Take Only Pictures

Not too long ago, there was a diplodocus femur protruding from a wall along Dinosaur National Monument’s “Fossil Discovery Trail.” You could touch it and compare your leg to the massive bone. It had been there for nearly 100 million years, until one day somebody smashed off a chunk of the femoral head and the park decided to excavate the fossil before more people broke off their own souvenir. All we saw is the void that remains from where the amazing specimen once resided. These artifacts shape our nation's story, and provide us with rich information about our past. When they are lost, they are taken away from everyone to enjoy. Use photography, sketching, or watercolors to document these relics, so that their magic can inspire others for years to come. A telephoto lens will allow you to get closer if you are not permitted to get close, while a macro lens will help you get the fine detail of your subject.

Time Travel

There are historical societies all over the country commemorating periods of our past. Joining a local organization is a fun way to keep history alive and educate others. I spoke with a gentleman who played the role of William Clark’s slave York, at Clark Days, outside of Billings, MT. He talked about how putting on buckskins and carrying authentic gear that York would have carried, allowed him to be transported through time for a glimpse of this heroic man’s story as part of the Corp of Discovery.

IMG_1417_0.jpgClark's signature is now protected behind bullet proof glass. 

William Clark's signature is the only remaining physical evidence of the Corp of Discovery's Expedition. It is now under bullet proof glass to prevent further vandalism Speak Up If you do see folks taking items or inscribing their names on historical sites, we encourage you to speak up and tell them how that action makes you feel. We advocate a non-confrontational approach called Authority of the Resource, which deescalates conflict, and informs the person why their actions are detrimental. Often times, people who write their names on these places do not see their actions as vandalism or might feel that if they do not pocket an artifact, someone else will. If your conversation does not work, you may have to get a ranger involved.

Plants can grow back. Litter can be collected. But once history is changed or removed, the entire historical picture is altered forever. We hope these tips will help you spice up your next adventure, and thank you for preserving the past for generations to come.

Have Fun. Be Safe. Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace’s Alex Roberts and Emy Gelb are part of the 2016 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, FjallRaven, ENO, Deuter, Thule, and Smart