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Champagne on the Rocks: Where Wilderness and Athletic Feat Collide

Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park

"I remember the loons, basically trilling off across the lakes and the ponds that I was going through that last week and a half through New Hampshire and Maine. I remember the scents of the different trees and the different forms of dirt. It really was, like a… as much as I was brought to that utter fatigue, my senses just became really attuned to what was going on around me. "

That's Scott Jurek. This past summer, he set off trying to become the fastest person to to run the Appalachian Trail, which is over 2,000 miles long. That’s like running from New York City to Utah.

Right at the beginning he was flying along, making great time, but only a few hundred miles into the trail his right knee started to hurt.

"And I started compensating with my left side and then developed a quad tear on the right side and over the next couple of days it go so bad where I could no longer limp on one leg because I had two bad legs. And I’m thinking to myself, how am I going to get through this, the record I thought for sure was out of the question at that point."

But Jurek just sort of refused to stop, and after a few days of basically limping along - covering thirty miles a day instead of 50 - he bounced back, and could start running again.

Listen to the podcast version of this story:

But because of that injury, because of a few slow days, the whole attempt was in jeopardy. Up until the last day, wasn’t sure if he could break the record."I remember my buddy Topher telling me, you know it’s either sleep or get the record, and I basically decided, okiay I’m going to get an hour of sleep, and get back there. And that was the only point where I thought, okay I have this record, as long as I keep a steady pace."

Jurek finished the Appalachian Trail on top of Mount Katahdin way up in Northern Maine, in 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes. He beat the old record by just three hours. When it comes to a trail like the Appalachian, three hours is nothing.

If this were the 100 meter dash, Jurek would have won by about seven inches…less than two hundredths of a second.

There’s a video of him hitting the summit. He’s totally emaciated, with unruly hair and a patchy beard. There are blue-bird skies, and a film crew and a crowd waiting for him… high fives... cheering… and he pops the cork on a bottle of champagne.

After some celebration, he heads down, totally unaware of what’s waiting for him at the bottom of the trail.

"Three bulletproof vested rangers, along with carrying firearms met me at the bottom."

Jurek's Instagram account documented his record-breaking finish of the Appalachian Trail.

So before we get back to Jurek and the three bullet vested rangers, let me first take you back...all the way to 1921.

In order to understand how Scott Jurek got himself into hot water, we have to understand a man named Percival Baxter: former governor of Maine from a wealthy family in the real-estate business, and something of a Maverick in the state’s Republican party.

He wanted to give the state this awesome park, with this incredible mountain - Katahdin - as its centerpiece. So for thirty years, Baxter bought properties around the mountain and gave them to the state.

But as he went, he was putting this very particular language into the trust that held those properties.

"I do not intend that the Park forever shall be a region unvisited and neglected by man. I seek to provide against commercial exploitation, against hunting, trapping and killing, against lumbering, hotels, advertising, hot-dog stands, motor vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles and other vehicles, air-craft, and the trappings of unpleasant civilization," Baxter wrote.

Remember, this is right after the second World War, and the country was changing quickly. Cars were starting to fill up the roads, G.I.s were coming home and building houses left and right. Meanwhile, conservation is all the rage. This is a time when a new national park is still getting added every year or two.

So there’s Baxter, watching this all happening… trying to leave his mark. Yeah, he wants to keep those dang hot-dog stands out of his park, but really he wants to save a feeling: that same quiet wilderness experience that he had.

And then along comes Scott Jurek.

He’s trying to set the record for the fastest finish of the Appalachian trail. It's all about getting to Baxter State Park and reaching the summit of Mt. Katahdin. He’s got a crew of people supporting him, a van waiting for him to sleep in each night, more than a quarter million people following him on social media, sponsors, gear… seen from Percival Baxter’s eyes, all of the trappings of unpleasant civilization are following Jurek up the trail.

But over at Baxter State Park headquarters , Jurek was only barely on the radar.

"I had heard something about a runner coming up the trail to set a rec ord, I really hadn’t paid that much attention to this, it didn’t set off any alarms with me."

Jensen Bissell is the park’s director.

"But I had been working with a media company that was trying to get a filming permit in the park. And I sensed they were about this runner, but I was more focused on their approach and what they wanted to do and how to protect wilderness experiences of other people in the park."

It might not sound to you like your “wilderness experience” needs to be protected from a film crew. And it might even be pretty cool to unexpectedly witness one of the top ultrarunners in history breaking the trail’s record.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever been somewhere really amazing. You’ve probably thought to yourself “this would be a lot cooler if it weren’t for all these other people eating their PB&J and taking pictures.” Like the time you found yourself struggling your way up a mountain only to find people in flip-flops getting off a chairlift at the top.

For some people, the majesty of nature is ruined by tour guides, a gift shops - or Hollywood film crews. So one rule that Baxter imposes to create that sense of wild solitude? No filming at the summit.

Bissell was afraid that Jurek’s wasn’t going to follow those rules, and so on that weekend he sent up a ranger to check on them.

Which, it turns out was a legit concern.

In videos posted online you can watch a cameraman follows Jurek right up to the sign at the summit.

There’s a big crowd of at least a couple dozen people, Jurek shakes up a bottle of champagne, shoots the cork into the air, and takes a big swig. So when Scott walked down off the mountain he was confronted by a group of dudes carrying side-arms.

They were charging him for littering, for hiking with too large of a group, and for drinking alcohol. The fines could be as much as a $1,000 bucks each.

"We just think this is inappropriate. We don’t have any problem with people celebrating their accomplishments, but there are other places you can do that that are more respectful of the place itself and the other people that are there."

If Baxter himself were here he would be wagging his finger disapprovingly.

"I seek to protect against commercial exploitation. Against film crews and ultra-runners. Against Instagram and selfie sticks. Against popping the corks of champagne bottles and minimalist running shoes," Baxter wrote.

And after running for 46 days this is not what Jurek wanted to hear.

"I feel like in the end we could have avoided this."

He simply didn’t get it. Why didn’t one of the rangers didn’t just pull him aside and let him know that drinking is not allowed. Scott says he could have then used his sizeable social media platform to do some educating.

"We could get that message out, instead of basically throwing mud at me, and tarnishing my image, by saying I was littering and had an inflated group size, which was false, there was no way I had violated those rules."

But this, for Baxter State Park, was not really about the specific rules Jurek broke. There’s this shift going on in the culture of the Outdoors, Wilderness, in the 21st century, is the backdrop to your rad Instagram shot. In that context, popping a bottle of champagne on top of a mountain after your epic 46 day ultra-run makes perfect sense. And it here that Baxter wanted to draw a line in the sand.

You can tweet and make movies and drink champagne at the top of other mountains, but at Baxter, THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU DO.

In the days after, Bissell logged onto Baxter State Park’s Facebook account, and publicly called Jurek out, pointing out he was supported by a number of sponsors, and ran followed by a kitted out sprinter van full of gear, and a logo on his headband.

“Thousands of people, including Mainers and others from all over the world, visit Baxter Park and hike in the Park's wilderness, including a climb to Baxter Peak. (another name for the highest point on Mount Katahdin) people celebrate their accomplishment, often with their families and often many times over, quietly and with appreciation for this precious gift left to us in perpetuity by Percival Baxter. These 'corporate events' have no place in the Park and are incongruous with the Park's mission of resource protection, the appreciation of nature and the respect of the experience of others in the Park.”

Jensen Bissell was trying to explain the views of someone who was governor of a rural state nearly 100 years ago to the internet. Facebook did not take it well.

"Baxter State Park, I love you, but... *sigh*. I've been on the summit when others have finished and it's a party then too. In a wonderful, respectful, awe-inspiring way. As it should be. Are you giving citations to all of them too? This is lamesauce."

"I knew nothing of this wonderful park before, but I'm positive I have no desire to check it out. I love hiking, and I love being outdoors in the woods. I definitely don't want to waste any of my leisure being scolded by a park ranger."

"Does everyone who breaks the rules get called out on social media? Using this incident (and someone else's photography) to garner some free publicity isn't much different than what you're complaining about."

There are hundreds of comments like this.

At least to a lot of people who use Facebook, Bissell sounds like a scold: he uses words like “inappropriate”, which are the kinds of words middle school teachers use.

But for the folks running this park, none of that matters.

Remember, it’s written into the trust of the park that Percival Baxter’s ideas of nature are the rules. Legally at Baxter, whenever there’s a conflict, nature wins.

So when you get to the summit of Katahdin and there’s only a few people sitting around enjoying the view, that is no accident. It’s a designed experience. In order to make it will feel more wilderness-y up there, the park limits how many people can hike the mountain each day.

"You have to control the access somehow or else we’ll overrun the place."

And already, Jensen Bissell feels like there are times of day on nice summer days, where it’s not enough.

"There’s going to be a high point where it’s in our minds too crowded to really qualify as the wilderness we would accept, but it’s the balance we strike…"

Other parks, especially National Parks, go for a different balance: trying to get as many people out as possible.

The downside there? Waiting in a line in your car for two hours trying to get into West Yellowstone, or being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic in Acadia’s Park Loop road is not exactly a transcendent experience.

That said, the reaction to Bissell’s Facebook post shows that the types of rules Baxter imposes, and the kind of wilderness experience it wants to create is increasingly out of step with our culture.

"There’s just a I think I real division between maybe what a wilderness experience is."

Scott Jurek grew up fishing and hunting and before getting into ultra-marathons in college. For him, being outside means recreation. Jurek is an evangelist for getting out, getting on trails, and climbing up mountains.

"We’re thankfully blessed with an amazing country with vast resources and vast amounts of land where you can escape and be out in the middle of nowhere by yourself. There are other areas of wilderness where they’re quite popular, and there does become an issue where some people are like hey I want my wilderness experience where I’m the only one out there, but the reality is that as the human population grows and some wilderness areas grow more popular, the bigger issue is how people view a wilderness experience and what that means because for some people they’re okay with having other people around... other people would like to see wilderness maybe locked up and set aside and no humans what-so-ever be a part of that landscape."

There’s some post-script here.

Baxter State Park capitalized on the headlines this whole incident generated to kickstart talks with Appalachian Trail Conservancy as to how to better police the thousands of hikers who finish the trail each year.

Scott Jurek went to court and got the fines for littering and the big group dismissed, but paid a $500 ticket for drinking champagne at the summit.

But the bigger question here is still not resolved.

Even as Baxter state park keeps carrying on with its interpretation of what Percival Baxter wanted, updating it whenever there’s some new cultural threat to his idea of wilderness. There are sections of Baxter’s writing makes it pretty clear to me that he would have had just as hard a time figuring this stuff out.

For one, he said this, which never came to pass.

"A suitable shelter also should be erected on the summit of Katahdin to give protection to those who climb the mountain and who may be caught in a storm or compelled to remain overnight."

But there are other places where he just seems to want to have it all.

"I want it made available to persons of moderate means who with their boys and girls, with their packs of bedding and food, can tramp through the woods, cook a steak and make flapjacks by the lakes and brooks. Every section of this area is beautiful each in its own way. I do not want it locked up and made inaccessible;I want it used to the fullest extent but in the right unspoiled way."

Which sounds great. But good luck keeping the hikers from stepping all over the flowers.

Watch the interview Jurek gave at the top of Katahdin after his record-breaking run of the Appalachian Trail