Thursday, July 5, 2012

Give Me A Sign

One of the things that really stood out during last month's vacation was the grossly inadequate signage along most of the trails in the local, state, and national parks of our fine country's southwestern region.   I was consistently amazed that for so many different trails, the guide book had one map, the sign at the trailhead had another map, and both of those maps looked nothing like the actual trail that I found once I started hiking...and in case you were wondering, yes, I confirmed that I was on the correct trail.  It's like the cartographers were blind, drunk, and lazy when they charted their course and shared it with the hiking world.

I can't begin to count the number of times I stood at an unexpected, unmarked fork in the trail, pondering my next move.  You'd think a loop trail would be a relatively circular path that would eventually bring you back to your starting point without much thought.  But it seemed like every hundred yards, I found myself at a four-way intersection, and each of the three options appeared to be equally viable candidates for the correct path toward my destination.  So many times, a simple loop trail turned into a spider web-like maze of intersecting madness.  And I fared no better when a notoriously complex network of trails had absolutely zero signage to mark the way.

Lots of trails? Don't expect any help beyond the trailhead sign....

Is it too much to ask for some periodic guidance along the way?  I'm not expecting a fancy, hand-carved masterpieces for a sign--I'm perfectly happy with a piece of cardboard with a crudely drawn arrow duct taped to a stick at a crucial intersection.  At first I figured sign problems must be a budget thing, especially with California's financial issues.  But how much can it cost to jam a branch in the ground and whip together some kind of rough arrow and a word or two?

I eventually realized that the sign problems had nothing to do with the state budget crisis.  It wasn't so much the lack of signage that was at the root it was the problem;  it was the poor placement of the few existing signs.  Apparently the park rangers installing these signs aren't the brightest stars in the sky.  Take, for example, this sign at Torrey Pines State Reserve near San Diego:

A sign like this might be helpful in some circumstances, but when you're standing thirty feet from the Pacific Ocean with an unobstructed view of the water and can barely hear yourself think over the sound of crashing waves, "Beach" isn't exactly solving any mysteries for hikers.  Why not pass on installing useless guideposts like these and plant a sign at the intersection of six different unmarked trails in the middle of the desert, where it's almost impossible to not get lost?

I know I can find at least one car full of people who can agree with my complains.  This isn't just a regional problem, and it affects road quality as much as it does trail navigation.  You know those "Bump" signs you often see along the side of the road, only to drive over what feels like a tiny pebble?

Talk about useless signage--I don't even slow down when I see those anymore.  The driver of an SUV near Eau Claire, Wisconsin took the same approach recently, with hilarious consequences:

The jump looks like something straight out of a movie.  This seems like one of those situations where the construction workers who put the signs up should have given drivers a little more advance notice.  By the time that driver was asking, "what do those orange signs say?" he was already three feet off the ground.  I smell a lawsuit on this one...

It's amazing what a person can accomplish despite not knowing how to use a smartphone camera.  The only reason this clip got captured on video at all was because someone stopped to take a picture of the heat-buckled road in Wisconsin.  The woman thought her phone was set to photo mode, but instead she shot one of the greatest accidental video clips of all time.  I imagine that's why she didn't keep the camera pointed toward the SUV to see it stick the landing.  There are plenty of people out there with a love of photography and an ignorance of handheld technology who just might be able to cobble together accidental careers.  (This includes you, Mom.  Just kidding...or am I?)

After watching this video, getting a little turned around on a trail doesn't seem like such a big deal.  But some simple signs can go a long way...

Here's a link to the story:

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