The newsletter of AMERICAN TRAILS -- SPRING 1999

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On equal footing: first impressions matter

By Adena Cook, BlueRibbon Coalition Public Lands Director

When we meet people for the first time, we unconsciously form immediate impressions of them. We base our opinions and responses to them based on social preconceptions and our own past experience. Without consciously realizing it, we categorize others according to their age, sex, race, physical appearance, and many other less obvious attributes.

Protective gear worn by OHVers hides all of these clues we use to form first impressions. Encountering another snowmobiler on the trail, I wonder if they are old or young, a man or a woman, and so on. I can't easily tell. Even a lithe, athletic figure with a ponytail streaming beneath a helmet offers insufficient clues in this day and age.

Then I conclude that it doesn't matter. All that matters is that person is out in the outdoors on his/her chosen form of recreation&emdash; enjoying themselves to the fullest. Are they riding conservatively? That's fine, that's great. It's their choice, and it's how they have fun. Are they negotiating obstacles with vigor and finesse (or if on snow, challenging hills and streaming through powder)? Looking good, more power to them.

That's one of the reasons why user ethics and courteous behavior is so important for OHVers We cannot be judged by who we are. That is hidden by our protective gear. We can only be judged by how we act and how we treat others.

When encountering non-motorized users, OHVers are often advised to stop, doff helmets, and give a friendly greeting. This personalizes the encounter since our protective gear is said to give us an other-world or "Darth Vader" appearance. It is helpful to personalize these encounters. However, our gear's appearance has its positive aspects. It protects us from the baggage of preconceived notions about age, sex, etc.

Our machine and our gear allow us to enjoy the sport on equal footing with every other rider out there, be we sixteen or sixty. This is especially important when considering how a "mobility impaired" person can enjoy OHV recreation.

Upon encountering a paraplegic, for example, one notices his/her wheelchair first. Yet that person can purchase a snowmobile or ATV, and with little or no modifications, ride and enjoy the sport along with everyone else. Astride that machine, their disability is not noticeable. They have achieved equal footing, not only in enjoyment of the sport, but also in the perception of their peers.

My husband, Jeff, was recently discussing handicapped access with a Forest Service official. The official conceded that the Forest perhaps needed to construct some special trails. They missed the point. Handicapped recreationists don't always need special facilities that set them apart. They need open trails and public access that allows their participation together with the "able bodied," together with everyone else. They need policies that promote equal footing, not always special trails.

We have not yet learned to fully appreciate this magnificent equality, this equal footing, that OHV recreation gives us. It's a powerful, unifying force and besides, it's so much fun. We need to enjoy it, celebrate it, promote it. It's time to begin.

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