Richard Roeper Blog

Hiking near Iranian border probably not the best vacation idea

From Glacier National Park to the Appalachian Trail, from the Tongariro Northern Circuit in New Zealand to the Inca Trail in Peru, there are hundreds upon hundreds of amazing, awe-inspiring hiking routes carved into this great globe.

You can be stunned breathless by the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii. Humbled by the wonders of the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chile. Challenged by the dangerous Cable Route of the Half Dome of Yosemite.

The options are virtually unlimited. You could spend the rest of your life training, planning, mapping and taking hikes at various junctures around the world and you’d be too old to hike long before you’d run out of incredible possibilities.

Which brings us to the two American hikers who were released from prison on Wednesday after more than two years in an Iranian prison.

While many Americans sighed with relief, said a prayer of thanks and celebrated this victory for freedom, others couldn’t have cared less if these “left-wing liberal idiots” ever got out of jail.

For the latter group, it comes down to this: what in the hell were they doing there in the first place?

Take a hike. Somewhere else

Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd were arrested in July 2009 along the Iraq-Iran border, charged with spying and sentenced to eight years in jail.

Shourd was freed last year; Bauer and Fattal have just now finally gained their freedom.

The three maintained from the start they were simply hiking along northern Iraq and perhaps accidentally strayed over the border into Iran. That seems like a more plausible explanation than some sort of movie-like scenario in which the three were working undercover for the U.S. government and were on a mission to … do what, exactly?

The Republic of Iran says they illegally entered the country and engaged in espionage. Bauer is a journalist. Fattal is an environmentalist and teacher. Shourd, who has battled serious health problems, is an educator and social worker. Seems more likely they stepped into a pile of you-know-what by crossing the unmarked border.

Websites and Facebook groups and Amnesty International and other organizations called for the release of the innocent Americans.

Others weren’t so compassionate.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of Americans assuming the risk in traveling to foreign lands that hate us, then exhausting U.S. foreign policy resources and bargaining chips to get out, once they are kidnapped or imprisoned,” wrote one particularly shrill right-wing blogger.

Wrote another blogger, “I’m not saying they are spies, but what the hell were they doing hiking in Iraq? Haven’t they ever heard of the Rockies?”

Harsh and naive? Maybe. One can only imagine the suffering the hikers endured — spending 23 hours every day in a tiny cell,  wondering if they were going to spend eight years in prison. One sympathizes with their families. The whole thing does sound like the premise for a movie — but not a spy movie, a film about three young Americans who got trapped in a nightmare.

All due empathy to the situation, but come on, admit it: as you followed the story over the last couple of years, wasn’t there a part of you that asked the what-the-hell- were-they-thinking question?

I know: they’re not the only American civilians to have visited Northern Iraq. We’re told Iraqi Kurdistan is safe for tourism and people are welcoming to Americans. It’s the “other Iraq,” as many websites put it, a “popular tourist destination for people living in the Middle East.” The hikers were experienced world travelers. Bauer and Shourd were living in Damascus. Bauer is fluent in Arabic.

But as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, “They traveled to … the Ahmed Awa waterfall, a crowded tourist spot several kilometers from the Iranian border. Hiking out from there … they inadvertently wandered [into] Iran. As locals have explained to reporters, venturing beyond the waterfall was nearly unheard of. The trios decision to do it anyway represents not just a spirit of adventure but what seems like a particularly American form of hubris …”

In a perfect and safe world, one should be able to hike any trail, climb any mountain, sail any sea.

But in the meantime, just to avoid possible jeopardy, I’ll take Yosemite for the win, Alex.

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