Maybe Scott Jurek was too busy to notice.
The world-famous ultra-marathoner and trail runner bagged the peak of Katahdin on July 12 of this year in a quest to break the record for the fastest hike/run of the Appalachian Trail. He had departed from Spring Mountain in Georgia only 46 days earlier.
Jurek, who won the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run seven consecutive times, calls his Appalachian Trail challenge the most difficult thing he has ever done.
As he ran, he and his support crew kept up an ongoing digital conversation with 49,000 followers on the social media Twitter. He also maintained his Facebook page with regular posts from the trail. The websites of his corporate sponsors (Brooks Running and Clif Bar) kept pace as well. And a gaggle of fans, a film crew and Jurek’s support team all gathered on Katahdin for his arrival at the summit.
At Baxter Peak he used the iconic summit sign as a photo prop and a podium as he gave a press conference for Runners World magazine and other news outlets. He drank and sprayed champagne while he celebrated.
The summit celebration earned Jurek a summons from BSP officials for excessive group size (the limit is twelve) — the champagne spraying gathered another summons for littering. The film crew was cited separately for violating an agreement with park officials to keep back from the summit. The event also drew sharp public criticism from BSP officials.
Jurek is a busy guy — he rushed off the mountain for more more media appearances in less rustic locations such as CBS studios in New York City. Where he described the Appalachian Trail as the “perfect arena to test all of my abilities.”
The dispute with BSP officials went unmentioned during Jurek’s national television appearance, but his fans and supporters have reacted with rage and digital vitriol toward the Park and its director Jensen Bissell.
Bissell has previously been critical of the self-absorbed and rowdy behavior of other northbound thru-hikers as they enter Baxter’s wilderness area. He wrote a strongly-worded letter last November to AT officials that outlined concerns about over-sized groups, drinking, drug use, illegal camping and general refusals to abide by park rules among thru-hikers in the Park.
Scott Jurek undoubtedly missed a lot of things on his AT thru-hike. Fifty-mile days don’t leave much time for contemplation or even a passing appreciation of a hiker’s surroundings.
But once he crossed the boundary into Baxter State Park his omissions became too large to ignore. The incongruity of his fame-and-fortune-fueled foot-race with the wilderness objectives of BSP could only cause controversy.
Jurek missed the fact that Baxter State Park is not like other places. It’s not even like other remote places on the AT. He never mentioned the word Katahdin during his summit press conference — not even as he slobbered over the iconic sign at the peak. He chose to ignore the very wilderness preserve that he stood in the midst of. For him Katahdin was merely a stage for the celebration of his own personal achievement.
Jurek also completely missed the concept that he stood in a place that had been gifted to the people of Maine for the specific purpose of preserving it from people like himself. Governor Baxter recognized that Katahdin and the surrounding wilderness had a higher purpose than the fulfillment of personal egos and pocket books. His gift to Maine was made contingent upon preserving that higher purpose. Director Bissell and other park authorities are holders of a public trust. Hence, those pesky rules and regulations that Jurek’s supporters love to mock and criticize as nanny-minding.
Ultimately, the controversy is not about the park rules, the technical definition of littering, or creeping bureaucracy, or selective enforcement. These issues — recently raised by Jurek himself –ignore the underlying concern.
Baxter State Park and the peak of Mount Katahdin are not like other places.
Professional athletes are not welcome to use these special areas as a winner’s podium. And all of us need to remember that as we experience this wilderness — we stand in the footsteps of Native Americans who held the mountain sacred, of Henry David Thoreau and of Governor Baxter.
These forerunners taught us that the value of Katahdin’s wild peak is not in displaying or celebrating our personal prowess. Instead, it should remind us of how small and insignificant we really are in the grand scheme.
Scott Jurek missed that memo.