Saturday, December 26, 2009

Week 23 Bull Run Conservancy Dec 5th

We dont get a ton of snow in Baltimore, so when we get an early December dusting, Eliza and I took advantage of the situation and went for a hike. Though we had originally planned to do Old Rag we decided to check out something new and quite a bit closer.

On my way out I66 dozens of times I have noticed what looks like a cliff band in my rear view mirror as you pass through a gap just 20 miles out of DC. I figured it was on private land being so close to DC so didnt give it much thought. But today as we drove to the base of the gap we noticed that it is actually a wildlife preserve complete with miles of trails. Perfect!

Signage indicates that climbing is not allowed, which in my mind is a good thing, that means there must be rocks up there somewhere.

A couple neat ruins are near the beginning of the hike, including an old mill that made grain for US troops in every way from the American Revolution to WWII.

Looking back at the train tracks at the start of the hike.

Ruins of the old mill

Eliza by an old shack

A happy pairing

We never did find the rocks. There was quite a bit of snow up on the ridge, and we were momentarily distracted by a large group of hikers dressed up in probably 2500 dollars worth of outdoor gear apiece.

On the way back down Eliza and I entered an interesting discussion upon finding a cairn. Given my engineering background it is always fun to apply some of these principles to the natural world.

A cairn is a stack of rocks usually at a junction indicating that you are following the right path. These can be tremendously useful, not necessarily for an easy hike in the woods on a wide path, but many climbs are approached using these unobtrusive helpers. The reason they work is because they are an ordered system, rocks very rarely organize themselves into piles.

This is a classic example of entropy the main component in the second law of thermodynamics. This law basically states that the disorder in any system, and indeed the universe is always increasing. Perhaps the most famous example is that you often see a glass falling off a table and crashing into a million pieces (a more disordered state) but i doubt if any one has seen these same pieces suddenly jump back onto the table and reassemble themselves.

This makes sense, but what about the glass in the first place? Well we humans expended a huge amount of energy in making that glass. In melting the sand, in forming into a shape, in obtaining the knowledge of the process.

So back to the question of our humble cairn. Clearly someone spent some energy piling the the rocks so that we may know the way. Hence in a purely thermodynamic sense, more energy was put into piling the rocks, than the rocks lying in disarray on the side of the trail.

However when you include the human intelligence element things get a bit more muddy. Lets say going the wrong way on this trail adds on average an extra mile to the hike, and 1000 people a year could take this detour. I highly doubt that these 1000 miles of walking saved are of less value than the 30 seconds it took to create the cairn.

But I suppose the whole hike is arbitrary anyway. Certainly walking around in a giant circle only to end up back at the same place has not somehow increased the order in the universe. But then the question of why certainly rears its ugly head.

Some hobbies have direct benefit. My mother knitting for example provides warmth to many people. A cook or furniture builder do much the same. But my pursuits, hiking, and climbing, do nothing for anyone. Perhaps I gain a bit of physical strength, so that my adventures can increase in scope, but most importantly what I gain from these is a peace of mind, a confidence in my abilities, the act of pushing my limits.

I guess that's a lot to intuit from a pile of rocks on the side of a trail, but I suppose what I take away is that the rules that govern the physical world certainly apply to us as humans. However we can not discount the unique perspective that being self aware gives us.

In any case Ill leave this with an appropriate picture.

1 comment:

eliza said...

If I remember correctly, the cairn had actually fallen over and we reassembled it. The happiness I gained from the reconstruction certainly made worth the expenditure of energy. As did the whole hike with you...

Also, interesting that it was a cairn that led to thoughts on entropy, and not the dilapidated houses along the way.