Leaving a mark by not leaving anything

THE breeze was tickling our faces, the hot water soothing our weary bones. Ron and I sat in a natural hot spring on the side of a New Mexican mountain and felt a wealth of beauty and peace. This was Day 3 of our hiking vacation, and we were just beginning to really relax.

As I sank deeper into the water, I saw a man striding briskly toward us, like someone hurrying to catch a train. I hoped he would rush right past us.

"I'm running late today," he said. "I should have been here earlier, I hate missing a day." The man had a long blond ponytail, a paint-stained white T-shirt, and a mutter that reminded me of Alice's white rabbit.

Quickly, he unzipped his knapsack, took out a large plastic garbage bag, and picked up three cigarette butts on a nearby rock. He made a quick turn through the surrounding foliage, plucking beer cans, a candy-bar wrapper, and scraps of paper. Then he pulled off his hiking boots and T-shirt and slipped into the water. He nodded at us and reached down to the bottom, scooping up mud and picking out the leaves.

"I usually come every other day and keep this place clean," he said. "I haven't been here in two days. The leaves are already building up, and that keeps the water from circulating properly."

We began scooping with him, throwing wet leaves into the bushes.

"I'm Tom," the man said. "I've been coming to this place for 20 years now. I don't want anything to happen to it."

Ron and I introduced ourselves. The three of us scooped for quite a while, surrounded by fir trees, the serene mountain panorama, and the lovely sound of rhythmic splashing. The green plastic bag, with its trash, gaped nearby.

Tom threw out a last handful of leaves and sank deeper into the water. "Ahhh. At last," he said, smiling at us, like a host finally pleased to present his cottage, "everything is in order."

After a great soak, Tom hiked back over the top of the mountain and we walked down. I thought about Tom as we continued. I was moved by the way he took care of the spring, with the same tenderness and sense of territory he would have for his own backyard.

As Ron and I climbed into the woods in search of the next hot spring, I wondered: How would I act if I really believed this land was mine? I breathed in the rich hush of tree boughs. I pressed my cheek along the trunks of trees and knelt to appreciate the undisturbed delicacy of moss and lichen.

Only when I was on my knees did I see the pricks of cigarettes and the glint of aluminum mashed into the mud. How was this possible, so far up the mountain, so far off the beaten path?

"We are on vacation," I told myself. "It's not my job to pick up trash here." I stuck one pop top in my pocket and continued the climb, focusing on the splash of sky and the bounteous spread of branches.

Three days later, as we reached our final hot springs, I could no longer put the image of Tom out of my mind. Everywhere we'd walked, bits of trash had peeked from under leaves and behind rocks.

"All right," I said to Ron, as though he had been part of my internal battle, "Just this once, after we soak, I am going to pick up trash on the trail from the spring back to the parking lot."

I tucked a plastic grocery sack into my pocket and joined the other visitors on the well-marked path to the large spring. As I strode along, I thought, "This shouldn't take much time. Everything looks pretty clean."

Only when I started walking back from the spring did I move slowly enough to see the trash caught in the weeds, ground into the pebble path, circling the scrub brush. I stopped for a string of plastic, half a tissue, and a bottle top. People looked at me as I squatted and picked, my sack growing fuller.

The walk to the spring had taken only 10 minutes. The walk back took an hour. I was slippery with sweat. It was daunting to realize that path after path held such debris.

When I finally reached the parking lot, I was worn with heat. I saw one scrap of paper on my way to the trash can and I almost walked past it. My hands were grimy; I'd had enough. Still, I stooped to get that last piece. "Samantha was here," the white note said.

I LOOKED carefully at the round blue handwriting, and then put the note in my pocket. I was both irritated and touched by Samantha's desire to leave her mark, to feel immortal and connected. I, too, had felt that pull, to make myself part of the larger natural world.

I imagined each person, assigned to a territory he didn't own. We would each vow to keep our small squares of earth clean and cared for. I saw myself standing on my plot of wilderness, my stretch of sidewalk, my side of the highway. I would reverently pick up each wisp of paper, each bottle cap, each strip of plastic so the land could breathe freely.

I wiped the sweat from my neck. I had spent an hour on one half-mile strip of land. Tom spent an hour every other day, keeping up his little circle of land. There were so many orphan pieces of land out there, beautiful, but riddled with careless trash. As I dumped the sack in a trash bin, I could hear Tom's voice: "At last, everything is in order." And I wondered what it would take to make that statement come true.

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